Of landlords who eat us all whole and an unregulated system that cares not

For over ten years now, there has been public debate regarding the time bomb that story buildings in Nairobi and elsewhere in the country are. This period has seen tens of apartments blocks collapse in Nairobi, Kisumu, Kisii, Nakuru and other Kenyan towns leaving behind thousands of lives either lost or affected and billions of shillings in damages. Following every one of these incidences are usually promises by the National Construction Authority on which buildings they are going to demolish and how keenly they are going to enforce building codes. Then the police will be all over searching for landlords who usually, upon learning of the collapse of their buildings, run into hiding. But that is usually the end of well crafted public display of effort and concern. After that, things go back to normal. Nothing changes at all. But this is just one issue. What of tenants’ welfare once they get into these weak and sometimes leaning buildings? Who cares what goes on behind the ever-locked gates of these apartments with regard to occupants’ health, safety and security?

Well, I have observed a trend among landlords that needs speaking against with the hope that some action will follow. Having lived in Nairobi for six years now, I, like any other city hustler, have changed houses in Nairobi enough to know that most of the so-called landlords are cut from the same cloth but for a few cases. It is simple. The landlords, just like the national and county governments, do not care much about the safety and satisfaction of their tenants. Our landlords are just another conduit through which money disappears without much expected return on expenditure. Like all the other cartels, their job is to syphon more money from tenants and issue eviction notices without a care about the kind of shithole of houses that tenants live in, every coming month.
Most landlords do not have any direct interaction with the tenants other than through their bank accounts. The rest of their interactions are mediated through the use of third parties. Tenants never get to know how their landlords look. They most probably only know their names because it is also their account name, or where the money is deposited in a company account, then one never gets to know who owns the house they live in the City in the Sun. When looking to rent a house in the apartments that bear the “to let, spacious two-bedroom house, call…” signs, you will meet a somewhat friendly looking caretaker or agent who will promise to paint the house, fix water and sewer system problems the house has, replace broken window panes, repair the badly damaged wardrobes, provide keys for every room, simply, do it all before you move in. Then, these agents and caretakers are usually very fast to hand a potential tenant a piece of paper with bank account details on it so that you commit and fix yourself. Consequently, once you make that first payment, you realize you made a mistake. It is like accidentally falling pregnant for the bad boy you were just playing with without any intention of marrying whatsoever. Game over!
As is usually the narrative, even before a tenant moves in, they will be told the fundis who were to fix the problems with your new house have not been cooperative and so, since you are dealing with tarehe tano deadlines from your old landlord, or you will forfeit your two months deposit, a tenant has no alternative but to move into the ‘new’ house that has the same problems he was trying to run away from when he decided to change houses. And as the story goes, the moment you move in, the smile on the caretaker’s face disappears and is immediately replaced with such a persistent frown that says rent shall never delay and don’t ask any questions, and a cat and mouse game, so much that the repair works becomes just another story he was told. You discover that have just gotten yourself into another hell.

Despite not knowing the owner of your house, you get his threats every time you delay to pay rent by two days. Worryingly too, most tenants don’t know of any government agency that they should or can run to, complain and have their issues fixed. Ours is a system where the so called corrupt police are supposed to hear it all and fix it all, from marriage counselling to inspecting virtually everything else. There are professional tasks that should be done by other professional inspectors and dispute managers. It is not proper to bundle up all tasks related to running the state and dump them to the police. It is confusing. Some of these things can be done by public health and safety inspectors.

Landlords in this city are so hands-off in terms of customer support and hard hearted. They do not even care what your name is or whether their buildings are occupied by ghosts. The only language they understand is money and more money. That is why they increase rent as they want, evict tenants as they wish and hold onto tenants’ deposit on relocation without a care. To them, it matters not whether a tenant just lost his job, his child just flew out of the carelessly done balconies and window grills from sixth floor, or if you broke your spinal cord when you fell on the carelessly done and irregular staircases that are meant to take you to and from your house. The caretakers will tell you that rent is rent and must be paid irregardless. Ama Ukichoka, uhame. And if you prove difficult, then threats and other forms of harassment will follow as we witnessed in Langata in December last year (2017).

