The complex system of the low-income housing sector: understanding the blurry boundaries of slums in Nairobi

By Delfina Lopez Freijido

Slums present challenges to the rapidly urbanizing world. They involve multiple dimensions where problematic situations occur, especially in terms of no satisfaction and even violation of dwellers rights. Past responses to change this reality often failed because they didn’t get to target the causes of the visual reality. This has been so, because of the partial vision of slums that misses the dynamism of a system where slums are an integral component.

This partial understanding of slums prevents policies from tackling the roots and thus succeeding in altering the logic behind the observable outcomes. Embedded in such approach is the relying on the formal/informal distinction. Through such lens, the whole urban system that encompasses low income residential areas is missed together with its complexity.

This study zooms therefore in one particular sub-system where formal and informal sectors are intertwined: low income urban housing. Specifically, the following pages study slums in Nairobi through the lens of governance, in which the housing market appears to bear a critical role. This allows placing slums in a more complex context and integrates low income residents to the wider urban tissue.

The question that guides the study is: What role does low-income renting play in Nairobi’s housing market? By shedding light on the answer, the study will provide some insights to the broader question of the extent to which the concept of informality holds to understand slums.

Slums present challenges to the rapidly urbanizing world. They involve multiple dimensions where problematic situations occur, especially in terms of no satisfaction and even violation of dwellers rights. Past responses to change this reality often failed because they didn’t get to target the causes of the visual reality. This has been so, because of the partial vision of slums. Such responses have been generally “based on the erroneous belief that provision of improved housing and related services (through slum upgrading) and physical eradication of slums will, on their own, solve the slum problem” (UN-Habitat, 2003). This approach misses the dynamism of a system where slums are an integral component.

This partial understanding of slums prevents policies from tackling the roots and thus succeeding in altering the logic behind the observable outcomes. Embedded in such approach is the relying on the formal/informal distinction. Through such lens, the whole urban system that encompasses low income residential areas is missed together with its complexity.

When concluding her paper “Tenement City: the emergence of multi-storey district through large-scale private landlordism in Nairobi”, Marie Huchzermeyer (2007) rightly calls for understanding, conceptualizing and addressing the developing World city “not only from the point of view of the ‘slum’, but from the wider urban residential market”. Departing from this call, the present paper seeks to expand the understanding of slums by turning to the lens of governance as a theoretical framework. Such theoretical framework expands the visualization of the city to grasp a whole system where slums are an interacting component more than an exception to the rule. It also allows demonstrating that there is a dynamic logic behind; and it requires to be incorporated to policies if they are to ease the problems that rest among Nairobi’s low-income residents.

In seeking to satisfy the aim, this study zooms in one particular sub-system where formal and informal sectors are intertwined: low income urban housing. Specifically, the following pages study slums in Nairobi through the lens of governance, in which the housing market appears to bear a critical role. This allows placing slums in a more complex context and integrates low income residents to the wider urban tissue.

The question that guides the study is: What role does low-income renting play inNairobi’s housing market? By shedding light on the answer, the study will provide some insights to the broader question of the extent to which the concept of informality holds to understand slums.

The relevance of studying slums reality through the perspective of governance stems from the great pressure urbanization is placing on cities and the repeatedly failure of policies to effectively re-channel the forces in the housing market to aid the affordability of deign housing by the lower-income population.

The paper starts by presenting the theoretical background where the contrast between the dichotomy formal/informal and the concept of governance is schematized. The second section identifies the conditions of the residential housing sector in Nairobi. A third part works on the analysis of the governance of such sector looking to provide its extended understanding and complexity. Finally, concluding remarks are provided.

Delfina Lopez Freijido is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs working towards a Masters degree in Public Administration, with a concentration on urban policy. In 2012, Delfina worked with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, conducting research on the low-income housing market.

4 thoughts on “The complex system of the low-income housing sector: understanding the blurry boundaries of slums in Nairobi

  1. Will this be a series of posts on slums? or is there a link where we can get the paper?

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