The Dangers of Rights-Based Housing in African Cities


Editorial Note: The arguments in this ViewPoint are published as a chapter in the book, Dystopia: How the Tyranny of Specialists Fragment African Cities, African Urban Institute Press, Harare by the same author.

In this age of rapid urbanization across Africa, housing is arguably the most contentious aspect of the built environment. One of the contributing factor to the contention housing receive in African countries is the domination of rights-based housing in the housing delivery process. The rights-based approach of prioritizing housing the furthest behind first has become popular yet the effectiveness of such approach in creating inclusive cities need to be interrogated. Because, as well intentioned as the approach may be, it may create challenges that weaken the housing delivery process and eventually turn cities across Africa into worse off conditions. This ViewPoint assesses the case of effective strategies for inclusive cities versus inclusive strategies for inclusive cities in housing delivery.

The Right to the City Movement

As an approach, rights-based housing stems from the ‘right to the city movement which arose from Karl Marx’s theory of class struggle. Marx’s theory asserts class exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie as a perpetual struggle that need to overcoming by abolishing class distinctions and overthrowing the capitalist system. The right to the city movement gained its current name from an essay by French Philosopher, Henri Lefebvre under the same title; Right to the City. By right to the city, this entails that citizens have the right to demand access to urban resources; the right to change the city as they change themselves, by that transforming their urban life.[1] Ever since Henri Lefebvre’s essay, rights-based housing has been taking centre stage in housing delivery. In June 1996, the proposition of rights-based housing was adopted into policy at the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul, Turkey. In 2016 at Habitat III, the notion of right to the city was enshrined into the key policy document, the New Urban Agenda.

However, the right to the city movement that form rights-based housing is in a dilemma itself. Being of Marxist school of thought, it is an approach of revolution, a revolution to overthrow the capitalist system and introduce the communist system. Its application to housing provision however is that of reform approach. The revolution-reform complexity contributes to the challenged I discuss in this ViewPoint.

I ought to mention, discussing the shortcomings of rights-based housing is not easy. It can come at a huge cost career wise. It might generate hostility that hinders intellectual advancement of the approach. Because stemming from a revolution movement of right to the city, it tends to have low regard for rationality in a capitalist world. Any criticism can easily be considered a rivalry. By virtue of challenging the capitalist system, which is highly immoral, the movement assumes a position of morality, which tend to make it absolved of any shortcomings. However, in the reform approach to housing provision, exploring the effectiveness of the approach is very crucial, if African countries are to create inclusive cities.

Housing the Furthest Behind First

“Housing the furthest behind first” has become the motto of most housing policies and housing programmes across Africa. In this motto, the lowest class of society in cities the most priority to the rest of the rest of other classes. In doing so, it has been helpful in addressing the plight of the lower class that lives in slum housing mostly. The motto was also a prominent strategy to revive declining interest in urban development in developing countries among financiers. This is evidenced in the establishment of the organization, Cities Alliance that is driven by the motto “Cities without Slums.” As ‘housing the furthest behind first’ play a crucial role in providing housing for the most vulnerable groups of society it also comprise of several shortcomings that are undermining housing provision efforts across Africa.

In Africa, housing the furthest behind first as a major policy shift can be traced back to The World Banks’s ‘Site and Services’ projects in the 1970s. Under the ‘Site and Services,’ low-income households were offered subsidized land with on-site infrastructure for self-built housing. However, several challenges crippled the programme with the most highlighted challenge being corruption by government elites, which led to most intended beneficiaries not receiving any. This failure led World Bank to publish a flagship report in 1983, Learning by Doing.[2] Other than the corruption nonetheless, another cause was not highlighted as much.  About 30 to 60 percent, the intended beneficiaries of the programme could not afford the allocated ‘Site and Services’ allocated to them even subsidized.[3] As a result, the recipients passed their allocations to the group that could afford, that is the middle class and its many sub classifications. Decades after the World Bank’s programme, the phenomenon of the middle-class going after subsidised housing for the lower class: “middle-class poaching” is still very prevalent across Africa.

Practitioners and specialists who propose rights-based housing for low-income groups despise middle-class poaching. As this despise continue however, there has been not much effort to understand the dynamics of the market that influence this ‘poaching’ and seek to address it. Because of the focus of housing policies and programmes on the lowest income groups, proponents of rights-based housing assess the effectiveness of every housing programme by governments based exclusively on its affordability to the lowest income groups. This approach has become a hindrance to the development of inclusive cities as classes become more polarized in the housing provision. Two case studies demonstrate this challenge most tellingly: the upgrading of the largest slum settlement in Africa, Kibera and the development of the first Chinese-built city in Africa, Kilamba New City.

