Nairobi's middle class drives construction surge, with mixed reviews
The demand for housing is high, but without an urban plan or building code, the construction boom could have some negative long-term consequences.
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Mike Pflanz offers a personal view on Nairobi’s construction boom, and what it could mean for the city’s future.
The face of this young city is undergoing radical plastic surgery. In what the media here never fail to call “the leafy suburbs,” 1930s stone-built bungalows behind manicured hedges are being torn down and multistory apartment blocks rising high in their place.
Out on the upgraded highways snaking into the city, red tiled roofs stretch across acres of what was once empty grassland tended only by Masai cattle.
Malls are morphing from charming clusters of family owned grocers and butchers, where everyone knows your name, into many outlet monoliths to Mammon.
At well-to-do dinner parties, this is a constant topic of slightly disapproving conversation. Think of all the traffic. Have they upgraded the sewer pipes and the water supply? How will the electricity grid cope with all this extra demand?
For Nairobi’s mushrooming middle class, however, that’s beside the point. They have money (credit?) to spend, and developers are answering their call. In one five mile stretch leading from the city’s west towards its center, there are now seven major shopping centers. Branch a mile off that road, there’re three more.
Two malls are brand new. Others are undergoing significant upgrading, more than doubling their outlets, bringing in casinos, smart new restaurants and cafes, high-end shops.
It’s not just the shopping. Demand for decent housing for the increasing numbers of salaried staff, the people jamming the malls each weekend, has far outstripped supply.
So, in fact, has demand for all housing that isn’t illegal, walled and roofed in tin, and far from water and electricity grids.
To house the huge surge in the city’s population, 150,000 new units must be added to the housing stock each year. Currently, the number’s closer to 12,000 – a deficit of almost 380 sorely needed homes a day that are not being built.
The problem is, according to architects and urban planners I have spoken to, most of these 12,000 new properties are aimed at those at the top point of the pyramid of the city’s wealthy few.
The numbers back that up. The country’s average wage (for the minority who earn a wage) is somewhere around $4,500 a year. But the average mortgage was more than 12 times that, at $56,000. That’s the highest ratio in Africa.
With high interest, very few can afford that. An architect I was chatting to yesterday told a story of a friend’s young cousins, both recently hired by Microsoft here, for whom it would be years before they could buy one of these swanky new apartments, in compounds with swimming pools and gyms.
Many others will try, however, raising fears of a microcopy of the boom and bust in the US which led to the financial crisis.
And even behind the numbers, there are other worrying pitfalls. Nairobi currently has no urban plan.
There was one, once. There have been two, in fact, in 1948 and in 1973, either side of Independence from Britain in 1963. The latest expired in 2000. Both are widely criticized for ghettoizing people according to their income (or, in the earlier British version, their skin color).
The fact that there’s no central plan in place to manage the city’s current headlong construction rush means that there’s little regulation, little attention to aesthetics, and no demand to include open space around new developments.
There’s also no real building code to which technicians can refer to ensure new homes meet standards.
There are, simply, no enforced standards. Developers reading this will complain that that’s an exaggeration. I don’t know, guys, it was the director of planning at Nairobi City Council, Patrick Odongo, who told me that.