Solution to the housing crisis affecting the poor in low income areas in Kenya

By Shadrack Mbaka

Building a commitment to improve the housing sector

A section of Mukuru kwa Njenga slum in Nairobi.

A section of Mukuru kwa Njenga slum in Nairobi.

Four million people who make about 60 per cent of the cities’ population live in the capital Nairobi’s overcrowded urban slums, and are on the brink of a massive housing crisis. Because they are already so poor and their living conditions already so bad.

Cases of rent increases are in the rise and becoming the new normal. The number of low-income units is dwindling with the market having shifted to focus on the middle class. And efforts to address this issue in the country have been met with little success, while the number of slum residents, particularly in the city continues to surge.

In the early 2000, Kenya witnessed the largest forced eviction crisis in informal settlements more so in the considered prime privately owned lands. The sobering reality is that this “tragedy” –may merely be a sign of what is to come. Several trends are likely to amplify rural-urban migration. Today, more than 30 percent of Kenya’s’ populations live in cities. From now on, most of Kenya’s population growth will be urban. According to a World Bank report, 'while the total population will double by 2045, the urban population will more than quadruple (see figure). By 2033 the country will reach a “spatial tipping point”, when half of Kenya will be residing in the urban areas'.

Source: World Bank

Source: World Bank

Stop-gap emergency responses are vital, but they do little to address root causes of inadequate housing

Since then, there have been numerous obstacles faced and countless challenges overcome by slum dwellers. But one of the main barriers remains to be housing. Kenya’s new constitution prepared the ground for substantial devolution of power to 47 counties, which provides opportunities for better accountability and local service delivery.

According to the World Bank, despite rapid urbanization, 42 out of the 47 Kenya’s new counties will be predominantly rural.  At the same time, there is a risk that Kenya’s medium-sized cities with 100,000 to 400,000 people, will not receive the autonomy and resources they need.  Kenya needs a separate urban tier to help manage rapid urbanization successfully.

A proposal made by the Slum Dwellers International -Kenyan Alliance to the Nairobi and Kiambu County governments respectively is on the establishment of a City Fund. This is just but one of the solutions to address the city’s housing crisis. This fund may be used to help developers finance new buildings that include units for low-income residents.

The Kenya SDI Alliance and partner contributions (Katiba Institute, University of Nairobi, Strathmore University) aims to engage and partner with local county governments to enhance participation in city development. The City Fund concept borrows vast models of community based savings as a tool of co-production between governments and their subjects, which bolsters inclusive and sustainable city wide growth. It suggests the need for an innovative co-finance instrument that fuels collaboration between urban poor communities, intermediary organisations and local governments to inspire informal settlement upgrading projects.

The Nairobi City County government may build the fund through taxes on real estate deals, annual budgetary allocations and grants from development partners; but the fund may also be built through voluntary contributions from poor communities through their daily savings, which then bears the collective ownership of the fund between the city authorities and their subjects. Of all the alliance’s suggestions, this one is the most direct: The way to build affordable housing in the major cities is to direct and inject more money for the building of affordable housing.

SDI recognises how much can be achieved through strong liberalized local democracies and organised urban poor groups. We acknowledge a form of governance where local governments work in partnerships with civil society that can be rooted in local needs and possibilities as well as being more accountable and transparent.

Many city governments have in place the County Integrated development plans (CIDP) - laws that moot affordable developments. In the national slum upgrading programmes for instance, The Kenya Slum-Upgrading Programme (KENSUP), more so in the Kibera upgrading sites that have historic designations, have led to a development of new housing units and basic infrastructure, continue to become unaffordable to the targeted communities living in Kibera slums.

Kibera Slum Upgrading Housing Units. Photo:

Kibera Slum Upgrading Housing Units. Photo:

The Kibera upgrading site became a national model for inclusion zoning and upgrading efforts, upgrading thousands of affordable units. But those units remain affordable for a couple of years. After that, prices climb out of reach for the poor. The City Fund model, suggests tightening existing laws to prevent so many exemptions, while extending the period that affordable unit must remain affordable.

Another issue: Security of tenure, the lack of it doesn’t help the very poor. The model suggests that for cities to ably sort out the housing issue, addressing insecurity of secure tenure, more so among communities squatting on either private or public lands which would allow poorer residents to be included in the cities’ vision. Therefore, the declarations of informal settlements as special planning areas, Is just but one of the avenues to implement successful slum upgrading projects.

For those of us in a position to act, it is high time to look beyond the headline-grabbing crises of today to the brewing crises of tomorrow. We need to tackle challenges before they become threats. Stop-gap emergency responses are vital, but they do little to address one key root cause of in affordable housing and the economic poverty penalty that the urban poor continue to face. Without economic resilience, poor and fragile communities are more vulnerable to health epidemics, environmental disasters, and civil strife. Everyone strives for a promise of life in dignity.

Open up space for Private sector participation and Investments

This conspicuous silence reveals a simple yet often overlooked truth: prosperity rests on increased value-added production that generates more and better jobs. And this will require harnessing the power of trade and investment to accelerate economic transformation.

To meet the aspirations of those yearning for a better life – and to avert the humanitarian catastrophes of future rural-urban migration and housing crises – we need to reboot the economic conditions for prosperity in the poorest and most fragile neighborhoods.

Jane Weru, considered to be affordable housing’s loudest voice in the civil society and policy reform agenda, is not easily dissuaded, however, and vows to press for a permanent source of funding. She asserts that housing affordability is at the heart of all of Kenya’s most important issues.

“It’s going to require some political goodwill to make enough affordable housing a reality,” said Weru. “It takes local state and non-state actors and city resources, banks, private money, and public money. What’s often lost in that conversation is the human beings; women, men and children who don’t have a place to live and call home.”

We must reignite the engines of growth by stimulating private sector participation particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, productive domestic and foreign investments, and international trade to come on board and address this crisis. What is needed is an urgent and comprehensive response to tackle the missing development opportunities that not only occasionally fuel social and political instability, but also drive the urban poor to be self-sustainable and to convert what is considered a burden into an asset.