Muhammad still shares a cramped one-room apartment in inner-city Algiers with his elderly parents and three adult siblings. At 35, he has been engaged for five years. Each year he hopes to find a small apartment so he and his fianc'ee can marry, move in, and have a family. Each year he comes up empty-handed -- another casualty of an urban housing shortage that many natives consider Algeria's worst social problem. Since independence from France in 1962, the Algerian government has frantically tried to provide housing for a burgeoning urban population. So far, they have had little success. Almost 25 percent of Algeria's 24 million people are ill-housed or homeless.
When France cleared out, prospects of better pay and a higher standard of living brought thousands of rural Algerians piling into the cities. Now, almost 25 years later, about 65 percent of its population is urban.
At the same time, Algeria's population growth is one of the highest in the world -- 3.2 percent a year. That means some 700,000 births each year -- a rate that will double the population by the year 2000.
Even in the best of times, coping with the housing and social needs of such a population explosion would keep any government working overtime. But all areas of government spending here have been squeezed as oil prices plummeted from $30 to $10 a barrel during the last year. Algeria has relied on oil for more than two-thirds of its export earnings.
According to the minister of planning's 1985 statistics, almost 75 percent of Algeria's people are under 30 -- foreshadowing an even greater housing demand in the future.
One Italian architect who works with the Algerian government estimates that simply to catch up with the current demand, Algeria would have to build 200,000 units per year for the next 20 years. But national capacity is only about 70,000 a year. Even aided by foreign contractors the government has never produced more than 100,000 units in one year.
The shortage has its most dire effect in poorer neighborhoods where traditional values dictate large families. It is not unusual to find 8, 9, or even 15 people sharing one small room.
Children are especially vulnerable to the strains of this overcrowding. They have little chance for privacy or personal attention, and no where to play except on city streets that are cramped and often lined with refuse. Psychologists and physicians say that such conditions can lead to emotional disturbances that may result in physical problems.
An obvious way to stem the problems of overcrowding is to limit population growth. Birth control programs have been serving some Algerian communities since 1968, despite initial resistance. Mothers are urged to limit the number of children they have and to better space their pregnancies.
As housing has become more scarce, the current trend is for mothers to space out three or four children instead of having the traditional seven or eight in quick succession. But even this reduction in the birth rate will not sufficiently relieve the housing problem.
The Algerian government announced this summer that it is trying to arrest this deepening social crisis by revitalizing its domestic economy. At the same time, it pledged to cut imports and government spending on nonessential items.