NAIROBI - In Kenya, towns and cities are growing fast. It’s estimated at least 100,000 people move per year from their rural homes to the capital Nairobi in search of opportunities. The urban growth has led to a high housing demand with the Ministry of Housing estimating at least 200,000 new housing units are needed each year to meet the shortage.
Nairobi is getting overcrowded, short of homes, space and, for the newcomers, it’s short of hope.
Population boom, need for housing
The city is growing rapidly. The 2009 population census shows more than three million people lived in the capital, and two thirds of that number reside in ghettos where there is no running water, electricity and proper drainage systems.
The throngs of smiling, neatly dressed men and women on the streets hides that fact that the city’s majority is not happy with where they reside.
Irene Njeri, 22, lives in a single room with her son. She said her main concern is their health.
"Like right now it’s raining, there is poor drainage and because of overcrowding, in one plot you have one bathroom and one latrine so all of you are using that," she explained. "So you find you are more vulnerable to cholera, typhoid, malaria."
Poor living conditions, inspection corruption
William Wachira said he thinks the inadequate housing can be blamed on corrupt officials from the department of planning and housing.
He noted, for example, in the house where he stays, the bathroom is not to standard and he has to share with other tenants. When the health inspectors come, they don’t address the problem, but instead order the tenants to move out if they don’t pay a bribe.
Tom Odongo, the city head in charge of urban planning, land and housing, admits there is a problem when inspecting the quality of the houses being built. But he said that is about to change, as his department will start doing the inspections - unlike before where they hired people to do it for them.
"What we have created in planning compliance and enforcement directorate is actually what response to this [poor housing inspection]. It means that from the previous time we were using the private sector consultants to be our agents sometimes for carrying out inspections because of inadequate capacity internally," he said. "What now it means is that we will be able to have adequate capacity to carry out those inspections ourselves."
Demand high for quality housing
Quality is only part of the problem. Quantity is increasingly an issue with hundreds of thousands of new housing units needed annually.
The demand for housing is so high that it contributes to shoddy building and disproportionately high rents with some private home developers taking advantage of a desperate population who will take anything to have a roof over their heads.
Odongo said the city government is now taking this seriously and has a plan. He says in the next 15 years they will build enough publicly-owned houses for the need and improve standards by imposing stiffer penalties on builders who ignore codes or health standards.
"There has been a challenge on enforcement because of weak legislation which only fine people 100,000 shillings [$1,150] which is very easy for violators to pay. But what we are trying to do now is to change the course by involving people in the process of designing a new vision for development of the city we are coming up with something that citizens own," Odongo said. "And with ownership then it will be easy for us to navigate the process of urban development because people do something that they have themselves designed."
In October, Kenya is expected to host an African housing conference where government officials, private property owners, and financiers will deliberate the challenges, opportunities and ways to provide a good housing to its citizens.
Rael Ombour in Nairobi contributed to this report.