- A home should be a sanctuary; a place to live in peace, security and dignity.
- Forced evictions have become the norm with little attention being paid to its effect on the livelihoods and dignity of evictees.
- Evictees are often denied access to basic services such as water or sanitation.
By PAULINE VATA
Adequate and affordable housing featured as one of the President’s key ‘Big Four’ agenda items, an important commitment given the state of housing in Kenya.
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 centre of our social, emotional and, sometimes, economic lives.
A home should be a sanctuary; a place to live in peace, security and dignity.
But 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 lands taken away.
It means living somewhere that is in keeping with your culture, with access to appropriate services.
However, forced evictions have become the norm with little attention being paid to its effect on the livelihoods and dignity of evictees. It is no longer seen as a rights issue.
Too often, violations of the right to housing occur with impunity. The recent inhumanely eviction of the Sengwer from Embobut Forest shows how citizens can be disenfranchised of their property rights despite a law and policies against such.
Thousands are visibly and invisibly evicted from Nairobi’s Deep Sea informal settlement.
They include families in crammed shacks without the most basic of services, who may be evicted at a moment’s notice, often for a second or third time.
Then there is the aspect of evictions rarely mentioned, let alone tackled: Criminalisation, penalisation, discrimination and stigmatisation.
Evictees are often denied access to basic services such as water or sanitation and even penalised for engaging in activities necessary for their survival, such as eating and sleeping in public spaces.
Treated like lesser beings, they are sometimes forced to establish ‘homes’ in open spaces and do their ablution in the open as if it’s the norm.
Understanding housing in its narrowest sense naturally results in narrow policy responses, which often focus on construction of more houses.
This is the approach the government seems to have taken with its plan to build a million houses for the low-income cadre, an approach that previously failed for the urban poor.
Though rational in intent, this ‘quick fix’ approach ignores underlying causes of lack of housing — such as inhumane evictions and lack of secure land tenure, stigmatisation and criminalisation of evictees — and sidesteps a critical analysis of preventative measures.
To broaden the response to housing and effectively address it, we need a paradigm shift.
We have to move away from an exclusive focus on the individual circumstances of the lack of adequate housing to one that recognises its structural causes and individualised dimensions.
If housing were approached as a human right, then any form of eviction would be recognised as failure by the State to prevent and address it. This shift in perspective moves us from blaming the victims and focuses attention on State (in)action.
Such an approach would expose the many root causes of lack of adequate housing. These include the State abandoning its social protection responsibility in the context of unprecedented urbanisation and failure to adequately regulate real estate markets and land distribution.
If the President is serious about housing, I expect zero evictions and a moratorium on the inhumane act, enactment of the housing law and implementation of the enacted laws and policies.
I also expect adequate budgetary allocation from public coffers — not donor funds — towards upgrading of basic services and infrastructure in the informal settlements.
Ms Vata, advocate of the High Court of Kenya, is executive director at Hakijamii. email@example.com.