1103 Challenges of Urban Housing Provision in Lagos and Johannesburg

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1103 Challenges of Urban Housing Provision in Lagos and Johannesburg

by Teke Ngomba


In November 2010, UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) published a pertinent report on the state of African cities. The report confirmed that Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent in the world and that by 2030 "Africa’s collective population will become 50 percent urban" (UN-Habitat, 2010:1).

Apart from multi-storeyed buildings, traffic jams and street beggars, one of the central "faces" of Africa’s rapid urbanization in most if not all of its large cities is "non-standard, poor-quality housing units" (Kasarda and Crenshaw, 1991:479) which the UN calls "urban slums". According to UN-Habitat (2010:4), Africa currently has a slum population of 199.5 million people and this represents "61.7 per cent of its urban population" (UN-Habitat, 2010:4).

            As the scale of urbanization increases, the task of providing appropriate and affordable housing to the urban poor has  persisted as one of the most intractable problems facing developing countries. In the wake of an unprecedented pace of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa and a corresponding increase in urban poverty, how have African governments been handling this problem? What are the challenges they face and what are the chances of these governments living up to the ideal of having "cities without slums"?

This article  focuses on the situation in Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa. The countries of both these cities are members of the Cities Alliance, the "brain" behind the global City without Slums Action Plan. (The Alliance is a global coalition of cities committed to poverty reduction. The Cities without Slums Action Plan was launched by Nelson Mandela at the inaugural meeting of the Alliance in Berlin in December 1999.) Through an overview of some scholarly discussions of these issues, this article highlights some of the main measures taken by both governments and city officials within the last two decades to clear Lagos and Johannesburg of slums and provide affordable and appropriate housing to the urban poor.

1.Housing the Urban Poor in Lagos

Lagos, the former federal capital of Nigeria, is the country’s economic hub and biggest city. With a current population of about 10.5 million people, UN estimates indicate that by 2015 the population of Lagos will be close to 12.5 million (UN-Habitat, 2010:53).

According to Gandy (2006:372) there are as many as 200 different slums in Lagos, "ranging in size from clusters of shacks underneath highways to entire districts such as Ajegunle and Mushin". As Morka (2007:7) points out, over two-thirds of the population of Lagos lives in the "informal settlements or slums scattered around the city". Most of these slums are densely populated with some estimates indicating that "more than 75 per cent of urban slum dwellers live in one room households with a density of 4.6 persons per room" (Adelekan, 2009:6).

Given the above situation, combined with other challenges such as city transportation, electricity and potable water provision, Morka (2007:4) argues that "to say that Lagos is a city in crisis is to understate the severity and enormity of the challenges that confront its residents and managers". The massive problems facing the city notwithstanding, the Lagos Executive Development Board was established with a mandate to clear the city of slums. Successive federal and state governments have taken several measures to "establish the necessary institutional frameworks to radically transform" Lagos into a functional megacity (Ilesanmi, 2009:11). At both the federal and state levels, some of the main measures taken thus far have included the creation of specialized agencies both at national and state levels to handle issues concerning housing for the urban poor and of specific housing policies designed to increase the provision of appropriate and affordable housing in Lagos.

Federal government measures have included plans to construct about 2,000 housing units in each state annually within the framework of the Fourth National Development Plan (1984-1985) as well as the construction of about 143,000 "low-cost housing units across the country" (Ademiluyi, 2010:157). Such measures were continued between 1990 and 1992, during which time the federal government intensified its sites and services scheme to solve the issue of inadequate urban housing and also commenced the construction of hundreds of housing units in Lagos and Abuja (Ademiluyi, 2010:157).

Prominent among the state-level housing measures taken has been the establishment of the UN-backed Master Plan for Metropolitan Lagos (1980-2000). Among other things, this called for the provision of about one million housing units for low income households in Lagos and the World Bank-supported Lagos Slum Upgrading Programme, which was instituted in 1999 (see Abosede, 2006:6). As part of the strategy to improve housing conditions in Lagos and to stop the proliferation of slums in particular, both the federal and state governments have also engaged in forceful evictions of slum dwellers. According to Morka (2007:8), such evictions, like those of July 1990 and April 2005, have been inappropriate and ineffective and have instead helped to "fuel the growth of new slums or the expansion of existing ones with more complex dimensions".

Notwithstanding the strategies mentioned above, the persistence of the housing problem in Lagos has continued to put the state government under pressure to look for lasting solutions. Recent state-level initiatives in this regard have included the establishment of the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project, the Lagos Island Revitalization project which aims to "upgrade derelict residential areas" in Lagos (Abosede, 2006:7) and the formulation of the Medium Term Sector Strategy of the Housing Sector for Lagos for the period 2011-2013 which has an ambitious vision to achieve "a Lagos State where every citizen has access to quality housing that meets their needs".

