In August scores of residents from Kawale and Mchesi informal settlements in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, invaded open land reserved for future expansion of the Central Region’s main referral health facility, Kamuzu Central Hospital. The occupants justified their action by claiming that existing institutional, political, administrative and legal structures in the country had failed to address their housing needs, before heavily armed police booted them off the land.
A lack of proper housing, especially for the country’s poor, has become a contentious issue in Malawi. Lack of political has consigned the majority of the country’s urban population to substandard dwelling conditions.
In Malawi’s four major cities, building a house in the formal sector is expensive. Many residents are unable to access decent rental homes, due to high rental prices and lack of financing options, leading many to live in informal settlements, which house the majority of the urban population. Residents find themselves in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions in slum settlements, with limited or no access to water, sanitation, affordable transport, education, energy and law and order.
Government’s laissez-faire approach to development planning and political patronage has brought chaos to the urban space with people invading all types of open spaces, from roads to forest reserves, to build houses, according to Mtafu Zeleza Manda, a senior Planning lecturer at Mzuzu University and Director at the Urban Research and Advocacy Centre (URAC). “Disenfranchised landless people see land diminishing and just opt for land invasion as a coping mechanism,” he says.
Malawi’s urban population has grown from 6.4 percent in 1966 to 16 percent in 2013.
Manda notes that high population growth rates and the high rural-to-urban migration as well as inconsistent government controls on land, housing, and house construction has pushed the accessibility of housing beyond the reach of the urban poor.
Housing Corporation not delivering
The quasi government housing body Malawi Housing Corporation is the country’s largest housing agent. It provides decent accommodation replete with electricity, clean and safe piped water and flush toilets. But those on the MHC waiting list are in for a long wait, since here are as many as 100,000 people waiting for a house, according to a 2010 UNHabitat urban housing sector profile for Malawi.
An official at the MHC says despite the corporation providing rental houses at a subsidized rate, access to the housing units is restricted by, among other problems, lack of national budgetary support and prohibitive bank lending rates.
“To make it worse, government which has leased some of our houses, is the major payment defaulter standing at a 70 percent default rate,” says the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official also pointed at political interference in the operations of the corporation as another obstacle. “For example, in Lilongwe, we have over 8,000 people waiting to be allocated one of our 1,440 housing units,” said the official. “But you find politicians jumping the line and bringing in their relatives and friends to be allocated first though most of them cannot even pass our allocation requirements.”
Manda notes that despite owning huge tracks of land in cities and districts, the MHC does not allocate plots. The staff, he alleges, is not adequately trained to survey plots and prepare layout plans.
Cities need 21,000 new houses per year
The construction of at least 21,200 new houses every year is required to meet the increasing housing demand in the country’s four main cities, according to the 2010 UNHabitat profile.
While Manda says the demand is too large for Malawi to meet this housing goal, he acknowledges that steps are being taken to speed up delivery. For example, government has implemented a housing subsidy project, the former president Joyce Banda started the Mudzi Transformation Trust, which builds homes for the poor, and several NGOs and private companies are now engaged in housing development.
He observes, however, that while housing policies and actions have addressed other urban problems, they have failed to effectively bring essential services for habitants of informal settlements who make up to more than 70 percent of the urban population.
MHC CEO Wezzie Mkandawire has said the corporation plans to construct 25,000 housing units in the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu by 2025.
Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.
Photo: Victoria Avenue, Blantyre, Malawi. Credit: Flickr user Ismail Mia.
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