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The unblemished truth about Nigeria’s housing ‘crisis’ I

We keep repeating that Nigeria suffers 17million units housing deficit. That is simply untrue. The guys who push that rhetoric probably know what they are doing because the figure alarms every government and pushes them into certain suboptimal decisions.  The simple way to look at it is that in Nigeria up to 10 human beings (old and young) can live in a house; say a 3 bedroom flat, and they’ll not be said to be ‘homeless’. We are not yet that kind of society where a man and woman live with only their children, even though we are getting there. 

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So, 17million units of houses could easily translate to us housing a fresh 170 million people, which is our entire population. Are we then saying all Nigerians are presently homeless? Some people have even taken pot-shots at our population figures and other statistics. Seems like we may not be as many as we say we are. Politics got the better of us as we inflated away in order to get a bigger share of the national cake. Late Prof Ali Mazrui once mocked us for not being able to count ourselves despite being Giants of Africa.

And so, in response to this alarming housing deficit, government is pushed into embarking on different schemes on a yearly basis, just as they try and support some builders. The Federal Mortgage Bank has supported many housing schemes around the country. But the reality is that Nigeria has been taking all the wrong decisions and the efforts so far have not had any salutary effect on society. We have been providing what our people don’t need and what they cannot afford.  To that extent in every state capital in Nigeria today are many housing units, which are unoccupied with no hope in sight that they will be any time soon. In some parts of Nigeria, people abhor living in block of flats, even though they must be told that as population increases we cannot continue to sprawl. We must leave much land for farming purposes.  Yet the housing deficit, which we may now review downwards drastically, remains alarming. 

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What countries do is to be honest with themselves in things like this. The housing needs of a country are tied to its education system, it’s pace of development and its culture at large. Countries think of when young children will become adults and start to cater for themselves. They then channel efforts into providing tiny little accommodation that fit the needs of those youngsters whom their parents usually show the way out when they are around 18-years-old. The general reality is that nations will continue to urbanise as they develop.  In many countries around the world, it is not compulsory to attend university, and youngsters usually become useful to society by learning a trade, skill or craft right after secondary school. Therefore, a youth attending some technical school or training should be able to rent or start to own a tiny studio house. Later on, that same youth may come into his own and decide to get married or just get something bigger/better. Then he wants to move into a one-bedroom or two-bedroom house. And it goes on like that. At the tail end, old people move into smaller units and leave the big duplexes for those in their primes.

Also, rural homes are kept for as long as they can be. Many rural homes have been standing for 300 years, but that is because they were properly constructed and they are not fundamentally or structurally compromised. Basic hygiene factors have been reckoned in their construction such that today, they remain functional and help to reduce the housing deficit. Some have even become tourist attractions, earning money for the country. 

But in Nigeria the system is broken.

Not only do we now all want to attend university – except that we have millions of little children who are not even encouraged to attend anything at all.  As we crowd into university no one gets much-needed skills around which society revolves. We therefore import plumbers, bricklayers and whatnot from Togo, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire where they have been properly trained. Add to this, the great problem of corruption which ensures that our national financial capital is grossly and shamelessly misappropriated and ends up in the hands of an insanely greedy few instead of being invested in the people as they do elsewhere, and we are set up for a big disaster in the near future.

Rural homes? Sorry. Most of them are falling where they stand today, having been almost totally eroded and corroded over time. There were no standards set when these houses were being built – mostly around the early 20th Century and in response to the stimulus of colonial influence. The trend of building houses with bad ventilation, and of course no provision for hygiene issues has continued till date in the rural areas. These are houses that easily succumb to the element; thunder strikes (they will say it’s their enemies), heavy downpours and floods, as well as simple erosion. Could the government have helped standardize the mud houses to make them more durable? Yes they could. But they didn’t. So instead of having tourist centres, we have building collapse to deal with. It’s not as if we understand the value of these things. The Brazilian House in Tinubu, Lagos was recently demolished to make way for a shopping plaza recently. Who cares?

Navigating the psychology

Let us also look at our psychology as a people. As people who expect magic in everything, we no longer do gradualism. There’s nothing like climbing the step rung by rung – from studio to one bedroom to two to three and then if lucky, a duplex. We believe God has ordained for us to ‘dominate’ the world and so, from squatting with people, we want to build our own houses.  Our culture also holds that anyone who cannot boast of a house of his own, is a failure.  We also believe the bigger your house, the bigger your success. Many Nigerians live for the image they portray outside. What is more? We see the acquisition of multiple houses as a signal of success. Elsewhere, it is not like that. In Germany, most people don’t bother owning houses till they die. In the UK, Nigerians are the chief acquirers of multiple houses.

Elsewhere – in most countries that work – people don’t buy land to build because places are planned. You buy from a scheme. 

At least I know a bit about a place like the UK and also Singapore. In the UK you get registered with your local council and apply for a place to live. They have several arrangements where you can get a fairly easy rent as you wait for your own allocation. Everybody is eventually on a mortgage so you are not expected to pay fully for a house where you are lucky to get one. 5% or 10% down payment is enough and the rest is spread over 25 or so years. In Singapore, the challenge they had was with space. And so they knew that they have to develop vertically. Almost every Singaporean today lives in those skyscrapers and nobody feels like a failure for living among other people in housing provided by government or private developers.  More next week. 

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