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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 2 - 1999 - Construction and Architecture (HABITAT, 1999, 60 p.)
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View the documentSustainable Architecture: A Definition
View the documentBuilding Homes to Build Local Economies
View the documentAffordable Housing: The Kenyan Experience
View the documentTowards Gender-sensitive Architecture
View the documentHow Urban Design Can Support Children's Rights
View the documentA Cross-Sectoral Approach to Housing for Older People

Affordable Housing: The Kenyan Experience

by Tara Chana


© UNCHS/P.Wambu

“We reaffirm our commitment to the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing, as provided for in international instruments. In this context, we recognize an obligation by Governments to enable people to obtain shelter and to protect and improve dwellings and neighbourhoods. We commit ourselves to the goal of improving living and working conditions on an equitable and sustainable basis, so that everyone will have adequate shelter that is healthy, safe, secure, accessible and affordable and that includes basic services, facilities and amenities, and will enjoy freedom from discrimination in housing and legal security of tenure. We shall implement and promote this objective in a manner fully consistent with human rights standards.”

Chapter III: Commitments, Paragraph 39, Habitat Agenda.

Kenya is one of the many developing countries in Africa that made the above commitment at the City Summit held in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996. It is three years now that the Habitat Agenda, with all its commitments and global plan of action, was adopted for implementation by Governments. Affordable and adequate housing continues to be a goal and a dream for many urban and rural poor families not only in Kenya but most developing economies of the world.

Why has this oldest and basic human goal not been achieved so far? Will this dream be realized in the new millennium? Many answers and solutions have been proposed and implemented. Most of them have failed, while a few best practices give hope to fulfil the above commitment. These best practices in many countries show strong linkages between community participation and affordable housing through implementation of sustainable architectural and construction programmes and projects, especially for the urban poor. Some of these best practices in Kenya include the Dandora Community Development Project; Undugu Boys Housing; and Voi Settlement Housing/Land Programme. These, however, remain few and far as the majority of the urban and rural poor continue to live in inadequate dwellings and on land with no or limited security of tenure.

Many agricultural communities in many villages and rural centers in Kenya have built affordable rural housing over the past century. Unaffordable urban housing, on the other hand, continues to be a dilemma and challenge facing many communities and local authorities in towns and cities. Almost 75 per cent of the total population living and working in rural areas has access to their own dwellings built by themselves individually or collectively on farms and settlement schemes using locally available materials and resources. The other 25 per cent of the total population living and working in rapidly growing towns and cities has limited or no access to its own adequate and affordable dwellings. Almost 60 per cent of this urban population lives in poverty and in unplanned and uncontrolled settlements, where basic services, facilities and amenities do no exist.

There are many reasons why the provision of affordable and adequate housing for urban and rural communities continues to be a challenge.

Some of these reasons are closely linked to:

· Lack of commitment and capacity to implement national and local sustainable social and economic policies/strategies/programmes/plans of action and projects, including in the urban development and housing sectors. Many housing policies, strategies, programmes and plans have been developed by the relevant Ministries (including the Ministry of Public Works and Housing and local authorities, but either due to macro economic or micro social/governance factors, these well-intentioned plans and projects are inadequately implemented, resulting in misuse of limited resources.

· Poverty and low incomes of many urban families has forced them to live and work in slums in many towns and cities of Kenya, especially Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, Nyeri and Eldoret. Most of these families live in slums and unplanned urban settlements, where they can only afford to rent very inadequate dwellings often built on illegally owned land.

· Rapid urbanization, which is crippling many local authorities, is posing new problems of land scarcity. In turn, “land grabbing” by powerful leaders and unscrupulous business people often working in collusion with corrupt officials in most towns and cities, is posing new threats to the physical and natural environment.

· Land is not only scarce in urban centres but it is also inadequately serviced with water, sewerage, roads and electricity networks, which are basic to any sustainable human settlement development. Many large-scale (e.g. World Bank assisted) and small-scale (e.g. German GTZ assisted) urban infrastructure projects have been implemented but they have had insignificant impact compared to the growing urban infrastructure needs and local authority capacities.

