• Irungu Houghton

Elect governors who can fix housing mess in our towns


By Robyn T. Emerson and Irũngũ Houghton


With the Government reporting to the UN General Assembly, Nairobi hosting the first pan African Housing Forum this week and thousands of aspirants formulating manifestos, it seems an important time to reflect on our national progress of delivering the right to housing for all and how we could accelerate this right.


There is nothing more important than a home of our own. Article 43.1 (a) of the constitution declares we all have the right to accessible and adequate housing. Despite this constitutional standard, 60 per cent of Kenyan voters live in informal settlements and are denied access to safe water and sanitation. Subjected to the indignity of poor-quality housing, overcrowding and the risk of forced evictions, they and 238 million other people across Africa must see the promise of dignified and affordable housing as a mirage rather than a mirror of African government’s commitments.


Building 500,000 houses has been one of the big four policy promises of the Jubilee administration for the last five years. Recently the Kenya Government reported to the UN General Assembly that it had built 6,000 housing units with over half of those for police officers, prison wardens and civil servants. Transport Cabinet Secretary has also publicly declared the Government has reached the 200,000 mark. Fact-checking aside, unless the Government builds at least 300,000 homes in the next ten weeks, the Jubilee Administration’ pillar will not be met. Why is housing for all so elusive then?


While challenges are many, three critical obstacles stand out. The cost of construction and land remains too high, county governments have ignored physical planning and construction approvals remain bureaucratic and prone to corruption. With 80 per cent of construction materials imported, excess duties are simply too high. Given the limited fiscal space facing the next national administration, subsidising public housing may continue to be a challenge. Is it time to look at reducing taxes as a way of stimulating this sector’s contribution to economic growth?


Incoming governors must intentionally audit and reform physical planning, zoning, and approval laws and procedures within the first one hundred days. It is astonishing that Nairobi is the only county with an established master plan and zoning regulations. Despite this, the capital city sprawls uncontrollably. Wards with clear zoning regulations that prohibit the building of apartment buildings higher than four floors are now the nightmare poster for vertical cities. Here it is possible to find massage parlours, light factories, schools, bars, and homes in one-kilometre square area.


Perhaps those that come to govern us can declare their intentions to set aside one building for all licencing agencies and an online transparent approval and accountability system. Dirty “wash wash” money in malls, hotels and apartments is also responsible for driving up the costs of land, another obstacle undermining affordability.


At the risk of being accused of campaigning for certain candidates, given the looming disaster of our towns and cities, perhaps voters should elect only governors and deputy governors from the built environment. At least, could we demand they declare a strategy for transforming urban centres before we vote for them. Any architects, urban planners or surveyors reading this?


Kenya is not alone. Africa remains the region with the largest affordability gap in the world. Mortgage financing remains out of reach for many and less than 15 per cent of Africa’s urban population today, can afford to purchase houses built by developers. This week, 700 very diverse delegates from across Africa challenged governments, businesses, and development actors to collaboratively deliver inclusive housing strategies for marginalised communities and promote innovative financial models in line with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Slum settlement upgrading and secure tenure, reduced construction costs, increasing public participation and regulatory policy enforcement is the only path to inclusive, liveable, climate-resilient, and sustainable towns and cities. Housing policy reform and investment is key to this.


Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and Robyn T. Emerson is the Africa Housing Forum Manager, Habitat for Humanity. They write in their personal capacities. Email: Irungu.houghton@amnesty.or.ke and REmerson@habitat.org


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 14 May 2022


For more on

The Government of Kenya's New Urban Agenda report to the UN General Assembly, April 2022 see here

The First Habitat for Humanity Africa Housing Forum 2022 see here