Comfort vs habitable: Why rural dwellings beat urban housing

Urban areas lead in access to improved sources of water, with 78.9 per cent of households in the urban areas compared to 55.9 per cent in the rural areas. [File, Standard]

Urban dwellers are hard to convince out of their belief that they live considerably better than those in the countryside.

When one imagines the city, it is often about the grandiose lifestyle, imposing skyscrapers, posh automobiles, fancy homes in the most expensive suburbs and floodlights that turn night into day.

But beneath that deceitful veneer is a different picture, of slums hugging walls of gated estates, of streets teeming with homeless people, and of costly traffic congestions that stretch out from the heart of the city into every direction.

Some live and others just about manage to survive. While the quality of housing in the city is along a whole spectrum for so many social classes, the village setting lacks these immense gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

Urban populations, thus dwelling units, have to be compartmentalised; a generalisation is largely deceptive.  

“There are some who live very comfortably in these urban areas. There are the middle class who can never lack most of what they would need. There are those who can just make it by. And then there are those in the slums. You can never generalise on housing,” says George King’oriah, a professor of Real Estate and Property Management at The Technical University of Kenya.

As Kenya, whose greater population is youthful, sees the rise of urbanisation by the day, it is unlikely the quality of housing will get better for the majority.

The government’s plan to build in excess of 200, 000 affordable houses and to improve slums could go a long way in addressing a huge housing crisis.

According to Macrotrends, Kenya’s urban population for 2021 was 15.1 million, a 3.78 per cent increase from 2020. And the 2019 Population and Housing Census showed that people lived in more congested spaces in urban areas.

There were 1.4 persons per room in the rural areas and 1.5 per cent in the urban areas.

Further, Kenya’s rural areas had 13.32 million dwelling units while the urban areas boasted some 6.07 million units.

The rural structures had 22.64 million habitable rooms while the urban ones had 9.68 million. The rural areas accommodated 7.38 million  households.

The urban areas had 4.66 million households.

Most people in the rural areas live in houses they own.

A street along Pipeline Estate, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

The proportion of households occupying their own dwelling was 86.6 per cent in the rural and 21.3 per cent in the urban areas, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ (KNBS) study showed.

The proportion of households occupying rented or provided dwellings was thus 13.4 per cent in the rural areas and 78.7 per cent in urban areas.

Paul Syagga, a former professor of land economics at The University of Nairobi, says that while rural areas often suffer a lack of quality, the urban area is hit by both quality and quantity problems.

“In urban areas, there is more congestion, more people per unit area. These people often lack basic amenities, water and sanitation. There is more space in the village and less resources could be used to improve the quality of the structures- and life- there,” he says.

Although the structures in rural areas could be of very low quality, many people there are still living better than those living in congested spaces in the urban areas, Prof Syagga argues.

“The minimum requirements for a house for a household or family, according to the Kenya Housing Policy, should be a minimum of two rooms, a cooking area and a toilet,” he says.

He was part of the team that developed these regulations and guidelines on the back of a realization that households had an average of 5 persons. The minimum floor space of such houses should be 40 square metres.

In the rural areas, people seem not to have a taste of, or access to, the luxury that many urban dwellers pride in. The census report indicated that the proportion of households occupying dwellings with durable roof material was 87.8 per cent in the rural areas and 98.6 per cent in the urban areas.

These durable roof materials are iron sheets, asbestos sheets, concrete or cement, tiles, decra and shingles. The non-durable ones are grass thatch, makuti thatch, dung and mud, tin cans, canvas or tents, and nylons or cartons or hardboard, according to KNBS.

The proportion of households occupying dwellings with durable wall material was 37.9 per cent in the rural areas and 72.6 per cent in the urban areas.

Concrete or concrete blocks or precast walls, stone with lime or cement, bricks, timber, and prefabricated panels were considered durable materials.

Non-durable materials for walls were cane or palm or trunks, grass or reeds, mud or cow dung, plywood or cardboard, offcuts or reused wood, canvas, nylons, stone with mud, covered adobe, and iron sheets.

And the proportion of households occupying dwellings with durable floor material was 36.5 per cent in the rural areas and 88 per cent in the urban.

Durable floor material includes wood planks or shingles or timber, parquet or polished wood vinyl or asphalt, ceramic tiles, concrete or cement or terrazzo and wall-to-wall carpet. Non-durable floor materials could be earth or sand, dung or palm and bamboo.

“Generally, in the rural areas people are more comfortable than people in urban areas on average,” says Prof King’oriah.

He says the search for employment in urban areas, whose great population and concentration of economic activities avail all kinds of jobs, is the only reason some, who would rather be in the countryside and have built houses there, stay in the city.

Then they retire to the village when not held by the rigours of work.

An apartment complex under construction in Hamburg , Germany. [XN Iraki, Standard]                                                                                                                      

“Some of these structures are habitable but not entirely comfortable. We are here because we are employed in an urban area and this job is not available in the rural areas. You cannot travel from the village every day,” he laughs.

The commonplace tactic in recent times involves people who work in the city, and earn pretty comfortably, buying property outside the city and making the daily commute for work.

Prof King’oriah thinks it is expensive and calls it “inverted preference, economically”.

For the bargain they get on rent, they spend more on fuel (or fares) and also use more time to get to their workplaces, or back home.

“If you calculate that money spent in such expenses per day, then find the total amount in a year and multiply by ten, you have the capital value of the amount of money people are spending in the urban areas, in such settings,” he says. “Sometimes you would spend so much on prestige that had you built in the rural areas, it would have cost you just a fraction of the money and for more comfortable, spacious housing.”

The urban areas lead in access to improved sources of water, with 78.9 per cent of households in the urban areas compared to 55.9 per cent in the rural areas.

The proportion of households using improved sanitation facilities was 75.5 per cent in the rural areas and 93.5 per cent in the urban areas.

And while only 6.5 per cent of rural households use clean cooking fuel, 55.3 per cent in urban areas have this access. The statistics of the urban population’s ownership of a functional TV, mobile phones, computers, motorcycles, refrigerators, and cars dwarf the rural areas.

But the rural areas remain the easiest to set up decent housing with limited resources and to live more comfortably. In rural areas, due to the availability of space, it is easy to bring up a house that fits the description of a decent housing unit.

“The cooking area could even be outside, under a tree, and that suffices. This is impossible to have this in the urban. In the space you want to put up a pit latrine, someone else wants to put up rentals, for that’s the value for space,” Prof Syagga says.