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Housing crisis deepens as money runs out

The acute shortage of urban residential accommodation of all types throughout the country continues to deteriorate. Besides, with construction costs going up by 36 percent a year, there is an ever increasing number of people who are unable to afford the cheapest houses on the market whenever they become available.

The National Property Association says the escalating construction costs translate to about $1 000 per square metre for the average high density 50-square metre concrete block under asbestos. Just two years ago the same house cost about $520 per square metre.

The average low-density house of more than 110 square metres is now costing anything from $2 000 a square metre. Building costs for houses under 110 square metres are much higher and are in the region of $2 300 to $2 500 per square metre.

Replacement costs for flats and town houses are from $3 000 per square metre upwards.

The NPA says, added to the astronomical costs, the shortage of building materials has worsened the situation. Although the importation of certain essential building materials through the Open General Import Licence (OGIL) has somewhat eased the shortage, this scheme is more beneficial to the larger contractors who can import in large quantities and absorb the high unit costs which this exercise entails. The small contractors and self-builders have to scramble for the locally available building materials.

The provision of adequate housing has also suffered from the inability of building societies to offer loans. The lack of funds has had one positive effect of dampening the escalation of house prices but the overall effect has been negative because there is a “stifled” demand for new housing which cannot be met while at the same time mortgage loans cannot be secured to purchase existing houses.

An extremely desperate situation therefore now exists and there is serious overcrowding in the high density houses where whole families are accommodated in single rooms paying exorbitant rents.

This crisis has created circumstances which are ideal for epidemics due to severe overcrowding and the failure of the urban infrastructure due to exhausted capacity. It has also created a situation where crime and other social pathologies can thrive.

“Action to remedy this time bomb in the housing sector is urgently needed,” the NPA says. “The government which although it has its hands full dealing with the present water crisis and food shortage cannot afford to ignore the shelter crisis.”

“Tax incentives and other inducements must be offered to channel private sector finance into housing, even for letting purposes. The public sector alone cannot cope with the housing crisis. Planning standards should be revised in order to be more sensitive to affordability criteria. Rent control on new residential blocks could be revised to encourage new developments. Smaller stands and more flat rights are some of the many avenues of action needed to tackle the growing housing shortage,” the NPA says.

It is estimated that 162 000 housing units are required in the urban areas each year but less than 20 000 are being built.

The situation becomes even more critical when one considers that the urban population is increasing each year. Although Africa, presently, is the world’s least urbanised region with only 30 percent of its population living in towns and cities, it has the world’s highest urbanisation rates. The overall urban population is expected to increase from 129 million in 1980 to more than 764 million (a sevenfold increase) by the year 2 000.

It is estimated that 34.6 percent of all Zimbabweans will be living in urban areas by the year 2 000. The urban growth rate will average 5 percent.

The implications of these demographic trends for employment creation, provision of food and housing, social services, expansion of urban infrastructure and the protection of the urban environment is staggering. In many African cities, as in many Third World cities as a whole, nearly half of the population lives in slums and squatter settlement.

More than 25 percent of the inhabitants of most large cities live in absolute poverty and public investment often misses them as expenditure is biased towards the higher income groups. Lack of access to social services such as education and health leads to higher infant mortality among the poor.

“Zimbabwe’s urban areas are no exception to these weaknesses. Housing waiting lists continue to grow and homelessness is on the increase,” says NPA. “The urban infrastructure is struggling to cope with the ever increasing numbers of urban dwellers while at the same time there is reduced public investment to maintain and expand facilities.”

Unemployment is on the increase along with the relentless increase in building costs thus making provision of affordable housing even more unattainable. What can be done to halt this growth of urban poverty? The answer cannot come from the “quick fix” solutions.

“The integration of a national urbanisation policy with national micro-economic policies designed to stimulate capital accumulation and employment creation appears to be a starting point. The issue certainly needs a great deal more attention than ever before,” the NPA says.

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