Housing policy in a devolved system

Cheap housing

Cheap housing

As the country moves towards a different system of government, housing industry stakeholders do not expect a major policy shift, writes PETER MUIRURI (Cross posted from The Standard Newspaper)

For the last ten years, the Ministry of Housing has overseen a raft of policy developments that have guided players in the housing sector, making it one of the key drivers in the country’s economy.

This was made possible through a Government reorganisation in 2005 in which the Department of Housing was reconstituted into a fully-fledged ministry and mandated to facilitate the development and management of quality and affordable housing for Kenyans.

Many have given thumbs up for the ministry that was known for its lacklustre performance before it was spruced up by the Kibaki administration.

To its credit, the ministry has instituted programmes such as the appropriate building technology programmes (ABTs), slum upgrading, civil servants housing scheme, housing infrastructure and government estate management.

A slum in Kibera

A slum in Kibera

Budgetary allocations to these programmes run into billions in an attempt to address the acute shortage of proper housing in the country.

Previously, such housing issues were handled through a department under the substantive ministries of Lands, Settlement, Public works and Housing with policies sinking under the shifting political sands of the day.

Shifting functions

However, as the country prepares to usher in a devolved system of government in less than two months, a number of functions of this ministry will inevitably be handled by the incoming county governments.

Moreover, the Constitution stipulates a specific number of ministries — half of the current 42 — with the likelihood that the Ministry of Housing will again be merged with others that carry overlapping functions.

Experts in the built environment wait with bated breath to see how this shift will affect the policies that have opened up the housing sector to diverse players.

According to Architectural Association of Kenya Chairman Steven Oundo, there should not be a major policy shift once the country makes the transition from the current system to a devolved one.

He says the ministry has already made great strides in the last decade by spearheading many new housing projects. This, according to Oundo, is due to the fact that it is being run by professionals in this field.

“The ministry has procured consultants to oversee major projects. They have also pushed through critical legislation in Parliament. I think it is all about implementing the policies already in place. Owing to the vibrancy in the sector, new decision makers will be measured according to the benchmark already set by the current team. Thankfully, we have a new Constitution upon which many of these policies are anchored,” says Oundo.

Wealth creation

And as much as we should be interested in the person who will drive the construction agenda in the next government, Oundo says the country needs more positive energy in wealth creation so that more and more Kenyans can own homes wherever they are. He says: “No matter how well crafted the housing policies are, they will not amount to much if the masses cannot afford the homes. We need to increase the per capita income so that many more can afford the products in the market.”

It is estimated that 85 per cent of Nairobi residents do not own the houses they live in, a major factor in the ever-escalating rentals.

According to the Institute of Surveyors of Kenya Chairman Collins Kowuor, the devolved system will require a realignment of housing policies to reflect the emerging situation on the ground. Housing, he says, is a big issue to be left either to the central or county governments.

Division of labour

“There will be a division of labour in the new dispensation. The central government will still play the  role of policy formulation. In addition, donors who may wish to fund certain projects will be more comfortable entrusting their money with the central government,” says Kowuor.

On the other hand, county governments will be required to implement the policies from a local point of view as well as laying of prerequisite infrastructure.

For instance, the central government may stipulate the kind of materials that can be used in the construction industry. However, a particular county may prefer to use timber instead of stones, roofing tiles rather than iron sheets — or vice versa depending on availability, environmental concerns and other local considerations.

This procedure, says Kowuor, should not prove complicated as it is just patterned after the current CDF management where the central government allocates funds to constituencies while local committees oversee the implementation phase with a proper accountability mechanism.

Senior officers from the Housing ministry say there should be no cause for worry as far as policy is concerned. According to Ibrahim Hussein, the director of administration at the ministry, the central government will still be in charge of policy formulation and management.

“We will post senior officers in all the counties to provide manpower to the governors and senators. You know that the government is the largest real estate owner. We have to protect all state structures that number into tens of thousands across the country where we have been housing State personnel,” says Hussein.

He says providing houses for civil servants through the ongoing purchase scheme will still be a core function of whatever ministry that will be in charge of housing.

Construction authority

Hussein adds that some functions previously carried out by local authorities such as building approvals, may now shift to new bodies such as the National Construction Authority.

However, he says any incoming government has a right to review and re-blend any policy in the light of implementing its campaign manifesto.

That notwithstanding, there are several areas that the incoming administration needs to focus on in order to sustain the momentum in the sector. Key among these is the refinement of a policy that will provide tax incentives to players in the industry.

“Such tax incentives will go a long way in clawing funds back to the same sector and help in setting up more homes that will be affordable to Kenyans,” says Kowuor.

In addition, current legislative regime needs to be reviewed to harmonise with the country’s needs. Experts feel the ‘refined’ Building Code still has some British elements that may not augur well in the local field.

It also needs to incorporate cheaper building technologies for it to be practical.

“In moving to the counties, the ministry also needs to have a proper data management system that can help developers see where current needs for housing lie. We always hear that we need 150,000 houses in the urban areas and double that in the rural areas annually as per the 2004 National Housing Policy. Is this data still reliable or up to date?” poses Kowuor.

There should be a link between such data and other related agencies such as the Ministry of Lands, Local Government and city and town councils.

Friction between the two is, however, a possibility. Just last year, the Ministry of Public Works offered to spearhead the design and development of the proposed county assemblies, county offices and government residences in readiness for the incoming new system of governance before this was stopped in its tracks.