Reflections On Tthe National Housing Policy (2015)
This article can also been found in the REALESTATE JOURNAL, Published by the Ghana Real Estate Developers Association, September 2016
At long last, Ghana has what in the words of Ministry of Water Resources, Works and Housing (MWRWH) is the most comprehensive policy recorded in the annals of housing development in the nation and that could be rightly so. Certainly, successive governments since independence have in the past all implemented some form of housing policies all with good intentions in providing decent housing for the populace. However, as noted by the Ministry, many of these obviously good intentions have since been scattered in fragmented shelves and lacks any consistency useful for effective coordination towards holistic understanding and housing provision solutions to what could be termed the current dire and “apocalypses” housing needs of the country. Kudos indeed to the MWRWH for the effort in synthesising the various scattered information plus incorporating issues affecting contemporary housing demand. It is indeed refreshing to note the depth of consultation and seminal documents reviewed, among others the Draft National Housing Policy and Action, Plan (1987-1990) and the National Shelter Strategy Documents 1991-1992. It is noted that these documents had also previously gone through reviews in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 but still remained shelved. Many national (e.g. The 1992 Constitution of Ghana, Draft National Slum Upgrading and Prevention Strategy (2013), Ghana Shared Growth and Development Agenda (2013) and highly acclaimed international frameworks (e.g. Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948; The Global Strategy for Shelter, 2000; The Rabat Declaration of Making Slums History, 2012) championing the right to housing were also duly consulted and incorporated. That is, in all honesty, this is a document which should provide a broad base in helping to holistically direct the agenda for future housing delivery solutions in the country. While acknowledging the good work done by the Ministry so far, there will always be the need for sober and deeper reflections viz. constantly seeking to strategise towards meeting the dynamics of ever changing and rapidly worsening housing trends. Subsequently, this critique is provided as a contribution to highlighting probable areas that need further soul-searching going forward.
WHY 10 YEARS?
Before addressing the reflections on the key theoretical and policy issues, it is important not to ignore the fact that the document took 10 years to come to fruition which is quite surprising for a country whose housing situation is described as dire and needs urgent attention. The corollary is that, within the luxury of the period it took, the slum population which was estimated at 2.5 million in 2005 when the drafting of the policy is noted to have been started has increased over 100% and is expected to reach 7.1 million by the year 2020. With all the advantages that modern ICT offers for speedy literature search, consultation, networking and documentation drafting in modern knowledge development and management, it sounds reasonable to question why it should take the Ministry 10 years to finally come out with such an important policy document. Perhaps some may say, better late than never, but is that good enough? That should be a food for thought.
Among others the popular keywords/phrases found in the policy are; housing for the low income, urban poor, affordable, enabling environment and so on. These words/phrases which are not new in Ghanaian housing vocabulary are indeed worth emphasizing and have indeed become even most relevant in the light of the housing problem now confronting the nation. However, it is observed that while reference is made copiously to for instance the urban poor and also slum upgrading, the document failed to specifically mention the informal economy and what specific strategies would be provided in addressing the housing needs in that sector. At best, informal housing needs are implied although specific copious reference is now required especially as the sector is now the largest in the economy and at the same time the most marginalised when it comes to policy guidelines in all fronts including housing. As admitted in the policy document, previous efforts in housing provision in Ghana have often focussed on government workers/civil servants and formal sectors of the private sector. Most people who operate in the informal sectors (including the unemployed and casual workers) have often been left on their own to fend for themselves and in most cases in the most appalling way. Historically, many developing countries including those in Latin America adopted this paradigm of excluding the informal sector in housing supply which has created serious social inequality in real estate development. However, presently, the new urban agenda is calling for equality, and inclusiveness in the provision of services including housing for all sectors of the economy and indeed it is within the informal sector that the greatest housing challenges now exists. The fact of the matter is that, the growth of African cities is heading towards the informal space which is where the most increase in housing need is predicted. The question is, what is the specific policy guideline to deal with this marginalized majority? Interestingly in Ghana, the traditional “compound houses” which perhaps serve as the only substitute for most of the people in this segment is on the decline and given that many of the citizenry in this category cannot afford the now dominant single family homes and apartments that are emerging, the specific strategy is in the policy towards this segment needs to be made very clear. Thus, while acknowledging the Ministry’s effort in seeking to renew commitment of creating the enabling environment for the private sector to thrive especially with regard to the urban poor, the important issue of informal activities in the private sector that needs to be categorically stated cannot be ignored going forward. Admittedly, the document makes reference to social housing policy (page 14) and that is encouraging. It remains to be seen what real tactical programmes would be put in place so that we do not fall into the trap of once again focussing on the formal sector to the neglect of the marginalised majority. And come to think of it, with respect to the issues of social housing, what is making it so difficult for Ghana, the first black country south of the Sahara to gain independence, and with all its pedigree as the icon on the continent for not being bold enough to enshrine the right to housing in the constitution, when countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia have that consciousness and seem to be making some pragmatic efforts in that direction?
