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Housing : Kenya’s challenge of the new century

Housing, slums, conflicts

The 21st session of UN-HABITAT Governing Council opened on Monday, 16 April 2007, with the sounding a new alarm on the world’s growing urban poverty crisis.

The week-long meeting of government ministers, senior officials and other representatives of the 58 governments that constitute the Governing Council was formally inaugurated by the President of Kenya, Mr. Mwai Kibaki.

Sounding a new alarm, Anna Tibaijuka, the Executive Director of the UN-Habitat and Head, UN offices in Nairobi said, “the 21st Session of the Governing Council was being held at a critical time in history: “The year 2007 is a year when human beings will become an urban species, homo urbanus. From now on the majority of people will no longer be rural but urban. And there is no going back for this demographic shift. The transition is irreversible.”

She warned delegates that UN-HABITAT research showed that across the planet the rate of slum formation was today almost the same as the rate of urban growth.

“This implies that most of the people who are migrating to cities, and who are born in cities, are joining the ranks of the urban poor and slum dwellers.

The conclusion of these and other findings are clear. While Governments can no longer ignore the urbanisation of poverty and the growth of slums, there is increasing evidence of market failure in achieving housing needs.

According to the Ministry of Housing, in the last two decades, the urban housing scene in Kenya has deteriorated as a result of Kenya’s poor economic performance, resulting in a serious housing deficit.

The Ministry attributes this deficit to the proliferation of informal settlements, poor standards of construction of housing units, construction of unauthorized extensions in existing estates, and increasing conflicts between tenants and landlords especially in low-income areas.

While in the 1980s, the housing shortfall was about 60,000 units per year, the number has increased to about 150,000 units per year.

Most housing finance companies in Kenya have traditionally invested in the development of housing for high and middle-income buyers. However, these financial institutions have been mobilizing funds from short-term deposits and investing in long term mortgage lending. This dichotomy has led to a distortion of the market price for housing because of resultant high interest rates.

In the city of Nairobi, there are more than 100 slum communities that are home to two million people, often too disorganized to access mortgage loans.

The residents of Nairobi's informal settlements constitute 55 per cent of the city's total population and yet they are crowded onto only 1.5 per cent of the total land area in the city devoid of all amenities befitting humanity in the twenty first century.

And even that land is not theirs. The residents of the informal settlements have lived and continue to live in constant fear that their homes will be demolished or destroyed in a forced eviction.

The root of this crisis is a government policy that refuses to recognise the urban informal settlements as inhabited areas.

The Government views the public land on which the poor reside as vacant land that can be alienated at any time to political elites and private individuals for commercial development let alone political patronage.

In the last decade, Kenya has witnessed the rabid privatisation of public land as a means to reward political loyalty.
The residents who occupy this land are simply thrown off the land. The result is that a large number of Kenyans are living as refugees in their own country.

They have been rendered landless, homeless and denied even their most basic human rights and dignity.

The informal settlements in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities like Mombasa and Nakuru are severely overcrowded, insecure and unsanitary.

An average of five to six people stay in a room that has an average size of three to six square meters. One-room shanties are sandwiched together, so that the densities average 250 units per hectare, versus 25 units in a middle class area and 10 units in high-income areas. The only walkways are narrow dirt paths that frequently flood and are impassable during the rainy seasons.

Urban infrastructural services are virtually non-existent in these informal areas. Residents have no access to electricity and if they do, they still from the main grid---itself, providing a source of grief from frequent burnt homes.

Potable water must be purchased from vendors at prices up to ten times higher than the rate charged by local authorities according to UN-Habitat.

Over 95 per cent of the residents do not have access to proper sanitation. People are forced to pay to use a pit latrine shared by approximately 50 people per toilet or use open areas.

The city has long since stopped collecting refuse, so garbage lies permanently in stinking heaps, often blocking the drainage channels. This has led to serious environmental and health hazards; typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis.

Corruption is rampant in the informal sector. The vast majority of people living in this sector are tenants who are forced to pay exorbitant rents to local chiefs and wealthy absentee landlords.

In some cases, residents are forced to pay a bribe of Sh3,000 Kenyan shillings in order to get permission to repair a leaking roof.

This system of extortion breeds a high level of insecurity and violence that undermine social and community structures.

Unfortunately, in Kenya, politics play a much more important role than the rule of law in the area of housing and land disputes.

According to Jane Weru, Executive Director of Pamoja Trust, a local NGO that has championed the right to land in informal settlements, “the judicial process, which was intended to provide the necessary safety valve to protect the rights of Kenyan citizens, has totally collapsed under the massive weight of corruption. Virtually every case filed in court seeking to prevent an eviction or claim ownership has been decided in favour of the party holding title and against the slum dweller”.

No wonder, people in the informal settlements often turn violent to ward off encroachments.
Published: 2007-04-16

About the author or the publisher
Am a science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. I hold a post-grad diploma in journalism with a background in range management

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