Do Slum Dwellers Need Skycrapers?

Published on 11th April 2005
It has always been said that man\'s basic requirements are food, clothing and shelter. Responding to the latter, the Kenya government is engaged in an ambitious program of building \"formal\" houses for the slum population. The strategy is to provide low cost housing for the low-income families.

The project, though well intentioned, raises disturbing questions. Will the intended target groups enjoy its fruits in this era of grand corruption? How many years will it take for the target population to benefit? I see entertainment venues having grass-thatched huts; bamboo walls etc. could it be a far cry to allow the rural into the urban? Could it be a reminder that we are going for what we should not pursue? Were the slum residents asked for their house preferences? Perhaps the government\'s commitment would have been signaled by allowing the slum residents to occupy the Nyayo (NYS) houses along Thika Road – but are these the houses we should be pursuing? Carl –Olof Selenius and Santos Joas in Informal Settlements: Un-exploited Opportunities for Rural and Urban Development intimate that if we have a common interest in bridging the divide between formal and informal dwellers for their mutual benefit, much more needs to be done than waiting for the day when informal settlements will be formalized.

The prevalence of metal sheet houses in Kibera and Mukuru slums for example is an indication of how popular this building material is. Dismissing it wholesale is like forcing a Luo to stop eating fish, a favorite relish.

Metal sheet houses take a short time to construct unlike the ambitious programs that take years. They also use limited space allowing a bigger house with more rooms to be built at an even lower cost. They allow a constructor to exploit his own ingenuity that saves the cost on architects, engineers and various artisans. The houses can also be wrapped up and be built in another location.

Critics of such houses cite the fire hazard due to the textile and wooden framework therein. This is accelerated by the use of paraffin or gas stores and lamps from which fire can spread to cooking oil or fittings after a slight carelessness. This is a challenge to the government or private initiatives to install electricity in such houses. It is also a challenge for the entrepreneurs to come up with affordable solar cookers. Vulnerability to burglary is touted as prevalent in such settlements. It should not be a reason for nowadays, even if one is behind heavy rock and steel doors, the threat of petrol-bombing a house makes the owner to willingly open it for robbery.

Accusations for unprofessional constructions, excessive heat in hot weather and the opposite in cold weather are a challenge to our highly skilled architects and engineers. They should take an interest in metal sheets and develop models that can regulate temperature and be appealing. After all people in Japan live in cardboard houses that are still appealing and convenient.

The Government should seriously embark on an affordable housing program without relegating need for water, toilets, hygiene, security and accessibility to basic services to the periphery. It should make use of a private partnership program to facilitate speed.

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