After food and clothing, shelter comes up as the next peg in the basic needs totem pole. Human decency is directly connected to the provision of and access to these basic needs. In fact, a developed nation is one that has to be able to provide these needs to its populace in the best way possible.
Kenya is relatively food secure - the crises that faced us in the eighties are now behind us. We are also generally well clothed, thanks to the 'mitumba' (second-hand clothing) market that has made it possible for us to buy clothes at relatively low prices. However, housing remains a crisis.
Our housing shortage runs into the hundreds of thousands per year. This means that hundreds of thousands of houses that should have been built were not. As such, rent rates, especially in Nairobi, have remained sky high. So much so that Nairobians are known to use up to 50 per cent of their income to pay rent.
This is a huge anomaly. Economists argue that one should spend no more than 10 per cent of their income on rent. To put this in perspective, Nairobi is the 78th most expensive city in the world. Its housing rates are three to four times more expensive than Dar es salaam in Tanzania. Rents in Nairobi can easily compare to cities like Berlin in Germany, yet Kenyans only have a third of the buying power of the Germans.
Some have argued that Nairobi should simply resort to cheaper housing options that are available outside the city. However, thanks to a poor road network, traffic jams and relative insecurity, Kenyans opt to live in houses that would be considered above their means. This constantly means that housing is a major source of psychological stress on the average Kenyan.
Stories abound of landlords who cut off water and electricity supply to tenants' houses two days after the due date for rent. They are also very quick to put huge padlocks on doors a week after rent is due and even worse, they have been known to weld doors shut with tenants still inside the houses.
As if this isn’t bad enough, many landlords will have asked their tenants to pay three months' worth of rent in advance as deposit. This deposit is meant to be reclaimable after a tenancy lapses, but it is more likely that the landlord will find use for it in terms of repairs to the building after your exit. Meaning that every time a Kenyan thinks of moving house, they must raise three times the value of the rent just to relocate.
These factors mean that the average household cannot save much money. This lack of saving affects banking reserves, which in turn affects how much resources are available towards loans and mortgages.
Lower funds mean the economy is held captive and cannot grow as quickly as one would desire because businesses can’t access credit to expand and operate as required.
Combine this with the fact that our building techniques are still expensive and traditional, which means the money needed to build is a lot more than most Kenyans can afford. This leaves most Kenyans paying very high rents hence they don’t save much. As a consequence, they cannot borrow. And since they can't borrow or save, then the dream house remains a mirage.
This is strange and wrong. If someone can pay rent, they can surely afford to repay a loan. It is unfair that paying rent should be an economically crippling venture. During my travels over the past December holidays, I found that in some places where rents were cheaper, the people living there were generally happier and less stressed.
It is therefore a good thing that President Uhuru Kenyatta has decided to make housing a priority. This is beyond good news. If the housing deficit is addressed, then we can be sure that rental costs will come down.
Further, if indeed he pioneers cheaper technology, then we can rest assured that the cost of building for both the public and Government will be much lower. The cumulative savings would mean that the spending power of many Kenyans will be increased and with it, the economy would grow. Affordable mortgages backed by the Government would also ensure that Kenyans escape the rental trap that has held many captive.
The President should take a few more steps. First, he needs to find a way to protect tenants from errant landlords. The tyranny of landlords must be curtailed and the rights of tenants upheld. He will also need to find ways of ensuring that the cost of rents is brought down, even though Kenya is a free market economy.
One way is to make available alternative and Government-sponsored housing that will forced landlords to adjust or lose out. If he does this, then he can rest assured of being remembered every night as we lie in our beds without the nightmare of high rents and dictatorial landlords.
Mr Bichachi is a communication consultant. [email protected]