Some of these apartments are built using money looted from tax payers in shady deals. Where do we think all the money lost in corruption scandals in this country go to? Is it no wonder that the landlords don’t want to be known and their faces seen? Some landlords, to avoid overgeneralization, build these houses through fraud, and then fraudulently charge exorbitant rent and maintenance fees on innocent optionless tax paying Kenyans whose only mistake is to work away from home and be in need of shelter. It is a common rumor in town that some landlords are bribed with land and building materials in exchange for favors elsewhere. In effect, they buy land, build apartments and start earning rent without ever spending a cent. They also rarely, if at all, visiting and inspect ‘their’ property to confirm that they are safe for occupants.
According to international laws which, ratified by Kenya, forms part of our national constitution, and which should have in effect guided the writing of the tenant and landlords bill, housing is a basic right and need. Everyone has a fundamental human right to descent housing, which ensures access to a safe, secure, habitable, and affordable home with freedom from forced eviction. It is the government’s obligation to guarantee that everyone can exercise this right to live in security, peace, and dignity. This right must be provided to all persons irrespective of income or access to economic resources. And providing this right comes with a responsibility that should be institutionalized in some arm of the government but this seems not to be the case in our land though. Our legal provisions, which generally only exist on paper, are too keen on dispute resolution without regard to occupants’ health and safety.

In addition to the harassment, most of the apartments in Nairobi have dark and unlit stairways which are also rarely if at all washed. They are both a safety, public health, domestic and occupational hazard for people who live and work in them. These apartments, and particularly their stairways rarely have enough air circulation, are never re-painted and have cobwebs and dust all over but there is nobody who inspects them to ensure that their occupants are safe. Further to this, there are no checks, not by the landlords, the state or county governments to ensure that routine maintenance of these buildings is done. Also lacking is the construction of access roads to estates where tenants live. As a consequence, many urban dwellers have to wade through mud in rainy seasons and dust in dry weather to go and make money for the governments, and then come back to be harassed by evil agents and caretakers on behalf of landlords.

There is therefore need for the national and county governments to act and correct all this madness that tenants live through in Nairobi and other towns in Kenya, as soon as now. In particular, this task should be taken up by the already existing government agencies that seem not to have it in their list of responsibilities. Such agencies include the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development, Ministry of Health’s Departments of Preventive and Promotive Health, Standards and Quality Assurance and Regulations and that of Health Sector Coordination and Inter Government. Others stake holders in this should include the National Disaster Operation Centre, County Public Health and Safety Departments, in all the counties, and to some extent, the National Construction Authority. These agencies should, through well-coordinated joint effort to address concerns including; undertake policy formulation on these matters, allocate responsibilities on who should shoulder which responsibilities, perform monitoring and evaluation of the tenant welfare, health, and safety conditions, forward of cases of deviance for prosecution, perform continuous training of landlords and awareness creation among tenants, do research, and recommend new approaches of making residences safe and healthy for occupants.
Alternatively, considering that coordination has been great challenge for various government units in the recent past, even with regard to general disaster management, a simple solution would be to set up a well-staffed and equipped inspectorate with national coverage to see into it that public safety and security in residential buildings, and even workplaces, is given maximum attention. This inspectorate will then shoulder all the responsibilities right from policy formulation and implementation to training members of public and doing new research on alternative approaches that can be employed to address this mess. Like the other very many neglected sectors of our society, it is a high time that provision of housing is regulated and regularly inspected by the state and its local representatives.

On the other hand, to make buildings occupation worthy, it should be mandatory for landlords to maintain their buildings; check the lighting, water supply, waste management and ventilation from time to time. They should also put in a new layer of paint after a certain number of months, especially on stairways to keep the residences descent. Finally, the landlords should, out of courtesy and customer support, but also as a punishable legal requirement, keep in touch with their tenants and at least visit the buildings to see for themselves what goes on in them rather than leave them at the mercy of mean care takers and agents. Landlords must learn to pump a bit of the rent they collect back into maintaining their buildings. A building once put up, just like a farm that needs weeding and manuring, must be maintained so that it is able to attract new client, but also, so that those who reside in it are safe and satisfied as clients. They cannot just be so money minded to the extent that the welfare of their building and those who give you that money becomes a non-issue. It is both evil and shameful.