Owning a home is a reality for only a few in Accra. For most, even long-time residents, renting is the only option. The city’s housing market is like a pyramid: At its apex, a small international set – many of whom have lived or currently live abroad – own the most expensive residences. Moving down, a moderately wider selection inhabits similarly high-end houses for rents transacted in US currency. At the bottom tier is the majority. They are characterised by high-occupancy, where tenants can pay low rent in local currency for single rooms, but share services like kitchen, taps and toilets.
Crowding and competition in the lower-income housing market are key issues in Accra, with the housing shortage surpassing 300,000 units this year. It’s a competitive, teeming space, where the mean household size is 5,5, with on average 3,6 people in one room, according to a recent UN-HABITAT profile on Ghana’s housing. In lower-income areas, circumstances are even more cramped. In Ga Mashie, one of the city’s oldest settlements, the average occupancy is 10 persons to a room. Nii Tackie, a middle-aged fisherman from Ga Mashie, says you learn to adapt. “In my house, it’s my family (wife and children), and my brothers’ families. It’s an extended family system, but it’s also the only option.”
Ellen Oteng Nsiah, executive director of Housing the Masses, an NGO working on sustainable housing, points to a multitude of forces at work. With more than four decades of government placing high taxes on rental income, landlords have adapted by requiring rent “a minimum of one, usually two years” in advance.
In addition, Nsiah says, “Few housing construction and mortgage finance institutions cater to low-income earners.” While 80 percent of the city’s residents are low-income earners, most of the housing units are overwhelming targeted at the small (but growing) middle class. Meanwhile, the government does little to intervene for the poor, says Dr. Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh, a housing expert at the Institute for Local Government Studies in Accra.
The government’s influence featured earliest in the form of mass housing schemes for middle-income earners in the 1970s, and financing for civil servants in the late 1980s and 90s. Not much seems to have changed. At present, government’s focus is on encouraging the private sector to develop quality housing for salaried workers. It also has a loan scheme to enable access for civil servants. There are no government-led programs working directly to provide affordable housing, slum upgrading or financing for the urban poor.
Left to their own devices, modest income earners constantly negotiate ways in which to adapt to the skewed market. In addition, the trend of informal development continues with those in it living in constant fear of expulsion, and in cramped conditions without access to key amenities.
Dr. Sarfoh describes another growing phenomenon, that of “work-based cooperative arrangements”, where people, by the nature of their work (nurses, doctors and, even more informal, drivers associations), come together, acquire land and invest in developments. These constructions are mostly sited at the fringes of Accra’s functional boundary, where less expensive land is available. Not only do these arrangements make accessing and owning a living space more affordable, but organising in numbers provides security. “As a collective the chances of being swindled is much lower,” says Sarfoh. But, just as in the informal case, there is no synchronisation with the city.
Sarfoh says this is emblematic of the overall uncoordinated development of the city’s housing stock. It is ad hoc and does not adhere to an urban development strategy. “And one day the repercussions will blow up in all of our faces, and we’ll not have the resources to solve these serious social problems.”
Victoria Okoye is a Community/urban planner and media professional based in Accra
This article is part of Urbanafrica’s reporting project
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