Daunting task of housing, taxing impoverished Kenyans

The hut tax was introduced by the colonial government to force Africans to seek jobs from the settlers. [File, Standard]

Housing! This is the new buzzword. The catchword is 'affordable housing'.

The government has presented this as a panacea to jump-start the economy by constructing 250,000 houses annually for low-income earners, which will in turn provide job opportunities to the unemployed and offer decent homes to slum dwellers.

To achieve this goal, the government has introduced a tax on every employed Kenyan who must now surrender part of the salary to finance the construction of houses. The government has unwittingly borrowed from the hut tax which was introduced by the colonial government, not to construct houses for the homeless or provide jobs but to force Africans to seek jobs from the settlers.

Bulldozers are tearing down some of the estates established by colonial authorities to offer decent housing to Africans. Some of these targeted estates include Shauri Moyo, Pumwani and Pangani, which half a century ago were the only abode for the poor in the city.

At the time, the government was not largely concerned about the hovels the Africans were inhabiting disguised as homes but was determined to extract a certain payment for each hut owned or occupied by Africans, while the Europeans were excluded from such a tax.

The absurdity of this policy is exposed by a 91-year-old report by the government which demonstrates how the impoverished Kenyans were living then. According to a 1932 annual report, desperate Africans were trooping to urban centres in unprecedented numbers in search of work.

“The stable African population is accommodated in housing which is much superior to the huts found in the reserves, but materials which do not permit a high standard of cleanliness are used. The provision of good housing for this class of the community presents one of the most difficult problems with which the Local Authority is faced.”

According to the report, there was a class of people defined as “floating Africans” who were accommodated in lodgings kept by permanent residents.

“In Nairobi, the problem is somewhat different from that in Mombasa because there is no large section of the African population which has urban culture or experience. Wages are generally lower and the standard of living is more primitive. The supply of housing is far from adequate and serious overcrowding is almost universal," noted the report.

In the rural areas, a team of inspectors with expertise in community health and elementary building skills went around advising Kenyans on how to best utilise the resources they had in putting up safe buildings.

Today, Kenya requires 250,000 houses annually, but can only manage 50,000 units. Hordes of environmental and building experts still roam the countryside marking out buildings whose construction has been approved not because they have flaunted any rules but to extract bribes.