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Rent control the answer in Soweto East

By | September 3rd 2009

Slum upgrading remains a challenge close to a decade since the launch of a UN Habitat-led programme for Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera. The problem is not just about housing: If it were, residents of insecure, unsanitary or sub-standard housing would jump at the opportunity to purchase more permanent houses. But as Housing Minister Soita Shitanda was reminded yesterday, the issues are a little more complex.

Residents of Soweto East, one of Kibera’s many sections, have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to trade makeshift structures for affordable permanent housing. But a raft of other issues has arisen to put a spanner in the works. Many people are concerned about economic activities: Used to trading from their shanties, they do not want to move into flats where no customers walk past upper floors. Others are worried that the Government’s rent-to-own plan, beginning at Sh1,000 a month, may be changed or scrapped.

Then there are the new tenants in Zone A, which has to be demolished as people move into the new flats, who oppose it because they are not among the people registered six years ago.

Meanwhile, 84 landlords who own the structures (built on Government land) have also sprung up to oppose demolition of their property without compensation. It matters not that most recoup their investments in one year or two. These are worrying hiccups for a programme that embraced a community-led approach.

Enforcement Team

The troubles of Mathare 4A in the 1990s were supposed to provide the lessons on slum upgrading to make it a success. We hope the Government and Habitat do not forget what was learned. In a survey carried out in 1995, it was found that the fear of being evicted from the upgraded housing by having rent increased down the line had to be taken very seriously. So powerful were the psychological barriers that when political leaders whipped up emotions Mathare 4A fell to rioting.

Habitat once put out a survey that showed the majority of landlords in Kibera were Government officials, retired civil servants or politicians. Thus, it is no surprise some are ganging up with those tenants not included in the first move to cause trouble.

The first Soweto East move is a major milestone in housing. It is a proof-of-concept test for the new approach to ending slums.

The Government must assure the residents of Soweto East that they will not see rent increases in the near future; that any increases will be predictable and limited and that evictions will be of those who fail or refuse to pay the soft loans offered at fixed rates. Unless they believe this, Kibera residents will balk at moving and we will suffer a major setback.

The 1,500 families set to move from Zone A are the first in a line of 500,000 people in Kibera alone, waiting for better housing. More than half of the city’s population, about two million people, lives in over 100 slums like Soweto East.

While mooted in 2000, the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme did not begin until January 2003.In Kibera, it will involve "the construction of 14 blocks of flats and 770 housing units" and provision of basic services like water and sanitation. "Improvements in informal settlements elsewhere in the country have begun, in a process that is expected to take 10 to 15 years," say Habitat. About $8 million (Sh640 million) is needed to build housing in Kibera alone. Shitanda estimates Sh880 billion would be needed to eradicate the country’s slums. With donor and Government funding limited, the private sector will need to step in with affordable technology. But a good amount of rent-controlled low-income housing is key to the acceptance of slum upgrading by the communities.

As cheap housing is in some ways economically beneficial, we see slum upgrading as a moving target with social benefits. Adequate amounts of low-income housing may reduce the number of people living in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. But until the economy hums along as envisioned by Vision 2030, rural areas can provide enough employment and the population is not growing so fast, there will always be slums. Until then, we should focus on making the next step up affordable.

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