How to realize affordable housing in the ‘Big Four’ plan

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BY BENARD AYIEKO

The sequel on the ‘big four’ continues in this edition of the ‘Last Word’. It is the second article of the four-piece series that is offering unsolicited policy advise and proposals on how best the drivers of the ‘big four’ agenda can build and sustain affordable housing in the economy. Last month’s edition focused on Food Security – a key pillar in President Kenyatta’s ‘big four’ development agenda.

Housing is an interesting subject in developing countries. In Kenya for instance, the Constitution puts emphasis on the need for the government to guarantee all citizens the right to shelter (as well as food and access to emergency medical services). The Constitution in Chapter 4 under Article 43, sub-article 1 (a) guarantees every Kenyan economic and social rights by stating that, “Every person has the right to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation”.

It is therefore imperative to note that, three of the four ‘big four’ development plan have a direct link to our Constitution. That, among other factors, has made our Constitution to be among the most progressive and highly regarded legal documents in the world today.

Every Kenyan has a right to decent housing. Over the next five years, the government plans to build over 500,000 houses across the country to meet the ever-growing demand. To meet this target, the government hopes to forge strong partnerships with financial institutions, private developers, producers of building materials and more importantly, the cooperatives – Saccos have incorporated investment arms that help members to acquire land at an affordable price for home construction. In order to realize the 500,000 houses in five years – aimed at bridging the existing deficit of 250,000 units per year, the government will establish a National Social Housing Development Fund to augment the existing financing mechanisms to spur economic activities in the housing sector and additionally create alternative financing strategies to promote investments in low-cost housing and related social and physical infrastructure.

Overally, to achieve the low-cost housing agenda for Kenyans, there is need for the construction industry to embrace technological changes that will result in a mind-shift on the use of innovative products and services whose aggregate effect would be to lower the average cost of building. Despite the emergence of innovative construction materials, building a house in Kenya is still awfully expensive and a preserve of the rich.

Another key resource for realizing affordable housing would be land and by extension its optimal use. Land remains a scarce resource thus its availability and affordability especially in cities and major towns across the country – where the effects of poor housing facilities is largely felt, poses a major challenge to the construction of affordable houses for the urban dwellers. It is the single most expensive component of housing that needs to be addressed for the affordable housing plan to fly. Kenyans have resorted to buying plots at exorbitant prices because land is no longer a factor of production but a commodity for speculation.

In Nairobi where land prices have sky-rocketed significantly, there is need to make use of land in the neighbouring areas outside the metro region such as; Kitengela, Ruiru, Ngong, Kiserian, among others to put up low-cost houses. There will be need for consultations between the governors of the devolved units around the larger Nairobi Metropolitan area to come up with an efficient mass transport system linking the above areas to the city’s Central Business District to incentivize private sector investments in the greater metro region.

This model has worked very well in Europe particularly in Netherlands (with an efficient bus, tram or metro transport system) and closer home, Ethiopia is a perfect example where they have built a light rail system that connects Addis Ababa to the neighbouring towns where low-cost houses have been built. Due to the efficient mass transport system, Ethiopians are able to work in cities and towns but put-up kilometers away.

It is worth noting that the subject of affordable housing cannot be discussed without mentioning ancillary infrastructure. The national government must support infrastructural development in the greater metro region in collaboration with the neighbouring counties to encourage affordable housing projects by the private sector.

Finally, there is also the need to increase affordable credit to lift supply like it happened in the U.S. With an annual shortfall of 250,000 units, developing affordable housing is a straight forward way to lower prices and tap more Kenyans into the decent home ownership bracket. The yet-to-be-established National Social Housing Development Fund would play a key role here. It is every Kenyan’s dream to own a decent house and the next five years will either ignite or extinguish that dream.