Attempted Prophecies: #Stay home. #Stay where?



During the height of the pandemic when our nation undertook what was then the most logical preventive step—quarantine, and the running hashtag was “stay home”, there was, within this necessity, a lingering absurdity—because for many in the country, the concept of ‘home’ can be a very tricky one.

Homelessness, slums, squatting, ‘kiosked-homes’, apartment rentals for which one has not the money to honour the demanded one, two, or three-year advance-payments, etc.—these arguably, epidemics on their own, are all too familiar that they have become normal. These are the attributes of our nation’s cities—most tellingly, this is our nation’s capital.

However, pointing out this ineptness of our cities is not to discourage rural-urban migration; neither is it intended to discourage urban-urban migration. Each second, there is a person somewhere in the country strategising for a better life, and their to-do list has atop it:

  1. Move to Accra.

If all this talk of congested cities—specifically Accra—has got you humming “obi nka s3 24th k) wo kurom” as solution, you may want to hold off for just a minute.

Agriculture is to villages

Urbanisation is a fact of development—and we discussed it in the article ‘From Green to Green’. The movement of people from the nation’s rural centers to its cities is not a bane, it is an imperative for development, one that can transform into immense blessings should a nation play its cards right.

Our world now is a global community, it has been for some time now—and trade has been the main tool driving this oneness and closeness. Centuries ago, the prominent economic activity worldwide had been agriculture, and the nature of this activity was such that it flourished best in rural centers.

For one, agrarian activities require a certain level of conservation of nature, something which cities with its industries cannot assure. Agriculture would thrive on the preservation of forests; cities would require the destruction of forests for the construction of say, roads.

So, the demographic of nations during this agrarian economy was this: more rural population than urban. People yearned to be in rural areas instead because those were the El Dorado—where real economic action was.

Industry is to cities

Then the Industrial Revolution spread from Europe, to America, and the rest of the world. Industry naturally flourished best in cities—for ease of transportation, for instance, cities were carved out around major water bodies.  So gradually, the world noticed a shift from heavy rural settlements to urban.

All of a sudden, education was not just for engaging in abstract philosophic debates, education had a real economic value. All of a sudden, quick and effective transport systems were imperative. So, the industrial age spawned in cities, railroad networks, better roads, inventions of cars, ships, and all other such modern amenities we have now.

These amenities were birthed out of industrial necessities; these amenities then became the features of cities, and still remain so to this day.

Hence, the gap between rural areas and urban areas with respect to new age amenities will always remain—no matter how hard we try to conceive an egalitarian utopia. Because the fact is: one needs them more than the other. This however is not to advocate for the abandonment of villages, because doing so would spur a vicious cycle, one which would adversely affect cities too.

The cycle

Our nation’s over-dependency on the export of raw materials says a lot about our checkered growth. The fact of the matter is that on the international plane, the developed world has been through their respective industrialised eras, perfected it, and moved on to this new era of the Information Age.

So, it is particularly heartbreaking that we in the developing world—Africa, especially is still struggling to find its feet in manufacturing and industry. Globalisation is a race of nations—Ghana/Africa (through no fault of ours, in part) is a whole lot of steps behind in this race. This is because the main commodities we present in this global race—the international market are raw materials.

And if it be the case, that raw materials are to rural areas, then the scenario we have in the country is that our villages are our best candidates—they are the runners we have placed in this global race. In this highly industrialised age, in this information age, this is very absurd.

One cannot work without the other: raw materials needs industry, and conversely, industry need raw materials—to convert them into highly competitive manufactured goods. The underpinning to this then is that villages need cities, and cities need villages to help the entire nation compete effectively on the international market.

Urbanisation is a barometer.

Worldwide, when this shift from agrarian to industrial economy happened, it was witnessed in nations a shift from rural populations to urban populations. With the explanation given, this should come as no shock—it should be expected. Europe recorded this rural-urban shift during the 18th – 19th century at the dawn of its Industrial Revolution.

In England, for instance, urban population rose from 17% in 1801, to 54% in 1891. USA was to, in the 19th century, experience its own Industrial Revolution, thus this rural-urban shift too—from 5% in 1800 during its agrarian era, to 50% in 1920.

Asia came in strong in the 20th century, witnessing too this shift. Africa, yanking independence for itself, also sought to join the global economic race by carving out a share of industry for itself; the shift happened for us too—albeit slowly, our industrial journey.

By 2007, according to the UN, more than 50% of the world was urbanised5. This was to rise to 54% in 2014; and projected to go as far as 68% by 2050.

It is an economic necessity—a nation in this highly globalised and information age ought to have more people living in its cities than its villages. In this modern era, there exists a real and direct correlation between urbanisation and economic growth.

So then why ever discourage urbanisation? This is because this blessing—rural-urban migration, can very easily spawn negative effects if not meticulously coached. Problems such as: congestion of cities, increase in inequalities, high cost of living, low standards of living, endemic slums, increase in crime, etc. may easily run rampant. And this cross, Ghana, like most developing countries, bears.

Harsh Housing

A large number of city-dwellers—in Accra, especially, live in kiosks.  There are a number of gated communities in the nation’s capital—gated community of kiosk-apartment complexes. This is when you have within one gated compound, an agglomeration of different kiosks. You’ve got to respect such ingenuity.