Canaan Estate: The Promised Land

Kibera is regarded the largest slum settlement in Africa, the third largest in the world. It is located five kilometres to the south-west of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. As a slum settlement, it houses some of the furthest behind population of the city. Therefore, in housing provision, it receives high priority given the vulnerabilities that slum dwellers face. In 2004, Kenya Slum Programme (KENSUP) was established with an ambitious budget of $8.6 billion. It was a partnership between UN-Habitat and the Government of Kenya, seeking to improve infrastructure and housing for 5.3 million slum dwellers in Kenya and across Sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Following the establishment of KENSUP, it embarked on upgrading of section of Kibera called Canaan Estate which the local gave a befitting nickname, “the Promised Land.” The estate was to have all the services that the slums did not provide well, reliable electricity, water supply and sewer reticulation.

In 2015, a decade after KENSUP began upgrading Canaan Estate in Kibera, 822 families moved into the new apartments. The estate had 21 blocks of four to five storey buildings comprising of bedsitters, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.  Under a mortgage spanning 25 years, the residents were required to pay 800,000 Kenyan Shillings (Sh) (about $7, 700) for a bedsitter. For a one-bedroom, they had to pay Sh1 Million (about $10 000) and Sh1.35 Million (about $13 000) for a two-bedroom apartment.[4] It was a heavily subsidised housing programme.

A year after, about half of the 822 families that moved into the new apartments were reported to have returned to the slums. These recipients of the new apartments rented them out to Nairobi’s upper lower-class and lower middle-class searching for less expensive housing. They charged them monthly rent of Sh16 000 (about $150) for a one-bedroom apartment.[5] This was financially sound for the slum returnees. In the slums, the returnees would pay rent that is far lower than in the Estate. From the Sh16 000 they received as rental income, the slum returnees paid Sh5 000 (about $50) to service their 25-year mortgage leaving them with an extra income in their pockets. Others gave apartments to their children or relatives who could afford to service the mortgage as they returned to the slums. In extreme cases, some slum returnees sold the apartments, making up to three times more the amount of their mortgage. A one-bedroom apartment would fetch for Sh2.5million (about $25 000). Selling inclusive of mortgage even fetched Sh3million (about $29 000) as once the buyer cleared the mortgage, change of ownership at the ministry became possible.

From the case of Canaan Estate upgrading, it became evident that ‘middle-class poaching’ is still very prevalent as market forces continue to influence housing market. In some cases, restrictions have been put on the minimum years a subsidised house can be transferred to a new owner. This has not been effective. For example, in South Africa under the Reconstruction and Development Project (RDP), the state-subsidised starter houses for low-income groups commonly known as ‘RDP houses’ faced the same problem. To minimise the occurrence of premature transfer of ownership, the programme initially restricted the transfer of the houses only after eight years (later reduced to five). These restrictions did not help nonetheless. Over 60 percent of the RDP starter houses are regarded to be now occupied by residents who were not intended recipients of the programme. Most of the houses even changed occupants before they reached the minimum required years for transfer.[6] Indebtedness haunted most starter homeowners; they struggled to pay their loans. Sometimes, the recipients built lean-to-shacks where they stayed while they rented out their allocated houses. A few of them were reported to have sold their allocated houses and returned to the rural areas.

When large-scale social housing programmes and slum upgrading projects fail, the most attributed cause is lack of community participation in such upgrading programmes which is rightly so given that upgrading projects that involve community participation tend to have higher success rate. In the age of rapid urbanisation however, what is not discussed is if all social housing programmes should be bottom up self-help and co-created communities. That as we focus on housing the furthest behind first, how are we to cater for other classes that are not the furthest behind yet also facing housing challenge. By obliging every government housing programme to focus on the furthest behind first, the proponents of rights-based housing have been risking holding other classes of urban society hostage on condition that their ransom is tied to the successful housing of the furthest behind first.

The rights-based approach’s sole focus on the ‘furthest behind first’ has become so bad, its proponents even criticise low-cost housing for not being affordable enough to the lowest income groups. In most cases, the proponents interchange low-cost housing with affordable housing. This phenomenon was most evident in Angola. In 2008, during an election campaign, the then President, Eduardo dos Santos promised to increase housing stock under the programme, Novas Centralidades (New Centralities).

The Kilamba New City

Following President Dos Santos’s 2008 campaign promise, the Angolan government committed to create social housing that was worth $3.5 billion. The project had financial support of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China under oil-for infrastructure arrangement. Nova Cidale de Kilamba (Kilamba New City), located 30 kilometres outside Angola’s capital, Luanda, was one of the projects. Built by Chinese contractors and completed in September 2012, the new city had 750 apartment buildings making up 20 000 apartment units. The apartments ranged from two to four bedrooms with supporting commercial and social services. The new city was to house 160 000 people.

After Kilamba New City was completed however, it made global headlines.[7] The international media and proponents of rights-based housing dubbed it “the first Chinese-built ghost town in Africa.” Its vilification was not because of its drawbacks as a sprawling mass public housing. Behind its popular ghost status was the argument that the newly built housing was not affordable to most Angolans who lived on less than $2 a day.[8] Proponents of rights-based housing expected it to remain a ghost city for a long-time as a testimony to the consequences of top-down urban development approach.

