Two outer walls are cracked and crumbling, the bathroom walls have fallen down in a heap of brick, the steps to the second floor wiggle like loose teeth. Groundwater seeps into a little courtyard to form an unwanted wading pool. The whole two-story structure sags in the middle, as if suspended from a rope attached to the buildings next door.
"There's no place like home," joked Um Sharifa, one of 26 inhabitants of the house at 39 Mahmoud Abdel Baqi St. in Cairo's Basatin district. The woman, her family and two other families were evicted when government officials decreed the house too unstable to inhabit -- after bits and pieces of it had been flaking off for close to five months.
Since February, Sharifa and her housemates have embarked on a dusty odyssey through confusing bureaucracy, broken government promises and delays familiar to many Egyptians. According to Egyptian law, the families are entitled to replacement housing. In reality, nothing has been provided and the men of the house are camping out in front, waiting.
Houses collapse in Cairo with the regularity of rotten trees in old-growth forests. In January, an apartment building fell down in Nasr City, a middle-class district, and killed a dozen residents and bystanders. It turned out that builders had illicitly tacked five extra stories atop the original six. The year before, a 12-story apartment building in the Shubra district crumbled and killed seven people. The first two stories sank into the sand.
The government has identified more than 100,000 buildings nationwide for demolition because of substandard construction, and half of them have been taken down, according to the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, a non-governmental organization. Authorities also issued 98,000 maintenance orders to shore up weakened structures; so far 39,000 have been fixed. Recently, a parliamentary committee declared that 18 percent of Egypt's housing stock needs urgent repair. That amounts to 1.4 million buildings.
While the housing woes are nothing new, the Egyptian political context has changed. Reform advocates are calling for an end to what effectively amounts to more than 60 years of authoritarian rule in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak, who has held power since 1981, for the first time is showing signs of ill health at 76 and has rarely appeared in public in the past few months.
In Cairo, politicians and the public are increasingly willing to speak out against government inefficiency and abuse. In Sharifa's case, that means trudging almost daily to city government offices to press for a place to live and sending faxes to Mubarak and other government officials.
"No one has replied," said Sharifa, a mother of four whose husband works as a marble cutter in Basatin, a sandy collection of winding alleys and houses constructed every which way. The neighborhood stands close to acres of cemeteries where the masonry on the tombs is far better aligned than are the bricks of most nearby houses.
Sharifa's house has four rooms and two toilets, which were nothing more than holes in the ground encased in brick. Kitchenettes and beds share the same rooms. These summer nights, the men and boys recline out front beneath an orange tree. The women and girls, for modesty's sake, have fanned out to the homes of friends and relatives.
"We're scared to go in and we're scared to leave," said Sharifa. "Once you get new housing by yourself, the government will forget about you. It's expensive for us and the law says they must provide the housing."
Sharifa first reported the damage to the local district office eight months ago. Inspectors arrived, said the place had to be demolished and sealed it up -- with the families' belongings inside. City hall issued an eviction order on Feb. 12. However, there was a hitch. Rather than declare the house in danger of imminent collapse, the housing committee issued only an administrative eviction order.
Under city rules, if the house is declared ready to fall, the tenants must be given housing immediately. An administrative eviction, however, means no immediate danger is involved and the tenants get put on a waiting list.
According to Adel Borollosi, director of housing at the Basatin-Maydi district office, people evicted as long ago as 1998 are still waiting for housing. Borollosi ordered Sharifa's house unsealed so they would have shelter, however precarious.
The other day, Sharifa made one of her periodic trips to the Basatin-Maydi district office to meet with Borollosi to check on the progress, if any, of her claim for replacement housing. She let on she was afraid somebody wanted a bribe. She waited for a few minutes in the antechamber, where a team of secretaries busily stamped documents and piled them on a center table. Then the director called her in.
Everyone smiled. "I'm trying to help," Borollosi assured Sharifa. "I know someone in city hall who I think can change the eviction order. But it might take a few months."
"I know you're doing your best," Sharifa answered. "I told everyone you've been very sympathetic."
Borollosi turned to a reporter to explain the case. "The problem was, there was a mistake. I wasn't there myself. They should not have sealed the house if there wasn't an imminent risk. There was a risk, so Um Sharifa should get her house.
"However, what counts now is what is now on paper, and that is what I have to get changed," he said, gesturing to a pile of documents in a corner. "According to the documents, the status of the eviction is administrative. It doesn't make any difference what the actual condition of the house is. Even if it falls down."
"It is falling down," Sharifa interrupted.
In addition, she said, puddles of water made it impossible even to walk from one part of the structure to the other.
"The water is a good sign," Borollosi said. "It means that there won't be more settling. Anyway, we must be patient. Build a little bridge."
He ushered Sharifa out. The secretaries had finished stamping documents and were sipping coffee.
"I tell everyone how nice you are," Sharifa assured him.
"I appreciate that," Borollosi answered.
"I know you are trying to help," she said.
"It's in God's hands," he replied.
On the street, Sharifa wondered whether she should visit city hall downtown and go over Borollosi's head. "There's always so many people waiting there," she said, her voice faltering. "Anyway, what did he mean about the water at my house? How is that good?"