The myth of bridging the population-housing gap

Over the last few weeks, ‘housing’ has dominated headlines following the unveilling of government policy to undertake a US$100million military housing project. Government has also promised to construct 250,000 affordable housing units across the country.

Politically, several governments have failed to deliver the so-called ‘affordable houses’ since 1992 – to the extent that many Ghanaians will never take any government seriously when promising to deliver houses. This same scepticism has greeted the current promise by the Akufo-Addo government.

Meanwhile, the housing delivery deficit – compared with the rapid population growth – is widening each year. Recently, the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Atta Akyea, confirmed that Ghana is facing a housing deficit of two million units and will need to construct 190,000 to 200,000 units of houses each year for the next 10 years if the country is to bridge the housing gap.

The intervention would cost an estimated US$3.4billion for the 200,000 units, according to the minister. Government has also announced an ambitious plan to establish a GH¢1billion mortgage and housing finance to leverage in speeding-up the provision of affordable housing for Ghanaians. But will all these interventions translate into the physical houses?

Development researchers have identified several factors hindering the provision of affordable houses. According to Afranie et al. (2016), the first barrier to the provision of houses is lack of continuity for housing schemes started by outgoing governments. For instance, in a bid to boost housing supply, the government of Ghana in 2005 started construction of over 100,000 housing units through Private, Public Partnerships (PPP) across the country. However, just after a change of government in 2009 all housing projects were defunded and halted.

Another major factor causing housing deficits in Ghana has been attributed to rural-urban drift. This has increased the pressure on urban housing. Consequently, provision of housing has scarcely moved in tandem with demand, leading to pockets of slums and communities that seem to consist entirely of kiosks and containers dotted all over urban Ghana – Accra, Kumasi and Sekondi-Takoradi are home to Ghana’s biggest slums.

According to the World Bank, the rise of urban slums is also one of the major causes of urban poverty. For instance, in 2005 – as a result of acute shortage of housing and poor conditions of housing – sub-Saharan Africa had 199 million slum-dwellers. In the same year, Ghana had 5.4 million slum-dwellers and is estimated to reach 7.1 million by 2020 – less than a year from now!  The UN Habitat has estimated Ghana’s urban population could rise to 52% of the national total growth, and this rapid urban growth could further deepen the housing crisis unless the right interventions are implemented.

Inadequate mortgage financing is another barrier to affordable housing provision. Unlike poor countries like Ghana, in the advanced countries mortgage financing has proved to be the catalyst for universal housing provision.  A mortgage loan is a long-term loan used to finance the purchase of real estate. This gives the borrower the flexible time needed to pay off the loan.

Sadly, Ghana’s commercial banks, and their regulator – the Bank of Ghana, have failed to provide the needed response to the huge demand for mortgage financing. The short-term loan policies of many commercial banks have been a major disincentive to development of the housing industry.  In the past, the killer and unsustainable interest rates charged by the Ghana Home Loans and the HFC Bank were simply too unbearable for the ordinary Ghanaian.

In addition, the high cost of land in urban Ghana – and the accompanying multiple sales and litigation – is a major drawback to the provision of affordable housing.  The implication is that the cost of land becomes higher than it should be. As a result, developers are only able to purchase few tracts of land for development – and this affects the contribution of housing production.

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Related to the issue of land litigation is our defective land tenure system. This   has been attributed to the traditional land administration system, where land ownership takes different forms; each with peculiar legal rights and incidents attached thereto. Ownership is often unclear, and the processes are bogged down by bureaucracy. This has become a major barrier to the ability of real estate developers to obtain large tracts of land for development.

Finally, and perhaps the deciding factor in housing delivery, is the high cost of building materials. Some estate researchers have estimated that building materials account for 50 percent of the total cost of construction in Ghana. This is so because most of the building materials used in Ghana are imported; and viewed against the year-on-year rapid depreciation of the cedi against major foreign currencies, the estimate is not far from the truth. Even when the developers struggle to complete buildings, the perennial failure of utility companies to provide utilities on demand crowns the frustrations of developers.

