Picture this: you move to a quiet neighbourhood and put up a nice bungalow.
Every morning you wake up and sit in your small porch as you watch the sun rise in the horizon, and on weekends your children join your neighbours’ to race their bicycles to your common gate and back.
Life is simple, cosy and peaceful. The neighbourhood is sparsely populated, safe and quiet; partly because the zoning laws here dictate that this is a residential area, and partly because this is a new estate that still has one or two undeveloped plots.
Picture, also, waking up one morning to watch the sun rise, only to be confronted with the ghastly sight of cranes and earthmovers massing towards one of the undeveloped 50-by-100s. You rush out to ask what is happening, whether they want to tarmac the dusty road to your fine little abode.
“No, we are not tarmacking any road,” someone breaks the news to you. “We are planting a four-story building here, and it will have 40 one- and two-bedroom units.”
“Hey, this is a residential zone!” you yell, and the contractor informs you: “Sir, your plot is a residential, ours is a commercial one. You can check with City Hall if you doubt it.”
Then the truth — as it did the residents of Gatong’ora, recently renamed Greenfields, estate along the Eastern bypass in Ruiru — hits you with the force of 1,000 cement bags; your cosy little neighbourhood is gone. In a few months, 40 new families will move here to share the dusty little road, the drainage system, the kiosk and the early morning sun with you.
You will also probably only enjoy the sun at mid-day, because the new flat will tower over your tiny bungalow. Now, that does not sound right, but it is the new reality Kenyan home owners are forced to face every day.
If you live in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru or Eldoret, you most probably have seen it happen, and watched as helpless tenants try to save whatever remains of the dignity of their little homes as flats spring up all around them.
But while the small home owners think this is unacceptable, a growing number of Kenyans think this is the only way to go. Land is fast becoming a scarce commodity, and so, the thinking goes, people must learn to share whatever little of it they get. What is the point of living in a ranch alone when you can have 1,000 people sharing it with you?
Hannah Karanja is one such person. She has lived the better part of her years in Nairobi’s Huruma slums, where she has watched the mud hovels here slowly transform into brick-and-mortar affairs and, lately, one-floor flats.
A few years ago, someone came up with the bright idea of a savings group that would use the proceeds to build houses. Hannah joined them, all the while hoping to move from her mabati home to a more decent one.
Within a few years, they bought land from the Nairobi City Council and started putting up their dream homes. Naturally, and in keeping with the new motto of up, up, up, the structures rose more than one floor.
“Our team, called Muungano wa Wanavijiji Self-Help Group, had this marvellous idea of uprgading our lives,” says Hannah. “We started contributing Sh10 daily per person 14 years ago, and when NCC donated the land to us, everyone wanted a piece of it.”
But it was just a small piece of land, and so to accommodate everyone here, they decided to build one-story flats deep in the Huruma slums. In the quest to improve their living standards, however, they forgot to look into the future, and now that oversight has come to haunt them.
“Yes, we achieved our dreams,” says Hannah, “but privacy, we came to learn later, should have been factored in the design of these houses. My son is all grown up now, yet he must pass through my room to get to his. It is a sacrifice I guess I have to pay when space does not allow for better.”
Across the city in Lang’ata, John Syombua has an even bigger devil to deal with. After many years of peace, a four-floor structure sprung from the ground next to his house. Now he has to learn to live with it... or ship out.
“I just woke up one day to find building materials on the land next to my compound,” he remembers. “A few months later, the monster was towering over my house.”
John Syombua’s problems could be a pointer to the future of property development in Kenya; because, for a growing number of real estate developers, the only way to reap big from their investments is to put up as many units as possible on their parcels of lland. And that, invariably, means putting up flats.
Paul Musyoki, an urban planner, says that, in the last 10 years, the country has experienced a tremendous change in the height of buildings, especially in Nairobi and Nakuru.
“Maisonettes and bungalows are being slowly kicked out of the picture by highrise blocks,” he says, adding that the real estate industry, just like others, is motivated by profits.
“Logically, you would make more money if you put up a highrise building that can accommodate 20 households or offices on a piece of land that would ordinarily have only one house,” he says.
While the population keeps growing, land does not, and that means the value of any piece of land in the country will forever keep appreciating.
The easier way to address this problem, at least for commercial developers, is densification, which means increasing the vertical height of buildings to accommodate more people per piece of land.
Musyoki adds that authorities may not have a lot of control over land, given the existing legal framework, because most of the land is privately owned, and so owners determine what to do with it.
According to The State Of Development, a joint report by the Kenya Property Development Association (KPDA) and Hass Consult, the increase in land rates and building permits by the Nairobi county government threatens to disrupt the real estate sector as “it prompts entrepreneurs to buy small pieces of land, culminating in developing the little space upwards”.
To curb unplanned development, some cities, including Nairobi, resort to zoning certain areas. Zoning involves placing land uses in a group of spatial conglomerations. For example, Karen is a residential zone while Upper Hill is commercial.
But even with zoning, “it is not possible to fully isolate land uses which co-exist”, says Musyoki. “For instance, there is no problem in having a shopping mall in an area that is exclusively zoned for residential use mainly because the mall will help complement the residential developments.”
That explains why there are no industrial developments in Upper Hill, although there might be a number of commercial buildings and offices in Karen.
Musyoki, however, says it is important to adhere to zoning laws as this is the only way a developer would understand how land is segregated.
There are areas, for instance, which are zoned for multiple residential purposes, and it is, therefore, okay to construct flats here. But in areas zoned as low-density residentials, one should seek permission from the authorities before constructing a flat.
“Of course there are considerations regarding zoning laws. If such an application is deemed appropriate, one can be allowed to build a flat even when the area is for low density. That is what is happening in Lavington, Kileleshwa and several other suburbs,” he says.
However, there are many dangers posed by such buildings, especially if the massive investment in constructing them is not matched with a similar investment in provision of infrastructure and services.
“If you put up a 35-floor skyscraper, where will all the sewerage and grey water be channelled to? Where will all the household waste be taken? How will traffic in and out of these blocks be managed?” he asks.
According to a Kenya Open Data Survey report released earlier this year, approximately 3.14 million people live in Nairobi currently. By 2020, the population is expected to hit six million, and that means the way for developers to go could only be up.