· Since Kenya gained independence in 1963 housing finance has been a major constraint to the provision of affordable and adequate urban and rural housing. Many development assistance agencies (multi-lateral, e.g. World Bank and UNCHS-Habitat and bilateral, e.g. CDC/DfID) have provided financial and technical assistance to the Government of Kenya to solve this critical resource constraint at the national and local levels, including establishing effective Housing Finance Institutions (HFIs). Housing Finance of Kenya Company Limited (HFCK), now a privatized parastatal, with all its well intentioned finance packages has only been able to partially meet the housing finance needs of the high and middle income groups. No HFI (private, parastatal and public) has successfully developed and sustained an affordable low-income housing programme/project based on realistic housing finance strategy.

· The construction industry, including the building materials sector, has through a well-developed formal network of private contractors, only met the needs of a minority of the urban rich while the needs of the majority urban poor have been met by informal “jua kali”1 sector builders and developers. The formal construction industry is well serviced with highly qualified architects, engineers, planners and quantity surveyors, who provide the necessary professional technical support skills, to high and middle income investors and developers. The informal “jua kali” construction industry, on the other hand, has limited access to resource inputs, such as materials, plant, equipment and professional support services.

· Building and planning legislation, in the past four decades has been reviewed from time to time using national and international experts, including the Housing and Building Research Institute (HABRI). However, many city and small town local authorities have not successfully or adequately incorporated improved and appropriate planning and building standards. This time lag in the legislative and administrative reform process has often resulted in many low-income families not having greater access to affordable housing since many old planning and building codes and standards were not suitable for promoting sustainable housing and human settlements projects for the urban poor.

· Community participation in provision of affordable and adequate urban housing has met with varying success depending upon many factors. These include inter alia: the control and distribution of resource inputs (land, finance, materials, technology and human resources); level of effective community participation (people and local authority councilors) in decision/policy making, project planning/design, implementation, management and maintenance; and transparency and accountability in project management by NGOs, CBOs, communities and local authorities. Greater and effective participation by the urban poor in low-income housing projects has tremendous potential in the development of affordable and sustainable housing options.

In conclusion, what are the lessons that can be learnt from the Kenyan experience in the provision of affordable and adequate housing, especially for the urban poor? There are many useful and relevant lessons from this experience over the past four decades, which if given the necessary will and the enabling environment, can be utilized in future sustainable housing and human settlements development programmes and projects.

Some of these lessons include:

· Affordable and adequate housing can be provided to ensure sustainability if there is effective and efficient community participation in the housing process from policy formulation to home management

· Building and planning legislation needs to be harmonized quickly by local authorities. The social and economic realities of the urban poor, who do not have control over and access to much critical resource inputs such as land, materials and finance, have to be taken into account in order to increase supply of affordable housing through upgrading programmes and projects.

· The informal “jua kali” sector of the construction industry can be mobilized through appropriate technical and financial capacity-building programmes to increase productivity and quality in the delivery of affordable and sustainable housing for the urban poor.

· Housing finance mechanisms and institutions can be developed through community-based organizations, which have to be transparent and accountable to target urban poor families participating in the provision of affordable and adequate housing for themselves.

· Land grabbing in cities and towns, especially where the urban poor live and work, must be eliminated.

· Housing policies and strategies must be implemented in time and with adequate resources being provided to local authorities and communities to build and manage their own affordable housing projects in order to meet the goal of adequate shelter for all.

Tara Chana is currently a field co-ordinator in Dohuk, Northern Iraq, supporting UNCHS (Habitat)'s operations.


1. “Jua kali” in Kiswahili literally means “hot sun”, in reference to the conditions under which informal sector entrepreneurs operate - outdoors and without any physical structure protecting them from the sun. In recent years, however, Kenya has made a concerted effort to acknowledge and regularize this growing sector, which is considered one of the largest sources of employment among the urban poor in the country's larger cities and towns.