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Housing the nation

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The world habitat day is soon coming and Malawi will join other countries on earth in celebrating the day citing various achievements that have been made in the sector.

On this day too the United Nations local habitat office ( UNCHS – HABITAT) will put up a statement where they will give various statistics on housing, saying that about two-third of our urban population lives under squalor conditions and they issue yet another warning that our population growth is increasing at an alarming rate and that in particular the rural/urban migration is one of the highest in the world and that just around the corner, maybe in 2030, our country population will be over 30 million.

The current demand for housing in the urban areas is well over 25,000 units per annum for the next 20 years. Assuming that each three bedroom unit, like Nkolokosa type E4 costs K9 million, this would cost K225 billion per annum. Due to unfriendly economic conditions which have made building and maintenance of housing units expensive coupled with an element of mismanagement by so-called democratic political regimes, it has become not financially viable to build housing units and maintain existing units in the manner this was being done in the seventies and eighties.

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Alarming rates of general population increase and a concerning rate of rural to urban population migration resulting in conditions of urban squalor and general urban poverty are well-known facts to the authorities and such information would not be news at all as we have heard it so many times before but as a country despite taking heed of such warnings, we do not know what to do even though we have the capacity to develop the necessary policies to address such challenges and solve our housing problems.

Yes, we do have the capacity in terms of human resources and also the financial resources such that if we banged our heads together, we would not need to go outside at all to borrow as we can solve all our housing challenges. Yes, we do take heed of the warnings from the United Nations or anyone else and we have undertaken several housing programmes to address such challenges including restarting the establishment of rural growth centres which started during Hastings Kamuzu Banda days but had been abandoned for lack of funding. The main thing is that we are poor and housing is not a priority as this would require massive investment.

The government official agents in the housing sector which implement housing policy are the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC), the local authorities and, unfortunately, central government itself through the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. It is unfortunate because central government is supposed to initiate standards and then police them. At the moment, central government is implementing various shelter programmes as well setting standards and policing them, and doing a very bad job at all that, thus competing with its own agents and its own private sector. This could be the main reason that our built environment is in such chaotic state. Both the local authorities and MHC have financial challenges emanating from poor funding, corruption and sheer mismanagement. But between the two, the local authorities are better placed in terms of funds as they are funded by government though various mechanisms like the Constituency Development Fund and Local Development Fund. In addition to these sources of finance, local government may have other sources of financing like local taxation and direct financing from central government. MHC on the other hand is in an awkward position. The obvious source is rental income from its properties and sale proceeds of plots and houses. But it has not got a freehand in increasing rentals because that is controlled by government and it cannot dispose of its housing stock because even that is controlled by government. In fact, one of the land laws that were recently passed was meant to allow MHC to operate independent of the government but even that was seen to be impossible as they could not implement revised rentals. In any case, existence of MHC makes very little real impact on the housing scene at present. It may own 6,000 housing units in total and if one assumes that a family consists of seven people, then only 42,000 people would enjoy sheltered housing out of a population of about 17 million. One would wonder as to how special those 42,000 people are to warrant such protection from the state.

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MHC is cash-strapped and is in huge debts but despite that, it is too bloated and one wonders what such a large contingent of staff does when MHC has built so few units and has developed so few plots over recent years. This could lead one to conclude that MHC is extremely inefficient. If the organisation is cash-strapped, would it be able to implement government policy on housing? Obviously not. Is there a housing policy anyway? I hear there is one but has been in draft form for over 15 years. Are we then serious about housing as the nation? Yes, we may be but we seem to be very confused at the moment.

MHC has earned a bad name due to its inactivity. Quite a number of people are unhappy about the organisation as it has continuously stated that it will build both housing units and plots but it has failed to. Last time I heard them say they were going to build 2,5000 housing units in five years! Really? It is now over three years since they said that and all they have built is about three or four houses in Blantyre and another two or three in Lilongwe. Wow! Great progress indeed!

My take is that housing is very much a local issue. As one would not expect housing challenges in Chitipa to be solved by a bunch of professionals at Kwacha in Blantyre, the local authority in Chitipa would be best to handle Chitipa housing challenges. MHC could exist only to render professional advice to local authorities. The days when MHC used to build Nkolokosa, Chinyonga, Area 18, Katoto etc are gone. It is now so pathetic that we as a country would save a lot of money and effort if it closed down immediately. Its assets, housing units, etc can easily be transferred to the local authorities and hosing units could be sold off to sitting tenants and the public after they transferred traditional housing areas to local authorities ages ago and the local authorities seem to be doing a good job at managing them. This country may be the only one on the African continent that implements housing in the manner it is done as elsewhere housing is very much a local issue and local government is the main implementing agency of housing policy. The other advantage is that this would decentralise the housing function in total to local authorities and it would be easier to oversea and control.

This would entail selling or transferring to local authorities all so-called treasury housing units, completely devolving government of housing functions only leaving them to manage government office buildings and institutional housing. Such a move would auger well with the decentralisation policy and law and it would make a lot of sense as local government is headed by elected officials as opposed to appointed ones. It is much better to do this now than to wait for some international consultant to tell us to do exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, let us consult about raising finance locally for the purposes of solving the challenges as put by the United Nations and our own people. Local sourcing of finance is very possible and would be cheaper than foreign financing. There are many levies that could be deployed for housing services. Local and cheaper financing is key to housing delivery and the various options ought to be explored rather than engaging in expensive joint ventures from which we end up being bruised.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that we have to do the following things if we have to address shelter challenges in our country, especially the urban centres; otherwise, the disorder and chaos shall continue.

These are as follows: maintain MHC as it is but leave it alone without any outside interference at all as the law says so that it can operate like any other developer; or close it down completely and save public funds. As I suggested earlier, it is feasible to transfer all the assets of MHC to local authorities and let the sitting tenants and the public buy their housing units; central government through the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development should refrain from all housing functions like developing site and service schemes and selling plots, managing housing units, doing surveys and valuations as these can best be done by the private sector instead they should concentrate on setting standards and policing them and approving surveys, development plans etc so that our built environment can return to its original order and beauty.

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