Christmas is almost upon us and the fact that Jesus was not born in a home doesn’t deny our right to a home. Two isolated events namely, the court stopping the 1.5 per cent housing tax and the demolition of at least 600 homes in Kayole, reinforce the feeling that the foundations for Jubilee’s housing pillar are not deep enough yet. Until it is, our constitutional right to adequate housing will remain elusive for millions.
One of the most important moments in the bible is the birth of baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Born to Mary and Joseph, Jesus was not delivered at home or in the hotel they had sought a room. He was born in a shelter for animals. Theologians have described first century Palestinian houses as small, dark and with wooden shutters not glass to cover their windows. Shockingly, these types of homes continue to persist across our urban informal neighbourhoods of Mukuru, Mathare, Kondele and elsewhere twenty centuries later. Earlier this week, the indefatigable Nairobi Women Representative Esther Passaris earned her salary in one single action. She rallied to protect the rights of 2,000 residents whose 600 homes were being demolished across 20 acres of Nyama Villa estate, Kayole.
The destruction of property, police tear-gas and tears of residents also caught the eye of Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko. He declared a stop to all demolitions across Nairobi as an act of humanity during this festive season. True to the word he gave on International Human Rights Day, he stood firmly to protect Nairobians against further forced evictions. The land has reportedly been at the centre of a long dispute between landlords and the Muthithi Investment Company owned by Mike Kamau Maina, proprietor of Marble Arch Hotel. While the legal battles will no doubt play out in court, the episode is another one in our ongoing urban land woes.
Elsewhere, Employment and Labour Relations Court Justice Hellen Wasilwa temporarily suspended the 1.5 per cent housing tax for salaried workers set to be imposed in January. The Central Organisation of Trade Unions has argued that there was insufficient public consultation and support and the move amounts to double taxation. Without the fund, the vision of the housing pillar lies shattered.
The intention behind the housing pillar is both noble and flawed. At least 500,000 houses are the immediate target of Housing Cabinet Secretary Macharia’s team. They have laid out plans to unlock land for affordable housing development, reduce construction costs, expand mortgage opportunities and re-design existing public housing. Making house ownership affordable especially younger and elderly Kenyans, is critical. Process however, matters. Even before the Court pronounced itself on the matter, the housing pillar has suffered from poor consultation with the public. Fatigued by run-away corruption and debt, most citizens have viewed this latest head-tax with dismay and outrage. For those of us worried about the most marginalised of our society, key questions remain unanswered. Are we only targeting the lower middle class or will we also see an end to the type of houses Jesus grew up in? Will the houses target the thousands we saw forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for roads in Kibra and other settlements over 2018? How does the Ministry safeguard our public investment into private homes, so they don’t end up being sold back onto the private market?
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There must be a way to safeguard against privatisation and housing market speculation. I wonder if the state had offered the Muthithi Investment Company incentives to develop public and private housing, would this week’s events have been different. As the Ministry turns back to the drawing board, perhaps it could look at India’s system of transfer development rights and give new incentives to landowners to support the noble vision of adequate and mass housing for all. Making our cities inclusive for all requires focus on the marginalised. Borrowing a leaf from the President’s Jamhuri speech, perhaps the Ministry could consult Akiba Mashinani Trust, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Slum Dwellers International among others on how best to deliver this vision with public consent and participation. Happy Christmas.
-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton