By Emmanuel Oba-Adetola
To say that shelter is a non-negotiable need of humans is to restate the obvious. Even lower animals in the jungle do not trivialise the instinct for self-preservation by means of housing development and management. The pride of place allotted to housing issues by the Nigerian constitution is, therefore, a necessity imposed by nature.
However, to say that the reality of housing in the country is a reflection of its prominence in nature and our constitution amounts to a fallacy. Since independence, Nigeria has been struggling to ensure that every citizen has a roof over their head. If ever there is any other sector that bests the housing in terms of policies, schemes, projects and any other form of problem-solving innovativeness, I am convinced such can’t exceed one. That is if there is any at all.
That the question of housing has engendered countless innovations is, to me, not a problem. At least, it signposts the desire of a country peopled by over 170 million people to bridge the housing vacuum that has made shelter even in a one-bedroomed apartment in most of our cities a luxury. The problem lies in the fact that in the country, housing is still the issue. A seemingly intractable problem that was in the 60s a behemoth has metamorphosed into a seeming spirit that my compatriots now compete to capture live, in a survival-of-the-fittest battle.
In my own understanding, the knotty nature of the housing problem in the most populous black nation has been openly acknowledged by the Buhari administration. Given that drastic problems are indeed a necessity for drastic solutions, the government seems to have demonstrated that through the merger of the works, power and housing ministries under a single mega-ministry .The mega contraption known as the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing is, thus, a public confirmation of gargantuan nature of devaluation that the lives of Nigerians have been subjected to, with respect to these three necessities of life.
To get my drift, my reader only needs to realise that while power and physical infrastructure are communal products to be provided as a large pool from which individuals are expected to draw from for personal benefits, housing is necessarily a personal service to individuals or, at most, to families. This is where the knotty issues lie. This is just why the highly expansive habitable land space of Nigeria has, so far, provided shelter for far less than 50 per cent of the population. This is the secret behind the unavailability of huge existing and vacant houses for the teeming masses.
Against this background, the leadership and other stakeholders need to be pinched with some piercing needle of truth. If anything, it is a moment of change on the socio-political and economic sphere. Not just of political captains, crew or cult as consummated on May 29 2015. But! Change of a nation’s long-standing mistaken attitude that has conferred the identity of status-marker on house ownership.
For as long as housing is not perceived and treated as a social product, millions amidst the populace will remain homeless, hibernating in public places, while millions of exotic houses, owned by a few of their compatriots, remain vacant or, at best, under-utilised.
Indeed, the spirited efforts of successive administrations to achieve Housing-for-All have been unsuccessful, mainly, by a methodology that betrays a perception of housing as an economic product.
In the first place, direct provision of housing facilities by government, however massive and well-intentioned, as manifest in Lagos State under the largely welfare-oriented administration of Alhaji Lateef Jakande, can never suffice as an adequate and enduring solution of all times. It is tantamount to an attempt by government to produce and sell food items to most, if not all, of the citizens. What an impossible dream that has made supposed low-cost houses, in most states, unrealisable for the masses.
Even if political exigencies will always make direct building and sale of houses by government unavoidable in Nigeria or in any other developing country, I feel that it must come as a supplement to massive and thriving private investment in a conducive and competitive environment created through governmental policies.
In such a context, the social content of housing investment, will be contributed by government through regulatory policies that will not only assist private service providers to thrive on generally low costs but also ensure that their outputs, that is, housing products, are available and affordable to the various classes of Nigerians, reflecting their distinct realities.
Through a social reality-based revolution in the housing sector, the market will, at all times, have something, not just anything, but havens of comfort, for everyone, particularly the least paid public servants as well as the mass of self-employed traders and artisans.
One major auxiliary of this social revolution is a highly flexible payment system that will ease homeownership through an income-friendly mortgage system. Through the payment of monthly stipends by low-income earners, ordinarily “unaffordable” housing products will become affordable to a chunk of the populace.
The social investment contribution by government will be foregrounded on the status of housing as a social security item which the 1999 Constitution describes as a primary function of government. In concrete terms, this will logically entail diverse official mechanisms aimed at reducing to the barest minimum, the costs incurred on land acquisition and processing by private service providers possibly registered under a special social security housing scheme by government.
However, it is not the case that every existing mould of private investors will automatically serve as a ready material for the social re-engineering hereby advocated. A line must be drawn between purely business-oriented investors, on the one hand, and entrepreneurial-investors, on the other. My take is that it is the latter set that will help, in view of their relative longer-term profit vision, in contradistinction to the former.
And, since no barber can be so skilfully efficient that he would shave another person’s head while the owner is absent, the cooperation of the people, whose interest is to be served through social innovations in the housing sector must be pragmatically enlisted. The bitter realities of the “omo onile” (family landowner) syndrome, should be seen and treated as a necessity which is a mother of inventions that would facilitate the banishment of homelessness in Nigeria.
Oba-Adetola, a housing solutions expert, is based in Lagos.