Possible gentrification undertones in President Ruto’s housing fund drive?

The current Government of Kenya 2023/2024 Budget awaiting third reading in parliament has elicited mixed reactions from the masses. Those who favor the current regime informedly or otherwise support the budget entirely. The Azimio la Umoja bridagde however faults it almost entirely. Whatever factions have come out of the budget issue has been largely political which then masks possible non-political yet useful look at the bill in entirety such as checking its possibility to further gentrification.

Before the parliamentary budget and oversight committee restreated to consider comments from public participation, talks of passing the budget without amending a comma was nearly deafening. On the other side, the opposition faction put the government on high alert should it go ahead and force down what they consider as an anti-people’s budget down the throat of Kenyans. The housing fund got a new name, housing levy and cut on payslip lowered from 3% to 1.5%. But then what exactly awaits should the housing element in the bill carry the day? 

A close look at housing situation in Kenya

Kenya has been on a fast urbanizing trajectory with formerly small markets quickly gaining the status and others becoming cities like Nakuru city. In fact, slightly under 30% of Kenyans now live in somewhat urban environments away from their ancestral rural homes.

As many may recognize, traditional agrarian livelihoods have received a beating forcing the youth to travel to urban areas in pursuit of alternatives. It’s here that the majority youth end up in urban and peri-urban shanties like Mathare, Gomongo, Dandora, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Mukuru Kwa Reuben and Kibera among others. 

Slum settlements in kenya

We may argue for a whole day about what really pushes so many people to live under the indignity of life in slums of Kenya but that won’t take away the indignity they endure. You can almost feel the struggle of a young, ambitious man in his mid or late 20s trying to start a living from the tin walled shanties in Kibera. Up to five children sharing a single tin walled shelter with parents. There’s completely no privacy here which further complicates the life of the young children who would have changed the fate of their households-if the environment were better. 

If you talk to any person who had to start life right from down, they have a story of their life in informal settlements. The story won’t miss the indignity of lacking toilets, clean water and drainage systems. People literally have to dodge raw sewage and put up with the foul smell from open sewers. This has been the case for years and as the country’s population keeps increasing at nearly 2% each year, more people will end up in such environments further complicating efforts to solve it once and for all. 

Mid-level and high level estates in Kenya

The best places in Kenya to get a practical look at the divide of social class when it comes to housing is cities and towns. Take the case of Nairobi city for example, when one mentions Kitusuru, Kileleshwa, Hurligham, Karen, or Muthaiga, it’s no brainer than that of a super rich person. Such estates belong to the league of movers and shakers in Kenya whose monthly income exceeds the average payslip balance of a couple of civil servants. 

On the other hand, those in the average economic class that could be working or doing their businesses opt for middle income earner estates like Pipeline, Kasarani, Roysambu, LuckySummer, Sunton, Hunters and so forth. In such estates, people pay average monthly rent and the houses have basic amenities like water, sewage and waste management. 

Middle level estate residents may struggle from time to time paying up their bills but then catch up each time. In bad months or after economic shocks many tenants vacate their houses, default in rent or downgrade.

The housing situation in Kenya at a glance

Whether living in the rural settings or any of the three listed categories of urban settlements, a vast majority of Kenyans have some form of roof over their heads. You may be wondering what such a talk means when we still have street families in Kenya. But that’s a whole different topic because street families do not necessarily lack houses or people to accommodate them. 

In many developed countries such as Sweden, Denmark or even in the USA, new tenants have to make arrangements way ahead of time before relocating. Prospective tenanats in such countries get encouraged to sign up and be on the waiting list forapartments of choice.

In a sharp contrast, you can today leave your home and get a rental house within the same day. Travel to Kisumu or Nairobi in the morning and you have a rental to your name by evening. This points at a situation here housing supply is in excess already.. As Kwame Owino puts it, the housing tax or whatever name it goes by is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Acording to him, the country already has excess supply of houses.

As Kwameh explains in his recent economic angle diagnosis of the housing levy, President William Ruto’s government puruses vanity. He points out that the regime wants to solve an income problem byinventing a housing problem that never existed. There seems to be some sense in such sentiments. Does someone with an adequate income and reliable job expect a good salary choose to live in Kibera? 

Could President William Ruto’s housing levy result in gentrification?

Not long from now, we had the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme. This program’s key focus was to provide decent housing for the slum population. A couple of high-rise units were developed in Kibera but to date, information on the true occupants remains unclear.

Any person bitten before has to think twice when the government floats an idea. From the face value, the idea seems such a lofty one but may be ladden with snake oil. Accusations and counter accusations have been made concerning who benefitted from the upgrade program. All we can tell is that the poor Kibera dwellers continue their squalor life in the shanties.

Looking at the pattern of land allocation intended to accommodate the housing projects, we may be tempted to see it as another encroachment into slum areas, improving them but with a possible net effect of displacing current residents. With those in the neighborhood not having the financial muscle to move in to the new houses, only having informal jobs and therefore not able to contribute the 1.5% levy for the housing, maybe they will need to move elsewhere in years to come. 

Fredrick Awino

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