Squatters decorate almost every uncompleted building. Many blessed enough to occupy cement buildings do so counting their blessings—their days, I mean. They sit on thorns, for having already paid more than the legally stipulated advance-rent; having paid one, two, or sometimes three years’ advance-rent, they are to cough up another round of such bulky sums when their term expires.

This is the case for the majority of the nation’s workforce—they, expected to, in their own individual parts, contribute to the collective advancement of the nation. The right to shelter, many toil to achieve—many lose this fight and find home on the streets.

Public problem…

We cannot ask or hope for people to leave the cities or desist from entering our cities to solve our nation’s housing deficit. Rural-urban migration is a fact of development.

City populations are growing constantly—very expected of a developing nation—owing to factors such as: rapid urbanisation (as mentioned), a general population growth, economic and socio-economic growth resulting in an increase in life expectancy, fertility rates, etc. You cannot be mad at these. Yet, all these positive factors may end up adding to our nation’s plight—chiefly, our housing plights.

The housing issue cannot be put on the backburner. It must be prioritised and remain so for the foreseeable future.

…Private solutions

Some nations have witnessed various public housing initiatives to help tackle their housing deficits. I am going to desist from doing the expected: dangling other nation’s development journeys in our faces as slights; desist from mentioning say, China when Hong Kong, in fact, is battling its ‘coffin homes’ endemic. But Ghana has seen arguably little success in terms of public housing initiatives.

So, the private sector has been to the rescue. The private sector recognising this gaping gap has sought to meet demand with supply—buildings spring up everywhere one looks. In Accra, storey buildings built to be rented out as shops, have their top floors converted into apartment complexes. Landlords are chiseling out apartments out of nothing. There are some buildings with bedroom and bathroom virtually one: “Won’t water enter the room when I bathe?” “Listen, you can just use a rag to chock it.”

But within this private remedy—very symptomatic of a capitalist society—is yet another problem: the private individual is undoubtedly motivated, first, by individualism. Their aim is not to solve the nation’s housing issues per se, but to make profit. [Which is very understandable. See, we are all at the end of the day private individuals ourselves, aren’t we? And is understandable this strive for profit, isn’t it?]

So, the government steps in, not with competing infrastructure, but the law.

Law as solution

Our governments have sought to remedy this deficiency, not largely in erecting housing infrastructure, but by creating conducive environments to ensure fair dealings between the private sector and the renting populace—particularly, through rent control schemes.

Because the last thing we would want is to leave pricing to the laws of demand and supply when dealing with an inevitably profit-minded private sector—especially under such circumstances when demand far exceeds supply. This seems like smart solution until the law proves insufficient.

As far back as 1942, the nation saw its first of myriad rent laws. The Rent Act, 1963 (Act 220) came two decades later and still remains in force. It proved problematic, in part, and saw a slew of amendments in 1973, 1979, 1982, and most recently, the Rent Control Law, 1986 (PNDCL 138).

This longlist of legislations, all introducing new means of regulating rents charged by landlords, ended up utilising one of two methods: authorising rent officers to make assessment of rents of individual premises—ridiculous on the face of it.

So, the law remedies this by introducing the second approach—rigidity. How about legally fixing prices for the various apartment types? Thus, one-bedroom apartments are fixed at—, two bedrooms at—, and so on. This simplistic rigidity was unsurprisingly ineffective.

For even now as we speak (you reading; I, writing), you know to expect the sum of GH₵500 to GH₵1,000 to be placed on a single-bedroom apartment in East Legon, and GH₵350 to GH₵500 for one at Ablekuma. Locations, the nature of the apartment buildings, and such other factors can influence the price of apartments. Thus, a fixed sum approach easily renders itself defunct law.

This is one example of the many ways in which these past and present legislations proved themselves detached from the fact on the ground—the economic, socio-economic, cultural etc. facts on the ground.

An Impasse?

Yet, what we have witnessed in this slew of legislations is that whenever one law proves ineffective, the law maker is tasked with coming up with a new law, only for the new one to prove too, insufficient thus inefficient.

All these laws have come with staunch warnings—contraventions of their provisions have been stipulated as criminal offences, with the possibility of imprisonment. PNDCL 5 of 1979 even threatened landlords of having to forfeit their premises to the state upon non-compliance.

All these scare-tactics have failed to give the law compliance; they have proved ineffective in curbing the power landlords wield. Act 220 and PNDCL 138 remain two of the most disregarded laws of the country.

So, if the state has not been able to solve the housing deficit by providing public housing units, and have also failed at using the law as instrument to regulate the private sector’s bid at offering solutions, where do we turn to next? Who or what is to offer the tenant relief?

The Law. The Fact.

We cannot admit to an impasse and give up on offering workable solutions to the nation’s housing problems. We cannot write these off as business as usual:

The fact that landlords do not charge rents on monthly basis; they do not accept 6 months advance payment—one is very lucky when their landlord accepts ‘just’ one year’s advance.

The fact that a tenant’s financial burden does not end with the landlord only, but with a formidable group called agents. They are middlemen necessitated by this same economic harshness (man has got to make a living, right?).

The fact that these agents base their livelihood of a supposed illegal act—for it is from the landlord’s requested advance payment that the agent slashes off their commissions.

If the housing situation was in crises mode in the1940s, now it is a bloodbath.

[This has been the precursor to the nation’s housing problem. And we know now that a dismissive, ‘but do we all have to come to the cities?’ remark won’t just cut it. Such remarks do not solve the problem. They do no good—definitely not for national growth. So, we will have to delve into the matter next week.]

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