Housing is a Human Rights Issue and not mere entrepreneurial venture

In the wake of proposed joint public – private partnership (PPPs) venture for Urban Renewal and Redevelopment of Old Estates in Mombasa County, there has been a debate on public housing in Kenya.  Urban Renewal and Redevelopment is a great initiative and indeed a duty of the County Governments in conjunction with Urban Management Boards. The issue at hand, however, is that housing is a human right and not mere entrepreneurial venture. As such there is a need for ventures such as that proposed by the County Government of Mombasa to fulfil rigorous public security and protect it from illegitimate private interests that may be deleterious to realizing the right to housing.

But this housing question is not just about brick and mortar. Rather, it is also about the dignity of residents of dilapidated low-income residential areas. Recent statistics from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics cite the source of statistics suggest that on sanitation, pit latrines remain the predominant technology at 75% (up from 72% in 1999), 66% Kenyans have access to safe drinking water sources (30% piped water and 36% boreholes/spring/well) and 23% have access to electricity About 3 million of the 8.7 million houses (34%) are made of stone and brick walls in equal proportions.

Under such conditions, there is a compelling need for the authorities to act urgently in improving conditions of currently low-income houses. Yet, the Constitution defines stringent mechanisms for such undertakings. Housing right as defined in Article 43(b)… to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation… is a function of the county government. The state and its organs have a fundamental duty to observe, respect, protect, promote and fulfil rights and fundamental freedoms. It is called upon to take legislative, policy and other measures, including the setting of standards, to achieve the progressive realization of the rights. In our devolved structure, the County Governments in major cities like Nairobi and Mombasa Counties were established in a context of previous investment in public housing. Public houses such as those in Old Estates, are part of the assets that were handed over to the county government after March 2013. But the key question is- Do all counties and more so Mombasa that has proposed public-private venture have an adequate inventory of its current public housing stock? Prior to making a move such as that proposed by the County of Mombasa, there is a need that such an inventory be made public.

Second, there are questions of process. If we agree that public housing is part of public asset holding to be found in the inventory of county government, then it follows that Urban Renewal or Redevelopment process must involve public participation. The County government of Mombasa, prior to making an invitation for potential partners ought to have presented their proposal to the public for input and concurrence.  The provisions of Right to Public participation requires of the County government of Mombasa to undertake all  reasonable measures  to ensure that as many of  the county residents in particular and the Kenyans, in general, are aware of such an important aspect of the right to housing and disposal of public  assets.

Third, the public needs to be convinced that PPPs is the best option.  After the introduction of structural adjustment programme in the mid-1980s, there was a gradual shift in the role of the government from direct low-income housing developer to that of working with and facilitating the development of housing by private entities. But this policy direction was based on the fiction that the private sector is more efficient in production and distribution of housing and other social goods. To the contrary, the public sector had not failed. Rather, it had been captured by selfish interests and wringed off its capacity to perform. But the constitution reserved this hegemony of the private sector and suggested much more role for the public and pro-poor housing development approaches, which focus on community organizations and personal empowerment in ensuring the creation of small-scale economic activities.
This is why the national treasury has developed a stringent mechanism for joint ventures such as that proposed by Mombasa County. Such a venture cannot be undertaken without a review and appraisal by the PPPs Board. The question is- does such an appraisal report exist for the proposed project in Mombasa? If it does, it should be made public.
To respond to the housing question in Mombasa and other urban areas, county governments are best placed to support land reforms that can expand and improve infrastructural facilities and services and to improve financial capabilities, community participation in the production of housing and establishment of low-income Housing Funds. This should be in addition to ensuring proper management and maintenance of existing public housing stock through enforcement of relevant national guidelines. From the foregoing, a successful urban renewal programme would be assessed on the extent to which it takes forward the idea of a right to housing and transformative governance envisaged in our Constitution.


The Author is Executive Director of Pamoja Trust and can be reached at souma@pamojatrust.org

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