More than 700 buildings in Kenya are condemned as unsafe yet people continue to live in them. In the past 10 years alone, over 20 buildings have collapsed, killing over 100 people and injuring thousands.
We were all quick to point fingers at the government and owners when eight children died and 64 were injured after the Precious Talent Academy collapsed in September. Yet the deaths could have been averted if users were given the tools to check that their buildings and schools were safe to use.
Three years earlier, in 2016, the collapse of an apartment block in Huruma Estate, Nairobi, killed 45 and this was a building that had already been condemned by the authorities.
Why would people live in a condemned building? Evidence suggests that the main reasons relate directly to Kenya’s affordable housing crisis. There is a housing deficit of two million units, which increases by at least 200,000 yearly. The current affordable housing programme only promises to deliver 500,000 homes over a five-year period.
First, many tenants have refused to move due to the high cost of relocating — unless they are paid distress compensation.
Secondly, many cannot afford anywhere safer to live. If they move out, they will end up in a similar structure next door.
Thirdly, many do not know that the building they live in could collapse. In some cases, the caretakers and landlords have resorted to repainting to cover up the demolition signs in the form of a red ‘X’ that is placed on the building by authorities, leaving their tenants none the wiser of the dangers they face. In others, the authorities have not physically marked the building at all.
For every new building that has been approved for occupation, an occupation certificate is issued by the National Construction Authority. A tenant can request for a copy of the certificate.
We must be proactive in checking if a building is cleared for occupation rather than react with shock afterwards. This is particularly important for schools and apartments. It means starting a chain of responsibility right from the occupant to the owner, asking this simple question: “Does this building have an occupation certificate?”
If it is a school and the teacher does not know, which is often the case, challenge them to ask the principal, who can then ask the owner or the developer. If they do not know, ask the contractor or the architect of the building.
We cannot deny that the government is responsible for safety in construction but, in Nairobi, there are only 15 enforcement officers for more than 6,000 construction sites.
The National Disaster Management Authority says the collapses are due to developers and owners circumventing approval procedures. The result is structures with weak foundations and substandard stone built on unstable land, such as next to rivers. Another key reason they cite is the failure of the public to report dangerous buildings.
The citizens must take the responsibility to ensure buildings have been cleared for occupation. But that is not enough. Sustainable Development Goal No.11, on Sustainable Cities and Communities, commits the country to housing for all.
The government must provide incentives for the private sector to support this goal safely.
Ms Madete, an architectural designer at Buildx Studio and lecturer (TF) at the University of Nairobi, is a 2020 Aspen New Voices Fellow. @ettamadete