Despite all these interventions within these past two decades, the concrete achievements in terms of "providing adequate housing" for the urban poor in Lagos and in Nigeria as a whole remain "essentially minimal" (Ademiluyi, 2010:158). Onibokun’s (1971:283) conclusion three decades ago is still valid today: both the state and federal governments have been "unable to meet the challenges posed by Lagos". Worse, there seems to be the absence of a "practicable government policy that could solve the housing problems of Lagos" (Olayiwola et al, 2005:187) and even the formal public-private partnerships to address the issue have so far produced a "relatively low quantity of affordable housing for the low income people of Nigeria" (Ibem, 2010:14).

Given such a balance sheet, it goes without saying that there are significant measures that need to be put in place if the federal and state governments hope to provide appropriate and affordable shelter to Lagos’ urban poor and live up to their subscribed ideal of a city without slums. Some of these issues are highlighted in the latter part of this article.

2.Housing the Urban Poor in Johannesburg

According to UN-Habitat, Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub, currently has a population of about 3.670 million and by 2015 the city’s population is expected to be about 3.867 million (UN-Habitat, 2010:53). With visible "scars" from the apartheid era, Johannesburg, as Bollens (1998:739) noted, is a city of "enormous economic and social contrasts" where sky scrapers co-exist with "townships and shanty towns of intentionally degraded living environments".

In recent years, the number of people living in what are termed "informal settlements and backyard shacks" across South Africa has been increasing (see Landman and Napier, 2010:303) and it is estimated that "between 150,000 to 220,000 households in Johannesburg live in informal dwellings" (Planact, 2007:2). According to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (2005:6) some of these "informal dwellings" in which the urban poor in Johannesburg live often include urban shack settlements (with close to 200 of them across the city). There are also 235 so-called "bad buildings" in the inner city and "shelters" in "backyards, on pavements, or under highway bridges".

Current measures to address this situation and provide affordable and appropriate housing to the urban poor in Johannesburg in particular and across South Africa are "informed by the history of the country" (Goodlad, 1996:1644). Following the historic election in 1994, successive post-apartheid governments have focused on conceiving and implementing policies to "combat the spatial manifestations of apartheid" (Bollens, 1998:741), especially with regards to the provision of housing for the urban poor.

According to Parnell and Robinson (2006:346), though hard to "pin down", the ANC has had an important influence on local governments to the extent that in the case of Johannesburg, policies relating to the management and upgrading of the city have been "synergistic with national ANC policies". Similarly, Beall et al (2000:113) had earlier argued that, in dealing with Johannesburg’s housing crisis, city officials have "largely deferred to the national and provincial government" (see also Development Action Group 2003).

By looking at national policies on the provision of appropriate and affordable housing for the urban poor, some evidence regarding strategies within Johannesburg to house its urban poor become apparent. Briefly, within the last decade in particular, South Africa’s housing strategy has centered on a combination of private, public and community initiatives wherein the state, rather than take a center stage in direct housing provision, has focused on creating an environment where "market and community involvement" in housing provision is "maximized" (Goodlad, 1996:1636; see also Landman and Napier, 2010:299). This is currently evident in the new national housing policy dubbed "Breaking New Ground" (BNG). Framed as South Africa’s "new housing vision", a central aim of the BNG housing policy is to accelerate the delivery of quality housing to the poor as part of the government’s plan to promote the development of "sustainable human settlements" in South Africa.

Housing policies and strategies in contemporary South Africa have been hailed for being "progressive" (du Plessis, 2005:126) and, though not perfect, are said to be registering some success (see Cross, 2008:3). Pro-poor housing policies and strategies in Johannesburg have been listed as one of the "best practices" worth copying in South Africa (see see Development Action Group, 2003). Recently, in September 2010, the UN-Habitat awarded a Scroll of Honour for human settlements development to the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (JOSHCO), a company established by the City of Johannesburg to provide quality low-cost housing services and products to the citizens of Johannesburg.

According to UN-Habitat, the Scroll of Honour was awarded to JOSHCO in recognition of the company’s provision of "tens of thousands of affordable housing units, improved living conditions and basic services to poor families" (see UN-Habitat for the complete statement). Such recognitions notwithstanding, overall, the challenges to significantly and sustainably resolve the "huge housing shortage" in Johannesburg and in South Africa as a whole remain very daunting (Lemanski, 2009:482).

Sadly, the much-criticized forceful eviction of the urban poor from slums has also been among the policy options used to address the housing crisis in Johannesburg. This was clearly evident for instance in the 2004-2007 Johannesburg Inner City Regeneration Strategy Business Plan which recommended the closing down of "bad buildings"— a "euphemism for evicting the building’s occupants and sealing it off" (Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 2005:42). Such evictions have often led to clashes between residents and the police. According to Harrison (2006:330), for example, in August 2005 police used stun grenades to:

… quell an angry mob in the suburb of Marlboro in north-eastern Johannesburg which was protesting against the eviction of residents who had long occupied empty factories in response to the serious housing backlog in the neighboring township of Alexandra. (For more reports on cases of forceful evictions in Johannesburg, see, for instance, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 2005:60-64).

