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Recently, one of the leading local TV stations aired a short documentary film titled Dawn Break. The news story delved into the issue of children waking up in the wee hours of the morning; as early as 4:30 am to go to school to beat the ever massive Nairobi traffic jam. Think about your neighbourhood. You may have heard school buses roaring at the break of dawn coming to pick up the school-going children living in your estate. The stories featured in the documentary depicts common predicament of many parents across the city who are battling with the inconvenience of residential housing in Nairobi. However, the pupils are not alone on this as parents are victims as well. Many a time, when you board public service vehicles in the morning you are bound to witness virtually all passengers sleeping as they commute to their workplaces.
The city’s fast-paced lifestyle has morphed Nairobi residents to be zombie-like in what has come to be referred to as Nairobi half-life; a lifestyle that is not wholesome. Both parents and children are caught in a never-ending cycle of chasing life goals at work and school. This begs the question: is the residential housing in Nairobi working for its people?
Tracing the roots
In the midst of all this, you may be wondering how residents in the nation’s capital got themselves into what is seemingly an inconvenient lifestyle. Well, residential housing in Nairobi City is a deep-seated and multifaceted issue that goes way back in time. The story of Nairobi’s inconvenient lifestyle has been occasioned by several factors that have compounded over time making it extremely difficult for residents to live a well-balanced life.
At the top of the list, is the complete breakdown in the planning of public housing and transport infrastructure. Back in the 80s and '90s or thereabout, Nairobi City had a reasonably working public housing and transport system. The estates back then were well designed and master-planned. The majority were all-round living communities as they contained social amenities like school, social hall, children’s playground, and dispensary. Some of the popular public housing during the heydays include Buruburu, South B, Jamhuri, Pangani, and Huruma estates just but to mention a few. Today, most of these estates are dilapidated and are a shell of their former glory mainly due to lack of proper maintenance and diligent estate management. Additionally, the public housing agenda and futuristic city transportation infrastructure was somewhat neglected in the ensuing political dispensations and as a result, the public housing system completely broke down, bring us to today’s inconveniences.
The other root cause is a population explosion. Before the 90s, Nairobi’s population was well under one million. However, over time the population grew to slightly over 3 million with the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) 2009 census estimates the number to be 3,138,369. With the conclusion of the 2019 census exercise, the number is expected to be higher well within the ranges of 4 to 5 million. The exponential growth in population due to urban migration has created a lot of pressure on the existing resources in the city. The monster traffic jam being experienced daily in Nairobi is the single topmost sign of a city under siege.
The multiplier effect of population growth and breakdown in public housing led to an increase in the cost of residential housing in both categories; for sale and letting. As a result of this, residential houses located in areas closer to the central business district and social amenities are much more expensive than those located in far-flung places around the city. Good schools, best healthcare hospitals, corporate offices, and government institutions are located in the inner city while few of them are on the fringes of the metropolis. In essence, if you want convenient residential housing you must pay for it, otherwise, you will have to contend with the inconveniences of living on the city fringes. Thus, living conveniently in Nairobi City entirely depends on one’s financial capability. This is the battle that many city residents have to deal with against the background of the stagnating income levels and increasing cost of living.
So, does location still matter?
The latitude in selecting a location for a residential house or apartments in Nairobi City is highly subjective. So yes, location still matters but the quality of life depends on the depth of your pockets. That means you choose the home location according to your ability to pay for the convenience and lifestyle that you desire. The residential housing landscape in Nairobi has over time adopted some general unwritten rules. If you want to reduce commuting time, you will have to get a more expensive accommodation closer to your workplace, and if you want a cheaper but decent accommodation then you will have to commute long hours while on the city fringes. Essentially, you will have to do a trade-off, it’s extremely difficult to have it both ways.
The Future Ahead
While getting the desired convenient lifestyle comes at a premium, all is not lost as the future looks promising. Organizations are now moving away from the central business district to city suburbs due to the heavy congestion. Employees will no longer need to endure long commute hours to get to work as they will have proximity to the office. This will be a great relief as a typical commuter in Nairobi City spends averagely 4 hours on the road going to work or home. There’s also telecommuting, a trend that is quickly gaining momentum where employers are now allowing employees to work remotely wherever they live provided work is done. Property developers are also putting up new accommodation in locations that are close to the city but were previously underrated. For example, Square Foot Real Estate, a property development company based in Kilimani is putting up fairly priced 40 units of two-bedroom apartments in Nairobi’s South B estate. There are many more projects by other developers coming up as well and these will greatly improve the supply for decent but affordable housing. However, long term solutions are required to improve the quality of life in the city. Major interventions should focus on re-engineering Nairobi’s public housing and transport system.
The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of Square Foot Real Estate Ventures Limited and as such does not warranty any particulars.