Harare City Council is now facing up to the fact that for 20 years it has done nothing to help poorer residents build their houses, although it has allowed private developers to step in, mostly to service land for the better off.
The only real way to even start meeting basic housing needs is for the council to service stands and sell them on terms to people who want to build their own homes. Council schemes, while not permitted to make losses because the money usually has to be borrowed, can be designed not to make profits either, thus keeping the cost of a stand as affordable as possible.
The mess that has resulted from this lack of council development of what is often called social housing was highlighted by Acting Town Clerk Mrs Josephine Ncube in a report to a council committee recently. We have seen desperate people moving into unplanned settlements and “land barons” selling unserviced plots to unsuspecting victims.
We cannot allow unapproved buildings and we cannot allow people to build on unserviced land. But the way thousands of people will take the huge risk of buying bricks and cement and starting to build the minute they think they have found a plot shows that there is a huge demand for land and that if there were serviced stands available people could be trusted to build their own homes. The council does not have to do everything.
Servicing land is not something that individuals or small groups can do well. It means surveying the land, planning the stands, building the roads, putting in water and sewer mains and ensuring Zesa has the rights of way and facilities to put in the power mains. This is something that big developers or local authorities need to do.
And the cost of all this work is what turns cheap farm land into pricier plots. In a council scheme well over 90 percent of the cost of a stand will be the servicing and only a tiny bit the land. In a properly planned and managed new suburb the council could also sell commercial stands, in the new required shopping centres, at a reasonable profit, so it could generate the extra funds it needs to build the schools and clinics the residents of the new suburbs will require.
We agree that getting people to buy stands and build their own homes does not necessarily help the poorest. But moving 20 000 families with modest regular incomes out of rented rooms does open up accommodation for the next tier down and those families building their own homes and the businesses building the new shopping centres, does mean that there is more rate income for the council to do even more useful work.
The sticking point is of course this initial capital that the council needs and that requires borrowing. Mrs Ncube proposed several good ideas. The main thrust of her proposal was that the council creates revolving funds that cannot be touched for other council spending and that those who are selected as buyers of the plots are carefully selected, presumably from the group that can afford to pay the instalments and build their own homes. Such security and certainty that loans can be repaid will be required by the few lenders available.
The council will not be moving into new territory. Over three quarters of housing in the city, both the high density suburbs and many homes in the inner ring of lower density suburbs, have been built on land once owned and serviced by the council. What is unusual is the 20-year gap.
The council now needs to turn such proposals into programmes, that is to stop waffling, stop complaining, stop playing daft political games and start doing something for the city and its people. And if it will not then it should make way for a council that will.