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How housing co-operatives are helping slum dwellers own homes

By Dominic Omondi | October 14th 2021
Kando Reli homes under construction along Kangundo road [Courtesy]

When it rains, it pours. Jane Rose Ruguru, a widow and mother of five, would know this better.

One morning in 2018, before Ms Ruguru and her family had wiped the sleep from their eyes, they saw an earthmover approach their tin shack.

Their iron sheet house sat forlornly a few steps from the railway line, next to Kaloleni Estate in Nairobi.

She watched in dismay as the place she had called home since she arrived in Nairobi was mowed down. She was told the land where she had built her house belonged to Kenya Railways.

Ruguru built another house, not very far away. But this one too was demolished two years later. Her second house, she was told, was illegally built under the power line.

It is a harrowing experience that would have left her dejected. But she is not.

Ruguru and others in a group of 100 members are currently building houses of their own along Kangundo Road through a housing co-operative where they pool their limited resources.

Through housing co-operatives, Ruguru and other residents whose houses were demolished have been able to buy land and start building their homes.

With a decent home whose tenure is not tarnished, the members hope that they will get the peace necessary to secure their future and that of their children.

Ruguru and other members of Kando Reli, as their housing co-operative is known, were brought together by Pamoja Trust, a civil society organisation that helps people living within informal settlements get access to basic services including decent housing, land and security of tenure.

Besides Kando Reli, there is also Remusi Housing Co-operative which has been able to buy a quarter-acre plot in Kiambu.

To Pamoja Trust, the housing co-operative is just one of the means to attack a challenge such as the slum menace.

However, it is a model that can be used by any group of people who would like to pool funds with the goal of owning homes.

Pamoja Trust Programme Officer Irene Kinoti says they use models to solve problems presented by communities that they work with.

One such model that has been embraced by residents in urban slums is the housing co-operative, through which disenfranchised dwellers have been able to own homes of their own.

Besides pushing the government to fulfill its obligation of ensuring that citizens have access to decent housing, Pamoja Trust also shepherds the community to work alongside the government to achieve this goal.

One of the biggest challenges in slums is that most of the land that the houses sit on has complex tenure issues. Most of it is public land.

Ms Kinoti says they approach the owners of the land, the State in most cases, to find a way of regularising the land so people can enjoy the right to use the specific parcel of land.

“It might not be solely in terms of them having title deeds, but can the government recognise other forms of rights to use, access and even control the space that they currently occupy?”

It could be a tenancy, where a person only relies on the space as a tenant. They could also use the space as a landlord or enjoy access, habitat or user rights.

Threats of eviction have made it difficult for those occupying these lands to make any development on it, says Kinoti.

“You might have the capacity to put up a better house by yourself, but then you have the fear that tomorrow, the trucks will be coming and you will be told to move from the place that you occupy,” she says.

Ruguru and her group have been able to buy five plots along Kangundo Road where they are first building 10 houses for the members.

To make the building less costly, they rely on their own pool of labour and that of partner organisations such as Pamoja Trust.

Moreover, they use alternative building technologies to reduce the cost compared to conventional materials.

Pamoja Trust Executive Director Samuel Olando says the fact that housing is capital-intensive has pushed a lot of urban residents into slums.

However, coming together and leveraging on their social capital - where they live or where they work - allows the slum residents to bring resources together under co-operatives.

Majority of Kenyans in urban settlements, close to 70 per cent according to official data, live in slums such as Kibra, Mathare and Mukuru, or the ‘Soweto’ ubiquitous in most large towns.

“These people do not have title deeds or leases which they can use to access credit to construct houses,” said Mr Olando.

The residents rely on social capital as collateral. This where you guarantee one another based on familiarity, a model that was popular in revolutionising microfinance lending in Kenya and many developing countries.

It is also the model that is used by Saccos to give credit to members.

This has allowed a number of housing co-operatives to buy land and even build houses.

However, because most of the members have bought land outside the city where they are expected to build their houses and live, there are fears that this might cut them off the heart of economic activities.

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