3.Comparing Lagos and Johannesburg

From a general perspective, contemporary strategies adopted to provide appropriate and affordable housing for the urban poor in Lagos and Johannesburg are fairly similar. The strategy for the largest cities in both countries has revolved around the establishment of national and city-based housing policies and targets; the creation of specialized agencies to handle urban housing tasks; the acquisition of multilateral assistance especially from the World Bank and UN to implement national or city-based housing-related projects; the tilting towards a more neo-liberal, market-based approach as far as the provision of urban services and facilities are concerned; and the resort to forced evictions as one "weapon" in the "arsenal" for dealing with the proliferation of slums.

Such similarities in strategy and policy continue to support Stren’s (1972:492) previous conclusion that the responses to the problem of inadequate urban housing across African countries "have shared many common features, in spite of important socio-cultural and ideological-political differences" among these countries.

However, there are also important differences between the approaches taken. They include the scale of the institutionalization of community-based approaches to urban housing provision for the urban poor (more formalized in South Africa than in Nigeria) and differences in the "level of maturity and entrenchment" into the economy of the housing finance sector/system (more entrenched in South Africa than in Nigeria). Another major difference between housing strategies in South Africa and Nigeria has been the provision in South Africa of a public housing subsidy for the lower-middle and low income populations.

Arguably, as seen in the case of Lagos and Johannesburg, South Africa appears to have a relatively more "evolved approach" to pro-poor housing provision than Nigeria. In addition to the differences mentioned above, two recent developments in South Africa separate it further from Nigeria. In September 2005,  according to Cross (2006:4), "all the major South African role players in housing" signed a Social Contract for Rapid Housing Delivery which aims to replace "informal housing stocks with new standardized subsidy housing" and set stakeholders on the course of "working to eliminate all shack housing in the country" by 2014.

Secondly, as Landman and Napier (2010:301) have pointed out, commercial banks in South Africa have signed a Financial Sector Services Charter with the government, "promising to provide mortgages for housing to lower income households". Taken together, such pro-poor strategies testify to South Africa’s relatively more "evolved" housing strategy. As Cross (2006:3) noted, "no other country in Africa promises its poor the levels of social provision" that the successive post-apartheid governments in South Africa have committed themselves to.


Urbanization in Africa has a long history (see Abate, 1978:23) but currently its pace is making it one of the "most dramatic social phenomena" taking place in Africa since the colonial era (Mabogunje, 1990:121). For several years, as Stren (1992:533) has argued, research on African cities has centered on two main themes: "their poverty and their rapid rates of growth". These were also the central messages in the UN-Habitat 2010 report on African cities which highlighted, among other things, the central problem of urban housing provision for the urban poor across the continent. As concerns the continent as a whole, while there are a few signs of progress, the enormity of the challenge to provide a "decent house" for every urban dweller in Africa is simply overwhelming (see UN-Habitat, 2010:2).

Within the last two decades, governments have made a plethora of pledges to tackle this challenge. In June 1996, for instance, heads of state and government from all over the world met in Istanbul, Turkey, for the UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and reaffirmed, among other things, their "commitment to the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as provided for in international instruments". Fourteen years after that conference, hundreds of millions of people are still stuck in slums.

Given the rapid increase in urban populations in Africa, the corresponding increasing demand for urban housing, the persistently dire financial situation of the urban poor, persistently significant levels of bad governance in Africa and the insufficient financial and material resources available to African states to tackle this issue, it is not possible or pragmatic, at least for now, to envisage a situation where every urban dweller in sub-Saharan Africa will live in a "decent house" in the near future.

These practical constraints notwithstanding, there is need for all stakeholders in the housing sector in Africa to continuously strive to provide adequate and affordable housing to the urban poor given that the acquisition of such a house is a central part of every individual’s human rights, recognized and codified in both national and international instruments such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (see Leckie, 1989:525).

For the right to adequate housing to become a sustainable reality for the urban poor across Africa, a lot needs to be put in place. In a 1992 essay, Nwaka (1992:95) argued that, as concerns housing policies, Nigeria has probably had "enough policy advice already". This holds true for all countries in the region. The fact that years of policy advice and pledges have not produced dramatic reductions in slums suggests that something very fundamental is lacking in Africa: visionary, democratic and dedicated leadership. Substantially realizing the right to adequate housing demands, among other things, that African leaders develop and manifest the political will to live up to their commitments. It also demands that these leaders should be continuously pressurized through legal and peaceful strategies to fully implement their commitments to the poor.

As the world slips into the second decade of the third millennium, for millions of slum dwellers across the world, the message to their governments is simple: Enough is enough! Help us obtain adequate housing — it’s our right!

Teke Ngomba is a PhD student at the Institute of Information and Media Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark.


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