Paul Wallace and Tope Alake

(Bloomberg) — They come from the countryside, from the villages, from the capital city or from neighboring countries — energetic, ambitious, full of hope that they’ll find jobs and a community and better lives. Few find what they come for. Yet they keep coming.

Not to London or New York, but to Lagos, the Nigerian urban sprawl that’s an unrivaled magnet for people, in Africa or anywhere. A city of less than 1.5 million in 1970, Lagos is growing so fast that population estimates vary by more than 10 million. The Lagos Bureau of Statistics says it’s 26 million now, the federal government says it’s 21 million, and international institutions put it at around 15 to 16 million.

By the end of the century, Lagos will grow to 88 million, making it the world’s largest city, according to the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Institute. Nigeria could be the third-largest country by then. With a housing deficit of 2.5 million units, more than two-thirds of Lagos’s residents live in slums that are among the least hospitable on Earth, according to Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing.

“People are living in some of the worst, if not the worst, conditions I’ve seen in the world, and I’ve been to all the big slums in India, Kenya, South Africa,” Farha said during a visit to the country in September. While most government officials agree the affordable housing shortage is a crisis, they have little idea how to respond.

“The aim of making housing readily available, accessible and affordable for the low- and middle-income earners who form the bulk of our citizenry had always been challenged by the ever-growing population of the state,” Moruf Akinderu-Fatai, the Lagos state commissioner for housing, said in a Dec. 8 speech. “We see many people trooping into Lagos in search of economic opportunities on a daily basis with no intention of going back.”

New apartment towers are rising in Lagos, but they’re intended for foreign oil workers and the small group of Nigerians who can obtain mortgages or afford to pay cash, not the families crowded into crumbling units with seven to a room and limited access to clean water and sanitation.

Developers’ focus on high-end units amid a shortage of affordable housing mirrors that of builders in cities around the world — from Berlin to London to New York and Hong Kong.

The most ambitious project is Eko Atlantic, a city within a city that’s being built on a Lower Manhattan-sized stretch of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. Its builders plan a boulevard modeled on Paris’s Champs-Élysées and it will house around 250,000 people in luxury apartments, while the U.S. will move its Lagos consulate there.

Read More: Dream of a Lagos Champs-Élysées banks on Nigerian recovery

With vast oil and mineral wealth, Nigeria has the 29th-largest economy in the world, just behind Norway’s. While Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, mainly lives in Lagos, Nigeria also has the highest number of people classified as extremely poor — defined as living on $1.90 or less per day — at about 87 million of the country’s 200 million residents, according to the Brookings Institution.

Even for Nigeria’s emerging middle class, there are few options.

Kalu Ndukwe, a water-plant engineer, was desperate to find a new home for his family. His landlord failed to make repairs and his apartment was plagued with leaks. He can earn as much as 580,000 naira ($1,600) per month — which would put him in roughly the top third of the population in salary, though as a freelancer, his pay is inconsistent.

‘Many Challenges’

He paid an agent for a three-bedroom flat on the western edge of Nigeria’s — and Africa’s — biggest city. When he arrived with his wife and three children, someone else was already living there. He managed to get a refund, but his troubles continued when the owner of the next property rejected him because he was from the wrong ethnic group.

“There were so many challenges,” said Ndukwe, 40.

After two years, Ndukwe found a home he and his family liked and had a landlord who, like him, was an Igbo. The rent was 500,000 naira a year. And he had to give the agent a 50% commission and pay for the whole year in advance, which actually represents an improvement in Lagos, where landlords used to commonly demand two or even three years up front.

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