Better, Safer and Cheaper Housing for Nairobi Residents

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Have you ever held a honeycomb in your hands? If not, try and do so one day and you will catch a glimpse of Nairobi’s concrete tenements that are known in Nairobi simply as ‘flats.’ They dot the eastern part of Nairobi and host hundreds of thousands of people.

Just as a honeycomb is a messy labyrinth of bees weaving their way in and out of cubicles, so are these flats. Since they target low-income earners, they are usually comprise one-bedroom houses and single rooms, popularly known as ‘bedsitter.’

On Friday 29th April 2016, one such flat collapsed after a heavy downpour. The building had 198 rooms that were located on six floors. It was located in Nairobi’s densely populated Huruma Estate. After several days of rescue operations, 51 people were confirmed dead.

Three full days after the collapse on 3rd May 2016 at 4AM, a seven-month old baby was rescued alive from the rubble of the collapsed building. As baby’s usually do, during those three days, she must have cried for her mother’s milk that wasn’t forthcoming because her mother, Eunice Bosibori, was dead. Can you imagine this little angel stuck in the belly of concrete rubble for three days? 

Baby Dealeryn Saisi Wasike was found lying in a washing basin. She was later reunited with her father Ralson Wasike.

In subsequent months, a Presidential Directive established the National Building Inspectorate (NBI), a multi-sectoral agency that included the National Construction Authority. NBI proceeded to audit at least 4831 buildings and found that 650 of these buildings required immediate testing. 34 buildings, whose height ranged from four to seven floors were later demolished.

While some found this action to be too little too late, particularly for those who lost their lives, it was nonetheless a step in the right direction. What is however critical is for Nairobi’s extreme housing challenge to be addressed holistically.

It is now four years since that tragic collapse. I wonder if the survivors, like baby Saisi and her father, are now living in much safer houses. The reason they were living in the ill-fated building was because they could afford its rent that ranged between Ksh6,000 ($60) and Ksh10,000 ($100). Most of the houses available with such a budget are high-rise flats whose sheer size enables them to fit in dozens of rooms.

In 2015, my friend Numuhire from Rwanda visited me in Nairobi. When we went for lunch one afternoon, she gazed with curiosity at a residential flat. They didn’t have those in Rwanda. It was a novelty to her. It took me back to my primary school days when these buildings were practically non-existent. Among the few that were there at the time were Kariobangi South flats and California flats. They were however structurally sound and uniformly built. Back then, in the late eighties and early nineties, Nairobi’s population was approximately 1.3 million. Within a decade, it was almost double. Ten years later, it was triple. It is now almost 5 million. Despite this population explosion, there has been no grand housing plan.

Even birds construct nests into which they lay eggs and hatch those eggs into chicks. They build houses for their offspring before that offspring shows up. That’s nature’s way of tackling the habitat issue. Nairobi, on the other hand, doesn’t build habitation for its offspring. We wait for the chicks to hatch, imagining that somehow nests will materialize magically. What materialize are slums and structurally deficient high-rise buildings that end up collapsing like a pack of lethal cards. 

When that building collapsed in 2016, it collapsed on the quicksand of corruption and a deficiency of visionary housing leadership.

The only housing masterplan for low-income dwellers that Nairobi has actually implemented was back in the 1930s and 1940s by the colonial government. In 1939, the colonial administration constructed Shauri Moyo, the first ever public housing for the Africans in Nairobi. 81 years later, Shauri Moyo is still standing strong. One year later, Ziwani houses were constructed. They are also still standing strong 80 years later. More houses were constructed at Kaloleni in 1945, at Bahati in 1950, at Makadara in 1954, at Mbotela and Maringo in 1955, at Jerusalem in 1958 and at Jericho Lumumba in 1962.

It took Kenya more than ten years to build another housing estate. In the 1970s, the Nairobi City Commission built Umoja estate. Although this defunct City Commission and later the also defunct Nairobi City Council constructed more houses bring the total of Council owned houses to 16,632, there has never been a large scale implementation of a public or even public-private housing scheme. As a result, private players have taken it upon themselves to construct those massive flats in freestyle fashion.

The solution is simple. We need a low-income housing marshall plan that will provide affordable housing for millions of Nairobi residents who are either living in slums or the unsafe high-rise flats. Interestingly, the government previously took firm steps in this direction but faltered along the way.

In March 2012, then President Mwai Kibaki laid the foundation stone for the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP) that was supported by the UN-Habitat and several other donor organisations. Four years later, 822 houses in well-constructed, well-organized high-rise flats were handed over to Kibra residents. The project had cost Ksh2.9 billion ($29 million). The monthly rent to the government was highly subsidized, ranging from Ksh2,500 ($25) to Ksh4,600 ($46). Even better, this wasn’t just rent but was actually payment for ownership of the house after twenty-five years.

Unfortunately, many beneficiaries ended up sub-letting their houses to at much higher amounts to others who had not been slum dwellers.  Clearly, getting some people to actually move to more affordable housing and stay in them will not be a walk in the park. That’s why decisive leadership from the government and community leaders is critical if affordable housing is to ever become a reality in Nairobi. Any form of corruption at any level cannot be tolerated.

After all is said and done, we owe it to Baby Dealeryn Saisi Wasike to construct hundreds of thousands of decent affordable houses that her father can afford.

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