On page 9, the document recapitulates common phrases of how the high cost of building materials is making housing progressively and increasingly unaffordable to Ghanaians. Similarly reference is made to the good old rhetoric of how Research and Development (RD) on improving and promoting the development and use of local materials can help address the problem (see page 30). That’s is good, however, is not public knowledge that RD on local materials has been pursued in this country since 1973 culminating in the development of materials/products such as; Lancdcrete blocks, bricks, brick and tile, finishing materials such as wood wool, chipboard, fibre and particle board from forestry waste. One will hope that, we have not so soon forgotten about Novotex Ltd in Nkawkaw, which produced a lot of these ceiling materials from industrial and forestry waste. Yet, for the lack of specific policies to guide the usage and patronage of these materials they have all become white elephant now stashed in housing museums, that is, if there is any institution like that in the country. To make the situation more unfathomable, the nation every now and then continues to run seminars on how to improve local materials usage targeted at God knows what. At least, one can remember a recent seminar held in 2010 by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI). The main objective for the seminar was to help increase the use of brick for housing construction by 60% in the year 2015. Well the year 2015 is just a month away to end and Ghanaians can be the best judge.
Another key factor in the document is the definition of the controversial issue of affordable housing (page V). Here, the policy draws on, for example (my own thinking), the US definition by defining affordability as when expenditure on housing, whether by purchase or rent does not exceeding 30 % of ones gross annual income including applicable taxes, insurance and utilities. In the first place it is not quite clear which type of housing unit and income level were used as the reference points. However given the relatively low income levels of the average Ghanaian and the heavy dependence on imported materials in the house building culture in the country, coupled with very unstable high inflationary rate, it is obvious that there is very much to do in defining what exactly is affordable in the Ghanaian context if housing the populace including the marginalised majority are to be a pragmatic reality and not just mere lip service. Moreover, it is important to note that with the US definition for example, incentives are also offered for low income earners such as subsidies for new homes, subsidies for private housing, housing vouchers and subsidies for mortgage interest suggesting that, the definition has not been created out of isolation of the economy. Is Ghana ready to offer these same incentives going forward as part of housing policy on affordability? Refreshingly it is worth noting that, in the past (1960/70s) in the document (see page 2) Ghana provided specific targets such roof and wall protection loans, supply of some building materials, construction of low cost houses directed at government workers who were formally employed but all these became unsustainable and now belong to history. Housing affordability indeed is complex and not easy to define but perhaps some lessons could be learnt from the Chinese where affordability is defined for different income levels; the lower middle and middle income earners, low income and extremely low income. In the last edition of the “RealEstate”(Issue 0002, April-September 2015, page 48), the Executive Director of Lakeside Estate made a call for consensus seeking in defining affordable housing and this is indeed worth pursuing.
The entrenched paradigm of private sector participation in housing is all too clear and rightly so emphasized (page 14, objective 1 and 2). Within this context, the Ghana Real Estate Developers Association (GREDA) as the prime housing development association in Ghana cannot be left out of any major decision making and it is important to realise that the GREDA and MWRWH are in collaboration judging from the recent discussion regarding an acceptable limit of VAT on real estates. Mindful of the increasing role that the GREDA can play, it is the Governments responsibility to bring out initiatives on board towards increasing housing supply. There are already lessons that Ghana can learn from, for example, the UK on how to enhance the enabling environment for GREDA and the allied institutions in housing to make the necessary impact. For instance within the last couple of years (since 2010) the UK government has introduced policy measures on affordable rent model –“which allows housing providers who successfully bid for grant funding in affordable housing programmes to charge up to 80% of the market rents in their local area on new built properties and on a percentage of re-lets”, new home bonus, which aim to reward local authorities to increase housing supply, First buy – “interest free loans to help the first 10,000 first home buyers to own a house”, build now and pay later, a scheme that allows house builders to pay for public sector land they develop for affordable housing only after they have started work on the land. The Chinese also offer similar incentive where public land is offered to real estate developers free to build affordable houses for the extreme poor. Certainly, there are many useful lessons to learn and adapt all over the world towards addressing the dire situation Ghana finds itself. Here, government support in terms of policy direction should also focus on collaborating strongly supporting, for example, the GREDA and other housing developers in developing the much needed capacity and also creating the necessary environment for construction workers in the informal sector to team up and use their skills efficiently in the housing industry especially regarding construction of the intended affordable housing units.
According to the MWRWH, (on page 28) even as they have finally come out with this comprehensive policy, the institutional landscape remains fragmented and inconsistent with funding. Subsequently a number of interventions are proposed; major among them is the setting up a national co-ordinating body to encourage and coordinate activities in local government areas including the private sector, and establishment the National Housing Authority (NHA) to coordinate all activities in the housing industry. Once again, the reference made to the UK model above cannot be missed on actualizing these crucial measures for the future benefit of the nation. The most important thing for all stakeholders in the sector is to act swiftly and it is hoped that this will not take another 10 years come to fruition. The policy document also makes mention of a number of laws/bills being reviewed (page 27) including a draft condominium bill seeking to regulate multi-family habitation. While this is good it is not quite clear why other forms of housing units such as single- family, apartments, high-rise and perhaps for the future skyscrapers have been left out. Once the Ministry has thought it wise to regulate the sector which was long overdue, it would be prudent if the bill is holistic in addressing all housing types including the future of the iconic Ghanaian compound houses in contemporary housing supply and demand.
All in all well done to the Ministry for finally making the policy a reality albeit belatedly late, the reality is that there is growing housing crises in the country and stakeholders need to be on board to help quickly address the situation viz. increasing population and rapid urbanization, low income levels and above all dwindling government support. The implications are all too clear if Ghana fails to act decisively and urgently. Analysts believe that Ghana and for that matter many African countries in similar situations would plunge into dysfunctional cities if we remain dormant. Luckily there are many successful models across the globe that Ghana can learn from to help avert this situation. We only need to act decisively and pragmatically and the time is now.