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A history of missed opportunities housing Kenyans

By Peter Muiruri | Updated Wed, June 26th 2013 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Peter Muiruri

Kenya: What do the names Ngei, Otiende, Onyonka, Rubia and Ayany have in common? Well if you placed them among Kenya’s leading nationalists, you are right. Some of them served in Kenya’s first Cabinet headed by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

To the residents of Lang’ata, however, these names are institutions unto themselves. They represent well planned housing estates where thousands of Nairobi residents live, estates erected when the country took serious its mandate of providing houses to the growing urban population.

Eighteen months after Kenya gained independence, the first government Sessional Paper No. 10 dubbed ‘African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya’ was drafted with the aim of putting the country on the right economic path.

Adequate shelter

“The Government is to provide the maximum number of people with adequate shelter and a healthy environment at the lowest possible cost,” said the policy.

Back then, the country’s population was a little over nine million and growing at a rate of three per cent annually with an urban population requiring only 7,600 housing units annually.

Buoyed by the Pan African wave sweeping through the continent, the Housing Finance Company of Kenya  was formed in 1965 with a view to enforcing the government’s mandate of “promoting thrift and home ownership” through providing affordable mortgage facilities to citizens.

The results were felt immediately when in 1966, the company gave  Sh400,000 to 34 successful loan applicants enabling them to own homes within registered residential areas in the country. Some of the estates listed on the outset were financed by HFCK in the 1970s. Others included Ngumo, Buru Buru, Golf Course and Nairobi West.

The company has since rebranded to Housing Finance with profits teetering on the Sh1 billion mark by 2012.

Back then, both the central government and local authorities were in the forefront in erecting houses meant for the middle and low income earners.

However, the country’s economic growth in almost all sectors slowed in the mid 1980s to the 1990s curtailing the dreams of many people who wished to own homes. The era saw many landlords erecting house extensions to existing buildings to cash in on the increasing demand for housing.

The tough conditions for lending set out by Bretton Woods institutions made it even harder for the government to borrow with many sectors suffering. Many recall the famous Structural Adjustment Programmes of the early 1990s that became a point of conflict between then President Moi and the international lenders. They were largely blamed for the decline in people’s purchasing power due to escalating interest rates.

‘Lost decade’ era

“The period 1980-1990 is sometimes referred to as the “lost decade” characterised by severe external and internal difficulties and challenges that began in 1973. Since the increase of oil prices in1973, the living conditions of the Kenyan people, as those of most African countries, have moved from bad to worse,” wrote Joseph Rono of Moi University’s Sociology Department.

According to the National Housing Policy of 2004, the situation was made worse by a ballooning population and a constant migration of people to the urban areas.  “High rate of urbanisation, increasing poverty and escalation of housing costs and prices have made the provision of housing, infrastructure and community facilities one of the daunting challenges,” says the report.

It adds that little resources have been set aside for research into low cost building materials and construction techniques which are key ingredients to a vibrant housing sector.

Currently, urban housing needs stand at 150,000 units against an annual production of a quarter the amount.

The grim reality has moved more and more people to live in slums known for the squalid conditions and a breeding place of diseases, crime and other social ills.

“The high level of poverty has rendered access to decent housing an elusive dream to the swelling ranks of people living below the absolute poverty line. The problem in urban areas is mainly that of acute shortage in the number of habitable dwellings, inadequate infrastructure, community facilities and services, overcrowding and extensive slums and squatter settlements,” adds the report.

In recent times, the country has witnessed a very vibrant real estate industry. However, most of the homes in the market are still beyond the reach of many Kenyans.

Developers still put the blame squarely on the government that has failed to keep interest levels to a single digit making borrowing a risky affair to many. Others say the government ought to give incentives such as tax waivers to developers of affordable housing.

According to Peter Muraya of Suraya Property Group, the percentage of such a waiver would be transferred to the homebuyer. “It is the government that promised the incentives through a legal notice. The authorities also promised to improve infrastructure in areas where developers intend to put such houses but this has not been achieved yet,” he says.

Apparently, the current housing policy says as much, promising to “give tax incentives such as investment allowances to individuals and institutions who invest directly or through an approved housing finance system in actual low-cost development”.

Granted, the Ministry of Housing under the Kibaki regime did come up with several intervention measures meant to address the acute shortage of houses. It oversaw the development of homes for civil servants through the Civil Service Purchase Scheme.

In Kibera, the Ministry of Housing in partnership with UN-Habitat has been on a drive to upgrade the slum through the construction of modern homes. Already over 900 units are in various stages of construction in Soweto East.

A three roomed house in the new project will cost Sh950,000 with a deposit of Sh100,000 while a two roomed one will go for Sh600,000 while the owner is required to raise ten per cent down payment.

According to Bishop Raphael Handa, a former lab technician at Kenyatta National Hospital for 18 years and a resident of Kibera for 31 years, only such governmental interventions will succeed where others have failed.

He says lack of proper housing in the slums has been a boon for others who have always capitalised on the poor state of slum dwellers.

“Removing the rusty iron sheets and replacing them with stone blocks and tiles does not sit well with many who profit from the current slum setup. Kibera has over the years become a supermarket for briefcase NGOs that have made it their business to collect funds locally and abroad in order to ‘help’ slum dwellers to no avail. Some will come here and take pictures which they then present to their contacts in Western countries in exchange for funds that never reach the slum residents,” says Handa, who is also the chairman of the Settlement Executive Committee.

Similar measures have been earmarked for other low-income earners across the country.

As Charity Ngilu settles down as the new cabinet secretary in charge of housing, Kenyans eagerly wait to see what further measures she will put in place to address the high housing deficit in the country.