By Henry Neondo
In the next few days, the Ministry of Housing will begin the process of ridding Kenya’s cities and urban centres of bad image the slums have come to portray them.
Nothing paints the complete picture of inequality in the housing sector among Kenyans than slums.
According to Isaack Shaban, Assistant Minister for Local Government, “nothing characterises over-supply of houses for the well to do and under-supply of the less fortunate than slums”.
This, he says, points out to high costs of materials in the construction industry that bars majority of the less fortunate from affording to put up decent homes, hence mashrooming of slums.
But the sad scenario about the slums is that it has taken the government so long to recognise their presence.
The result, absence of all services provision like water, sewer, sanitation, lighting, streets, schools, name them.
All these have led to high incidence of crime--like burglary, theft, muggings and acts of arson. Then there are many incidents of curable and preventable diseases and illnesses like TB, HIV and acute respiratory infections.
Slums have in effect provided classical examples for every Tom, Dick and Harry of sociologists to write grant-winning proposals and have their bellies filled.
But underneath all these negative issues are real people who strive to make their ends meet.
They constitute 70 per cent of urban dwellers and also over 50 per cent of urban labour.
They live in environments they cannot improve.
Located informally, they are devoid of any land tenure security. To begin with, people who live in slums have no legal documents to prove ownership of the places they occupy.
They pay five times higher for water than the privileged individuals in upmarket estates. They are lucky if they could have a neighbour owning a telly, let alone electricity.
For health services, one cannot be too sure of the nearby clinic, often shelved with expired drugs and dispensed by high school dropouts who never saw a gate of a medical institution.
It is an irony that while many people leave their rural homes for the cities expecting a better life, in Kenya, the same people are shocked to find a life of drudgery and dire poverty, increased vulnerability to violent crime, and limited employment opportunities – a life devoid of hope and comfort.
According to UN-Habitat’s publication The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, most of these migrant people, usually women, end up living in urban slums, the victims of a phenomenon now known as the “feminisation of urban poverty”.
According to the report, in a rapidly urbanising world, women suffer most.
In slums and shanty settlements, it is women who bear the burden of raising children under the most difficult of conditions.
It is women who walk miles every day to get clean water – an average of three miles – carrying on their heads an average of 20 kilos (about 45 pounds) of water every day.
It is women who are constantly under threat of eviction, having no secure home for themselves and their families.
It is women who endure the indignities and dangers of unhygienic toilets, shared by hundreds; women who are the most vulnerable to crime and violence; women who are inordinately affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as both victims and care-givers.
Especially important among slum dwellers is the large number of women-headed households . UN-Habitat estimates 30 per cent of slum homes are headed by women.
These women must take care of their children and run their households, making them generally less mobile than men.
They are also usually less educated than men, and these realities combine to limit their income-earning opportunities. As a result, women-headed households generally suffer more from poverty, malnutrition and disease.
Because of their lower incomes, women have narrower housing choices and are usually excluded from holding land title deeds , either through legal means or cultural traditions.
Yet it is still common practice to require a male signatory on any property deal that might be made by a woman – making the land or house legally his and severely restricting the ability of poor women to establish themselves economically.
Kenyan laws indirectly still impede the rights of women to own land or to take mortgages in their own names.
The eleventh United Nations Millennium Development Target (Under Goal 7) of achieving significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020 indicates a strong consensus on the part of the international community that adequate shelter is a fundamental human right.
Many policy approaches to slums and to housing for the urban poor in general have been tested during recent decades.
They range from formal public housing programmes, through passively ignoring or actively harassing men and women in slums, to interventions aimed at protecting the rights of slum dwellers and helping them to improve their incomes and living environments.
According to the UN-Habitat, cities are still practising many of the approaches to slums that were in use decades ago.
Approaches employed even more than a hundred years ago are still seen today, such as the use of summary eviction and slum clearance – a 19th century practice in European cities and elsewhere that can still be witnessed today with added practices of acts of arson intended to evict people.
And as the Ministry of Housing, through the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) embarks on ensuring that affordable, decent houses are provided to slum dwellers, efficient provision of the same ought to be in place.
A recent study by UN-Habitat concludes that there is no particular case favouring either public or private housing provision, in terms of efficient production or management.
Appropriately configured, not-for-profit producers can (and do) perform as efficiently and effectively as private producers, and actually enjoy an advantage in times of housing shortages or national trauma.
However, it seems difficult to provide public housing without encountering corruption, political interference, inefficiency, inflexibility, unfair allocation and extensive delays as the recently witnessed for the Kibera slum decanting project launched last week.
Perhaps, the Sh488 million available for slum housing are not enough to make more than a dent in the slum housing problem – and it is very clear that long-term government commitment would be needed for KENSUP to be felt.
Upgrading consists of regularization of the rights to land and housing and improving the existing infrastructure, such as the availability of water, sanitation, storm drainage and electricity.
Typical upgrading projects as witnessed elsewhere in the globe provide footpaths and latrines, street lighting, drainage and roads, and often water supply and limited sewerage.
Usually upgrading does not involve home construction, since the residents can do this for themselves, but instead offers loan options for home improvements.
This in Kenya would however be a challenge as the slum dwellers lack collateral needed by most banks.
The way out probably would be for slum dwellers to heed advice by the Minister for Housing, Soita Shitanda that they form cooperatives through which loans could be accessed.
Other actions for slum upgrading include the removal of environmental hazards, providing incentives for community management and maintenance, as well as the construction of clinics and schools. Tenure rights are usually given to the slum occupants.
Those who must be moved to make way for infrastructure may be given new sites on which to build.
Upgrading has significant advantages. It is not only an affordable alternative to clearance and relocation (which costs up to 10 times more than upgrading), but it also minimizes the disturbance to the social and economic life of the community.
The results of upgrading are immediate, highly visible, and make a significant difference in the quality of life of the urban poor.
The progression of slum upgrading, dealing with the issues of secure titles and economic development in slums, require the involvement of slum dwellers, not only in the construction aspects of slum improvement, but also in the decision making and design processes that establish priorities for action.