Adequate and affordable housing features as one of the president’s key big four agenda to be tackled in the next five years by his government. This important commitment given the state of housing in Kenya is nothing to celebrate about at the moment. Informal settlements are sprawling by the day with no essential basic services and thousands living in squalid conditions depicting the housing crisis that we are currently living in. Housing is more than four walls and a roof, it is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. It is the center of our social, emotional and sometimes economic lives, a home should be a sanctuary; a place to live in peace, security and dignity.
Forced evictions have now become a norm with little attention being paid to the effects it has on the livelihoods and dignity of the people being evicted. It is no longer seen as a human right issue. Housing is increasingly being viewed as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder forgetting that it is most importantly a human right. Under international law, to be adequately housed means having secure tenure – not having to worry about being evicted or having your home or land taken away. It means living somewhere that is in keeping with your culture, and having access to appropriate services, schools and employment.
Too often violations of the right to housing occur with impunity. The recent case of the Sengwer being inhumanely evicted from the Embobut Forest shows the extent to which the government is willing to go to disenfranchise its citizens of their property rights. This is despite the country having a law against forced evictions and policies to go with it. But the Sengwer are not the only ones, going deeper we see that thousands upon thousands of people who are visibly and invisibly evicted from the Deep sea informal settlements in Nairobi who have to grapple with the cost of development compared to their own lives. This includes women, children and youths who find refuge with others, this also includes families living in crammed shacks lacking even the most basic services, who at a moment’s notice may be evicted, often for a second or third time.
Then there’s the aspect of evictions that is rarely mentioned, let alone tackled: criminalization, penalization, discrimination and stigmatization. Evicted people are often denied access to basic services such as water or sanitation, and are even fined for engaging in activities necessary for their own survival for instance, eating and sleeping in public spaces. They are treated like “lesser citizens”, sometimes forced to establish their households in open spaces, forced to undertake activities pertaining their hygiene in the open and while at it forced to look like they are doing okay.
Understanding housing in its narrowest sense naturally results in narrow policy responses, which often focus on the creation of more houses. This is the same approach that the government has taken with a focus of building 1 Million houses for the low income cadre an approach tried before but did not work for the urban poor. Though rational in intent, this “quick fix” approach ignores underlying causes of lack of housing, inhumane evictions, lack of secure land tenure it fails to address stigmatization and criminalization of evicted people, and completely sidesteps any critical analysis of preventative measures.
In order to broaden the response to housing and thus effectively address it, we need a paradigm shift. We have to move away from an exclusive focus on the individual circumstances leading to and arising out of the lack of adequate housing, towards a focus that recognizes the structural causes of it as well as its individualized dimensions.
If housing were approached as a human right, then any form of evictions visible or invisible would be recognized as the failure of states to prevent and address it. This shift in perspective moves us from blaming the victims and instead focus attention on State action or inaction. Such an approach would expose the many root causes of lack of adequate housing. These include, for instance, States abandoning the responsibility for social protection in the context of unprecedented urbanization both at national and county levels; failing to adequately regulate real-estate markets, land distribution and private actors in keeping up with human rights obligations. If the president is serious with this agenda then we expect to see zero evictions and a moratorium against this inhumane act to go with it, enactment of the housing bill and implementation of already enacted laws and policies. We also expect to see adequate budgetary allocation from the government coffers and not donor money towards upgrading of basic services and infrastructure in the informal settlements, only then will we move away from what happened in Kijiji village in Langata.
(Pauline Vata is an advocate of the High court of Kenya and Executive Director at Hakijamii) email@example.com