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Exclusive no more: Developers want to build towering houses in Karen

By Peter Muiruri | August 10th 2017
By Peter Muiruri | August 10th 2017
Developers want to optimise land use by putting up more units in areas that were previously low-destiny.

It is one of the most sought-after locations in Kenya. Karen, comprising 56 square kilometres of lush property south west of Nairobi’s city centre, is one of the city’s oldest urban residential areas.

It is named after Karen Blixen-Finecke, the Danish writer behind the book Out of Africa and movie by the same name. Following Blixen’s lead, Karen became the preferred address for old white settlers and their progeny who came to bear the tag KC (Kenyan Cowboys).

These were later joined by rich Africans who acquired huge tracts of land, some measuring hundreds of acres. Hemmed in by Oloolua, Dagoretti and Ngong forests on one side, and a national park on the other, Karen enjoys a pleasant environment, making its residents the envy of the rest of city dwellers.

But the dynamics of life in the former 6,000-hectare farmland are changing.

A new report released by HassConsult says that landowners in this exclusive suburb are selling the land they have held on to for decades. HassConsult’s house price index for the second quarter of 2017 shows that out of 18 surveyed suburbs, Karen led by 28 per cent in the supply of advertised land during the period.

Due to increasing demand, land in Karen has appreciated seven-fold over the last decade, with an acre fetching close to Sh60 million. New homes selling for more than Sh100 million dot the region.

Sakina Hassanali, HassConsult’s head of development, consulting and research, says the exclusive suburb has seen stable prices over the last three years, with landowners seizing the opportunity to release some of the land holdings to the market.

However, this pressure to release land in Karen to developers has raised a red flag.

According to HassConsult, developers in the high-end areas such as Karen intend to add more value by optimising space through the development of more units on the land. “These areas have traditionally been prime and land has been hard to get. When it is put up for sale, it further encourages more owners to test the market. Developers here are opting to develop high end gated communities as opposed to units that occupy large parcels of land,” said the report.

The rush by developers to acquire a piece of Karen was a key factor behind the formulation of a Local Physical Development Plan in 2006.

Despite the area being zoned as a low-density residential area, the last few years have witnessed unprecedented increase in the number of applications for change of user to commercial or institutional with landowners caving in to this pressure.

The government’s move to increase land rates and penalise those holding on to large tracts of undeveloped land was sighted by Karen’s LPDP as yet another factor that is moving residents to dispose of their treasured property.

“The continuing increase in land rates is having a considerable effect on the type and nature of development in the area. It is forcing some owners to sub-divide and sell their land and is a major reason for the increase in applications for change of user from residential to commercial,” states LPDP.

The unlocking of land in Karen has seen large projects break ground in the last few years. Among these are new commercial centres such as The Hub, Galleria, Watermark, Jubilee and Karen Crossroads.

However, officials of the influential Karen and Langata District Association say that the ongoing scramble for Karen has brought with it unscrupulous developers who are paying no heed to established zoning regulations.

Duncan Munyua, a member of KLDA’s development committee, says he is losing count of illegal developments cropping up in every corner of the once serene neighbourhood. Most of these are being developed on land that has been subdivided below the minimum land sizes.

Minimum land sizes in Karen are half an acre to an acre, depending on the sub-zones. In March, KLDA submitted a list of a dozen new developments to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) that it said had no clear environmental licences.

The list in our possession includes hotels developments, petrol stations, bars and restaurants, office developments and new gated communities.

Munyua says religious institutions are among those developing new parcels of land without proper statutory approvals.

He decries what he terms as “connivance between the developers and state and county organs that should be streamlining the process”.

“Without exception, all these developments have acquired “approvals” and “licences” the Kenyan way. Of great concern also are religious organisations leading the way. Being a religious institution is not an excuse. In fact, religious organisations are responsible for 70 per cent of the current mess in Karen,” says Munyua.

Another letter in our possession from the National Construction Authority shows how a developer is putting up a petrol station near Karen C Primary School using a Nema registration number earmarked for studio, two- and three-bedroom apartments kilometres away from the site.

“You cannot rule out human greed in some of these transactions,” says Charles Peter Mwangi, a land valuer and real estate consultant.

Mwangi says that in the ensuing rush by developers to cash in on land in Karen, some older members of the society risk losing their land “as they may not be in the right frame of mind to make sound decisions”.

“There is an aging population in Karen who settled here many decades ago. Some own big pieces of land while most of their family members are outside the country. These ones are prone to fraud,” says Mwangi.

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