Any Hope For Low Income Houses?

To make affordable housing also habitable for low-income earners requires creative thinking and stakeholder collaboration.


Low income housingFrom the advent of civilization, shelter, food and clothing are the primary needs of man. However unlike food and clothing, affordable and habitable shelter remains elusive while its demand has been on the rise. As a result, squatting (occupying without title or payment of rent) is commonplace yet it provides only temporary shelter. Because shelter is necessary to everyone, the problem of providing habitable housing has long been a concern, not only of individuals but of governments as well. Thus, housing is inseparable from social, economic and political development and the efforts of governments are evolving slowly.

In the words of the international non-governmental organisation, Habitat for Humanity, “Shelter is a primary need for all. At its most basic, it is just a roof and four walls where people are safe and dry. But adequate shelter is also one of the corner stones upon which healthy lives can be built, and a primary foothold to the climb out of poverty.” I believe that nowhere is the society’s inequality more barefaced as in the provision of housing. The General Comment No. 4 on the Right to Adequate Housing by the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines this right as being comprised of a variety of specific concerns. One of these concerns is that housing must provide the inhabitants with adequate space and protect them from health hazards and disease vectors. Simply put, affordable housing should also mean habitable housing.

Presently, best efforts at tackling the conflicting problems of affordability and habitability have led to the provision of 1-bedroom apartments to cater to the housing needs of low-income earners. In the end, a man and his wife sleeps in that only room at night while the rest of the family (and any guests) cobble together in the living room.

Housing programmes in the United States and Great Britain share many similarities. These countries have initiated public housing, urban renewal, and new-town programmes. Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other nations provide low- or no-interest housing loans. The development of new towns is also encouraged or subsidized; indeed, more than ten have been built on the outskirts of Paris. The problems of housing in Canada, both public and private, have been treated with considerable imagination and effectiveness. Federal funds for housing have been directed almost entirely at people with lower incomes. Government provides assistance to the provinces and municipalities and to individuals, to be used for neighbourhood improvement, the purchase of homes, the rehabilitation of residential housing, and the development of new communities. At the same time, the private sector has channelled a high volume of financial support into the mortgage market.

For us in Nigeria, there is a critical shortage of affordable and habitable housing especially for low-income earners in our major cities. A variety of solutions have been suggested including using public-private partnerships, improving mortgage-guarantee programmes and encouraging organisations to provide housing assistance programmes for their employees. In spite of these, it is still safe to claim a major housing problem for low-income earners in Nigeria’s cities.

Taking Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory as an example, the FCT Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (FEEDS) document’s 2005 estimates indicate that there are about 6.7 million residents of Abuja. It also projects that the Territory has an annual population growth rate of 13%. The FEEDS document goes ahead to state that there are less than 5,000 houses on ground in the Federal Capital Territory. Consequently, low supply of mass housing, especially in the low-income zone, squares up against greater demand for its availability. So even the Territory, decent accommodation is still very unaffordable for that category of residents. As a response, the Federal Capital Territory Administration makes it clear in the FEEDS document that it intends to provide 1,000 houses every year and is canvassing PPPs in the construction of low-income mass housing units.

The provision of housing is also a development issue and must be treated as a critical component in the social and economic fabric of a nation. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal 7 (Target 11) states that the world should “by 2020, have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers”.  This is due to the fact that all in all no country can claim to be satisfied that adequate housing has been delivered to the most vulnerable segment of the economic strata. Majority of populations still live under life- and health-threatening circumstances that lack sufficient space, durability, structural quality and security of tenure.

As an aside, good and affordable owner-occupied housing with secure tenure is a central asset on which individuals and families can build their future as an investment potential when one considers the degree to which home ownership affects capital accumulation. Stakeholder-assisted mass housing is the solution on which the paradigms of adequacy, affordability, habitability and security converge. It is therefore the challenge for stakeholders – government, international development finance agencies and the private sector.

If these issues are not given the attention they require and without significant urgent attention, the housing crisis will explode and lead to social instability, violence and crime.

Due to the inadequacy of funds competing for various policy needs, the Federal Government’s efforts at addressing housing problems have been unable to improve housing conditions for junior and middle cadre civil servants which constitute a critical mass in the society. A major concern is that costs associated with housing should be at such level that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised. Therefore, the time has come for professionals in the building industry to think out of the box from the private sector in order to create the necessary convergence between affordable and habitable housing.

In this direction, Agon Housing Limited is pioneering solutions that will deliver affordable and habitable houses using the principles of Value Analysis, Value Management and Value Engineering. These are more than just cost-control techniques, they are also cost-conscious. To apply them requires a creative procedure where a new, more efficient design solution is created to eliminate unnecessary costs without reducing the utility and esteem values of the building. It identifies the functions of each element of the building, examines the technical alternatives and the related costs of meeting these functions and selects the alternative with the lowest cost. It confronts the following “what” questions: What is it? What does it do? What does it cost? What else will do? What will that cost?

To make this initiative converge affordability with habitability, there has to be stakeholder collaboration as stated earlier. This sort of partnership would require governmental intervention that provides land and basic infrastructure. Major financial institutions like the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria or international development finance agencies such as the International Finance Corporation would also have to make available cheaper credit finance to reduce cost of money for such housing development. Primary mortgage institutions can then open up mortgage windows for low-income earners to ensure that every family can own a house in the city – a decent and healthy accommodation that is also affordable.