Start from where you are: the case for a community-led affordable housing model

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In spite of the amount of investment in formal affordable housing schemes by governments, private financial institutions and development finance institutions across Africa, there are still millions of citizens who do not have access to affordable formal housing and many countries have a housing backlog that Richard Tomlinson, a profesor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne, suggests will never be met.

Many states are reverting to housing megaprojects situated far from city centres in an attempt to meet the scale of demand and growing political pressure (Huchzermeyer & Misselwitz). These megaprojects risk reproducing segregated, inefficient urban spaces and housing interventions that are unresponsive to local needs and complexities and risk capture by the middle classes. The provision of large-scale housing projects, aided self-help projects and the more recent ‘enabling approach’ (Halimi) all fall short of meeting the demand for affordable housing in African cities. These models take too long to realise, are expensive for the state and often end up being too expensive for the residents whose housing needs they are meant to satisfy, according to UN-Habitat.

Yet, all the while, the growing population of the urban poor in African cities has been housing itself, outside of the logic of the state apparatus and the formal market and often in the face of state indifference, resistance or repression. Granted, informal settlements are often overcrowded, illegal, unsafe and on the margins of cities, but this is often a result of excessive and restrictive policy and regulatory frameworks imposed by the state and not necessarily characteristic of informality.

Is it possible that allowing and supporting people in informal settlements to build their own houses is the most effective model for building adequate, dignified housing for those who are forced to exist outside of the market? It seems to be the only thing that has ever come close (Huchzermeyer & Misselwitz).

Kambi Moto, an in-situ upgrading project of the Kenyan federation of Slum Dwellers International in Nairobi, and Coophylos, a cooperative housing project in Yaoundé supported by the National Network of Inhabitants in Cameroon, offer two examples of informal models of affordable housing provision.

An important principle of both of these housing projects is that in spite of the fact that both are collaborative efforts between the community, government, NGOs and professional urban practitioners, the communities themselves were the ones who initiated and led the projects from start to finish. This is what allows these projects to cater sensitively to the residents’ needs and to build houses at a fraction of the cost of formal housing schemes.

Although many community-based cooperatives emerge out of insurgent movements that were created in response to state violence or repression—such as Muungano wa Wanavijiji which ran the Kambi Moto housing project—the focus in these projects has been on collaboration with the state rather than confrontation. The endgame of these housing projects is not just the construction of houses but a paradigm shift away from the idea that urban residents are “passive consumers of a prefabricated city” (UrbaMonde) and that the state or ‘experts’ in the private sector are not the only people authorised to contribute to the building of the city.

Wider application of this paradigm shift will be hard won. Given the influence of international housing policy over national housing policy in much of Sub-Saharan Africa (Croese, Cirolia & Graham, 2016), successful small-scale, local interventions may have little impact on national, regional trends in affordable housing unless they can somehow influence international housing policy.

The Kambi Moto and Coophylos examples offer useful precedents for community-led housing cooperatives but more needs to be done to advocate for community-led housing projects. We need built environment practitioners who have a sensitivity to the specific needs of slum dwellers and experience working under the mandate of local communities. We also need scholarship that can keep pace with the dynamism and complexity of slums in the Global South. And more than anything else we need states to trust their citizens with the task by allowing them to participate in the design and construction of their cities.

James Clacherty is an editorial intern with urbanafrica.net.

Photo: The Kambi Moto cooperative housing project in Nairobi. Slum Dwellers International (Flickr)

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