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The quest for a place to call Home

Fr Gabriel Dolan SPS

All of us want to live in some degree of comfort, security and privacy. When families acquire a place that they can call home, their dignity, happiness and togetherness is greatly enhanced. Yet this most basic of rights is frequently denied to millions around the globe. According to the World Economic Forum, there are 150 million homeless people worldwide and a further 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing. That staggering figure represents nearly 25% of our human family. 


In Kenya the right to housing is enshrined in the constitution which states: “Every person has the right to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.” Yet, there is a housing deficit of two million units. In Mombasa where I live, 55% of the 1.2 million population live in informal settlements or “slums” as they are more commonly known. They rent tiny shacks from landlords – or rather, structure owners, as the land usually belongs to government or absentee landlords – and live in precarious situations with poor sanitation and almost non-existent security. 


A decade ago, the county government of Mombasa developed a plan that they thought would significantly contribute towards addressing the housing crisis. The city had 3,000 old dilapidated units from colonial times and so they planned to demolish these and replace them with 30,000 modern units of 1-3 bedrooms. The project was to be done in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with 90% for-sale units going to the investor and a mere 10% remaining as social housing for the county government. 


At our human rights office, the Haki Yetu Organisation, we felt that this was a bad deal as the poor tenants who occupied the older units could never afford to buy the new ones or gain access to a mortgage, as their earnings were so low. We took the case to the High Court and later to the Court of Appeal to halt the project on the grounds that there was insufficient public participation on the deal and the contract was signed without competitive tendering. Besides, the development did not address the aspirations of the constitution. 


Despite losses in both courts, we proceeded to organise a campaign around the hashtag #HousingForWho and involved the residents of the ten old estates who faced eviction. Phase 1 of the project targeted Buxton Estate and 520 residents were forcefully evicted and their homes demolished. They were given a mere $2,000 compensation and advised to apply for occupancy of the newly proposed units. For the record only 40 of them could meet the requirements. 


The rest however did not give up and under our guidance kept their plight in the public arena. The political establishment started to feel the heat that comes when shady deals are uncovered. Together with the evicted tenants, we petitioned the Senate of the National Assembly and after two sessions in the capital, Nairobi, the Senate met the current Governor and the developer. The former tenants are now demanding a Tenant Purchase Scheme whereby their monthly rent can accumulatively lead to ownership or be considered as a part mortgage scheme. 


The Senate will make a final ruling on their demands for adequate compensation and for the tenant purchase option. However, to reinforce their efforts, the residents took to the streets to peacefully protest and marched to the governor’s office where they were well received. The residents of the other nine old estates are watching closely. Some of the investors have already backed off their areas of interest as they realise that they will have to consider the poor and former tenants in any scheme for redevelopment. 

This campaign is based on a single question, “Housing for Who?” In Ireland the government has called its housing programme, “Housing for All”. However, President Michael D Higgins last year called the housing crisis there a disaster, much to the distaste of the political leadership. 


Every housing programme anywhere in the world must be designed on the basis that they are affordable and accessible to everyone, especially the poor. Campaigns like ours surface so that those at the bottom are heard and not just leftovers of a broken society as Pope Francis admonishes us. Those Buxton evictees are not victims but survivors. They will be heard and their efforts and ours will in the end be responsible for changing both policy and practice for thousands more. 

Fr Gabriel Dolan was ordained in 1982. He combines a passionate concern for Human Rights with youth and parish ministry in Kenya.

©Africa Magazine 2023

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