Communities, groups can help State to fulfill housing promise

Workers at an affordable housing project in Mukuru, Nairobi, October 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Emotions ran high during a TV panel discussion on September 13 when a renowned professor of architecture and urban planning repeatedly called the government's affordable housing plan a "stupid idea". For that, a Cabinet Secretary got agitated and responded to him with some unkind words.

A year since President William Ruto came to power, none of his flagship projects has elicited as much controversy as the affordable housing programme. Making it particularly controversial is the introduction of the housing levy, which requires every salaried Kenyan to contribute 1.5 per cent of their gross pay to the affordable housing kitty, with employers matching their employees' contributions.

Opinions are divided on whether it is the role of government in the first place to provide housing for its citizenry.

There have also been accusations that the national government is usurping the role of the county governments because according to the fourth schedule of the Constitution, housing is a devolved function. However, truth be told, ever since Kenya started talking about affordable housing in 2002, no regime has made the dream look achievable like the Kenya Kwanza government.

It all started with Mwai Kibaki's Narc government in late 2002, followed by Uhuru Kenyatta's Jubilee regime, which started focusing on affordable housing in earnest in 2017 as part of the Big Four Agenda.

Jubilee government's plan was to deliver 500,000 affordable homes for Kenyans across all the 47 counties by 2022.

However, by the end of the five years, only about 13,529 units had been delivered. On assuming office in September last year, President Ruto picked up from where his predecessor left, integrating affordable housing as one of six foundational pillars of his government's agenda, hoping to deliver 200,000 housing units every year. He has since launched several affordable housing projects in different parts of the country.

Unlike his predecessors, Dr Ruto introduced the now highly controversial housing levy to ensure the housing programme doesn't flop due to inadequate funding. With the raft of measures it has put in place, the current regime is seen as the first one to take a bold move to help Kenyans realise the affordable housing dream.

But will President Ruto succeed where his predecessors failed? What does he need to do to ensure the project succeeds?

Whereas many reasons have been advanced for the dismal performance by previous regimes on the affordable housing front, one often overlooked reason is failure to actively and effectively involve communities and organised groups such as resident associations in the planning and execution of the programme.

The role of organised groups, particularly resident associations, is vital in the push to provide decent and affordable housing to millions of Kenyans, fostering socio-economic development and improving living conditions. The associations can play a pivotal role in ensuring the success and sustainability of the country's new affordable housing initiative.

First and foremost, resident associations possess an inherent understanding of the unique housing needs within their communities. They have their fingers on the pulse of local housing challenges and can provide valuable insights into the specific requirements for the houses. By actively involving resident associations in the planning and execution of the programme, policymakers can ensure that the resulting housing projects are not only affordable but also responsive to the diverse needs of the population.

As some have correctly argued, if a community is inhabited by a significant number of school-going children, for instance, it is only fair to dedicate substantial space to playgrounds and child-friendly social spaces when designing the housing complex.

"Similarly, an aging population within a community would necessitate the provision of more green spaces where older persons can access sunlight and meet their peers for healthy conversations in their sunset years," Stephen Machua, a policy analyst, once argued.

But that is not all. Resident associations can act as conduits for effective communication between the government and the citizens. Regular dialogues and consultations with these groups can help build trust, transparency, and accountability in the implementation of the housing plan.

When residents feel that their voices are heard and their concerns taken into consideration, they are more likely to support and participate in the process, creating a positive feedback loop that bolsters the overall success of the initiative.

Engaging resident associations can also enhance the sustainability of affordable housing projects. The associations are often deeply rooted in their communities and have a vested interest in ensuring the long-term viability of housing developments.

They can actively participate in maintaining the infrastructure, ensuring proper management, and preventing issues that may arise post-construction. This active involvement not only preserves the value of the housing units but also fosters a sense of ownership among residents, promoting a stronger sense of community and shared responsibility.

Moreover, resident associations can assist in mitigating potential challenges that could arise during the implementation phase. From advocating for streamlined bureaucratic processes to addressing land acquisition issues, these groups can serve as intermediaries, helping to resolve bottlenecks that might otherwise slow down the progress of the affordable housing plan. By leveraging their networks and local knowledge, resident associations can expedite decision-making and project execution.