All said, the correlation between inadequate mortgage finance and housing deficit is essential to both individuals and companies operating in the property market. In the developed countries, this type of loan is very common and has proved to be the most efficient financial intermediary for the housing needs of the poorest of our population. In Ghana, real estate developers appear to be targetting only the rich – especially Ghanaians based abroad.

 

Housing as a human right

Perhaps, the principal cause of our governments’ failure to plan toward adequate housing is the non-recognition of housing and shelter as basic needs and a human right. At the core of United Nations action to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms is the International Bill of Rights. The Bill consists of three instruments: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

Ordinarily, it might sound unusual for housing to constitute a human right. However, a closer look at international and national laws, as well as at the significance of a secure place to live for human dignity, physical and mental health and overall quality of life, begins to reveal some of the human rights implications of housing.

The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements estimates that over one billion people live in inadequate housing across the world; with as high as a 100 million people living in conditions classified as homelessness.

Realistically, any discussion on adequate housing cannot be divorced from access to drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities. According to the World Health Organisation, over 1.2 billion people in developing countries do not have access to drinking water and 1.8 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation (WHO Decade Assessment Report, 1990).  These figures illustrate the enormous scale of the global struggle to fulfil the right to adequate housing, water and sanitation. In fact, those who sleep on the streets end up eating, easing on and littering the streets. Ghana’s inability to fight filth and to improve sanitation can be largely attributed to the expansion of urban slums and homelessness.

In 1988, debate around the Global Strategy for Shelter propelled housing issues forward and resulted in housing rights gaining prominence on the human rights agenda of the United Nations. Since then, the right to adequate housing has become the cornerstone of the Global Shelter Strategy; making the right to adequate housing universally recognised. Adequate housing is defined within the Global Strategy as meaning: “adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities -all at a reasonable cost”.

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One aspect of the strategy states that all citizens of UN member-states, poor as they may be, have a right to expect their governments to be concerned about their shelter needs – and to accept a fundamental obligation to protect and improve houses and neighbourhoods, rather than damage or destroy them.

Many of the instruments that recognise the right to adequate housing phrase this right as one to which everybody is entitled. This is important, because although other texts mention entitlement to adequate housing in the context of certain groups (thus providing such groups added legal protection), ultimately, adequate housing is the right of every child, woman and man- everywhere.

Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights thus proclaims: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services; and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

 

State obligations

Additionally, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains perhaps the most significant foundation of the right to housing found in the entire body of legal principles which comprise international human rights law. Article 11.1 of the Covenant declares that: “The State Parties to the Covenant recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. Also, the State Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right”.

Practically, it has been difficult for governments to turn these legal rights into concrete realities for the people who are entitled to them. Improper planning or downright lack of concern for their people are some of the reasons often cited for governments failing to deliver the houses.  It is sometimes mistakenly thought that rights such as the right to housing simply require governments to provide enough public funds towardshousing delivery. However, the right to housing – and indeed all economic, social and cultural rights – confer a much more-lengthy and complex series of obligations on States.

Sadly, despite the widespread legal recognition of the right to adequate housing as central to human development, it has never been taken seriously by African governments. Many African governments, perhaps including our government, still believe that access to affordable housing is only aspirational by nature and cannot be an obligation on the state government. This explains why any current and future government policy to provide affordable housing for all will continue to be received with a pinch of salt.

 

References

Afrane, E.,   Bujang, A. A.B, Shuaibu, H., Liman, S., H. and Kasim, I (2016) Major Factors Causing Housing Deficit in Ghana. Developing Country Studies. Vol.6, No.2.

UN Fact Sheet No.21, “The Human Right to Adequate Housing.”

 

(***The writer is a Development and Communications management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: Mobiles: 0202642504/ 0243327586/0264327586) 

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