Elliot Ziwira Senior Writer
“We can start with housing, the sturdiest of footholds for economic mobility. A national affordable housing programme would be an anti-poverty effort, human capital investment, community improvement plan, and public health initiative all rolled into one,” so reasons sociologist Matthew Desmond.
As a basic need, housing is a necessity which is recognised as a basic human right. Housing is considered one of the effective indicators of the extent to which poverty has been eradicated in any country (Martin et al 2015).
A man’s worth is determined by the way he treats his family and that includes provision of a roof over their heads; a roof that they can inherit and call their own. Hunger, ruggedness, metaphorical and literal nakedness may be debilitating for any man in his effort to keep his family satiated, but if he is to be a father and husband, he has to provide reliable shelter for his wife and children.
It is this desire to provide the family with decent accommodation that exposes many a responsible father to fly-by-night land developers. Often the promises and conditions for payment are tempting, but the heart-rending stories that come with such temptations are many.
True, as Desmond points out, there is no poverty that beats the poverty of homelessness, which is why Government’s commitment to provide affordable housing for its workers through its signing of a Memorandum of Agreement with National Building Society (NBS) to roll out a $60 million housing facility for them early this year touches our hearts.
It is a noble move which speaks to the needs of its close to 500 000 workers in more than monetary terms.
The catch is that if whatever may be put on the table with regards to remuneration does not translate to provision of homely homes, then it is void.
For years the civil service has been a hotbed of unrest mainly because of remuneration, which to workers falls below expectations and places them in the bracket of poverty; and to the Government is a tricky situation since the national cake has remained the same, or even shrunk.
It is imperative to decipher that the issue of housing is a thorny one the world over, and for Government — a major employer — to cater for all its employees, takes more than money since it cannot be done at one go.
Yes, $60 million may appear insignificant if it is read in relation to its labour force, but there should always be a starting point, a willingness to work towards the provision of shelter. As a revolving fund the money will go a long way in addressing non-monetary issues that come with remuneration of workers.
Private companies, local authorities and other institutions in Zimbabwe have always had housing facilities for their employees across ranks. In Glen Norah A, for example, where I grew up, sections are either known through beerhalls or company allocated houses. One talks of Chitubu, Spaceman or Zvimba, which are beerhalls or kumalines eMetal Box (the company my father worked for), PTC (Posts and Telecommunications Corporation) houses, Rothmans, CAPS, SISK and so forth. There were also council houses.
Recently, the Harare City Council allocated 305 stands to its employees to offset salary arrears, having reportedly promised 4 150 of them residential stands in lieu of salaries way back in 2016. While this, indeed, is a noble gesture, one wonders how an employee who has gone for months without getting his dues, would be able to construct a house.
The temptation to sell the stand to satisfy immediate needs may be overwhelming, and one may be forgiven for that. An ideal situation would be building low-cost houses for the employees, so that they would have something to fall back on in the event of incapacitation; and in the event of death their families would also have a starting point — shelter.
In Glen View there are houses for wedded couples (Dzimba dzemuchato) provided through the city council. The idea was and remains the welfare of workers, which goes beyond salaries. Salaries were never adequate, because our parents could not afford colour television sets, refrigerators, cars, or any other consumer goods in vogue today, but they had houses in their names bought through company-supported mortgages. They really were not poor because they were and still are proud homeowners.
The issue of salaries becomes secondary if workers get affordable housing, for poverty begins from lack of a reliable roof over their heads. The Poverty Datum Line that citizens always use as a yardstick factors in housing.
Since Independence in 1980 the Government has been forthcoming in the provision of housing facilities, especially for low-income earners. Between 1984 and 1993 the World Bank provided a $43 million Urban Development Loan to Zimbabwe, which was aimed at easing pressures that come with urbanisation as the country transited to self-rule.
The project proved that public-private partnerships work as the building societies involved, chief among them the Central Africa Building Society (CABS), delivered through coming up with favourable conditions for low-income earners with the support of the central bank.
There are houses and flats in Highfield, Mufakose, Mbare, Belvedere, Mabvuku, Mabelreign and other areas across the country that were built through Government support for civil servants. It is not possible that all of them can get houses at the same time, but what is required is continuity.
Across the country there are Government- owned houses that civil servants occupy during their tenures free of charge. The flipside, though, has always been that upon retirement, death or otherwise loss of employment one’s family soon finds itself on the road to nowhere again.
There is need to understand that low-income earners in most cases cannot punch above their weight. Therefore, stringent conditions that ask them to pay 10 percent of the total cost upfront, and punitive monthly mortgage repayments, as is the case in some cases push them out of facilities meant for them.
As a result, undeserving people, who may already have houses cash in at their expense. We have witnessed how corruption has robbed the needy of their pie, which has a way of shifting from their laps to the air.
The fact that the Government has partnered NBS ensures both continuity, transparency and accountability. Many other public-private partnerships (PPPs) can be sought, because provision of housing cannot be the burden of Government alone. Private players, with Government support, can get opportunities in the construction sector, a case of profitable social responsibility. What should be guarded against is profiteering at the expense of the same people they purport to be helping.
Since land is finite and a bone of contention globally, it has to be utilised effectively, for the benefit of future generations. High-rise flats are the way to go, although in some cases they may be costly as compared to building low-cost 50 square metre houses on 200 or 250 square metre lots, considered socially acceptable.
But when the cost of land is factored in, then high-rise flats suffice. Growth points can also be revisited since they provide serene environments for retirement and reduce pressure on urban areas, which is causing headaches for town planners.
Furthermore, comparatively, land in rural areas is cheaper, which will go a long way in the Government’s quest to provide shelter for its employees; and other partners can also take a cue from this. Granted, monetary benefits may be attractive for the here and now, but “we can start with housing, the sturdiest of footholds for economic mobility”, because “it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need”.
It is beyond argument that “decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody”, because “without stable shelter, everything else falls apart” (Matthew Desmond). Therefore, companies, banks and local authorities should complement Government efforts in the provision of affordable housing units, as a progressive way of eradicating poverty, as enshrined in our Vision 2030.