The apartments ranged from $120 000 to $200 000. The mortgage required payment of $12 000 a year for a two-bedroom apartment ($1 000 per month). By November 2012, however, the housing had proved too expensive for the regarded middle class as a low cost housing programme. Commercial banks were not approving mortgages. In February 2013, the government of Angola introduced a heavily subsidised rent-to-buy scheme. The apartments’ prices were reduced by 41.6 percent; to $70 000 for a two-bedroom apartment and $180 000 for four-bedrooms ones. Residents were now required to pay $5 686 annually to the mortgage for a two-bedroom apartment, for example. It became affordable to most of the working class. By September 2013, the two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments had sold out, 12 425 apartments of the 20 000 were bought in the first year and a waiting list had developed for the heavily subsidised housing. By July 2015, about 80 000 residents had moved into Kilamba.[9] In 2017, Kilamba had high occupancy levels. It was now facing a new problem, traffic congestion given that most of its residents are commuters who work in Luanda, thirty kilometres from Kilamba. Almost ten years later, however, the media and the scholars who initially popularised Kilamba’s ghost status have not revisited it. Perhaps it is no longer noteworthy, or, maybe, it no longer suits the narrative that was popularised initially.

Among the middle-class residents who received Kilamba housing, cases were also recorded of some who falsified their documentation claiming higher salaries to qualify for the mortgage and are now struggling to service their mortgage. Regardless of the predicament of the middle-class to afford housing in the current mortgage market, the rights-based housing policy tend paint them with an elite brush; they seem to be a despised class.

The Plight of the Despised Class

Under the rights-based housing approach that promotes housing of the furthest behind first, the regarded middle class continue to be a despised and a marginalised class. This despise does not come from rationality of experts regarding housing affordability and capacity of such class to increase housing stock, it comes from right to the city as a political movement with well-set political goals that transcend rationality.

In playing the politics of class struggle, proponents of rights-based housing simplistically divide the population of cities into two; the rich and the poor—just like Karl Marx divided earlier population into the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The imagery of slums located right next to upmarket-gated communities of the rich often complete the picture of this depiction of class conflict and inequality in cities. In this division however, the ‘middle class’ and its various subclasses is obscured. Some of the proponents in fact belong to the lower middle class and struggle very much to secure their own housing yet under the ethos of furthest behind first they also marginalise their own class and all the challenges they face.

When international organisations report on government corruption as subsidised housing fail to reach the intended recipients, they usually bundle up low-ranking civil servants with the corrupt political elites and high-ranking civil servants. Most of the civil servants—the petit bourgeoisie—who are struggling to secure housing become invisible. These are civil servants, tax-paying citizens, who work in various public service departments. Some of them are even direct or indirect administrators of housing programmes for low-income groups. Amid this bundling with the political elites, however, this regarded middle class cannot afford to own housing in the prevailing mortgage and housing market. Most do not meet the financial requirements to qualify for housing mortgages. Microfinance to support them is so minimal, close to non-existent.

When this lower-middle class goes for the heavily subsidised low-income housing, it becomes the despised “middle-class poaching.” This is regardless that their ‘middle-class’ label does not necessarily entail their capacity to afford non-subsidised housing. Because across Africa, the way middle-class is defined differs from the developed world. The African Development Bank classifies Africans who spend $2 − $20 a day as the middle-class. Those who spend $10 − $20 a day are even classified as “upper middle-class.”[10] That is not the middle-class to regard as the rich elite by twenty-first century standards of high cost of living.

Unscrupulous housing developers have discovered the despised middle-class and all its subclasses to be a lucrative business opportunity. Every month, the struggling ‘middle-class’ is being scammed millions of dollars across the continent. [11] The scammers are usually politically connected. Sometimes, they are the political elites themselves. You can actually number the African cities where the ‘middle-class’ gets legitimate low-cost housing. Regardless of the middle-class’s huge potential to increase housing stock if supported well with low-cost housing, their predicament with unscrupulous developers is rarely a priority in housing policy and in housing discussions. When municipalities demolish middle-class housing built on illegally allocated land by unscrupulous developers and land barons, the demolitions do not receive the same attention as that of demolitions during clearance of slums.

The increasing dominance of ‘right to the city’s ethos of ‘furthest behind first’ in both home ownership and rental market is even doing more harm to the housing market if we look closely. Because of its absolutism, many cities with huge housing deficit across the African continent also have a lot of unoccupied apartments and houses. For example, Egypt with huge housing deficit of more than one million houses has more than ten million unoccupied apartments and houses. This is because in cases of tenants defaulting on rentals and mortgages the legal system adopts the absolute rights-based approach. Now, the developers who have the capacity to solve housing crisis in Africa are rolling back and becoming more risk averse. They are instead moving to other less risky developments such as shopping malls. It becomes a big loss to citizens who are in need of housing and no one is developing them adequately. The rights-based housing approach continues to distort the housing market nonetheless. This is also because the housing specialists rarely use a model of equilibrium between private housing and social housing, because when there is disequilibrium such challenges occurs.

The Reality of Class Cooperation

The ‘furthest behind first’ approach has been relying on the argument that supporting the upper class does not trickle-down to the poor. That the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Therefore, housing policy and research in most African countries are inclined towards home ownership of slum dwellers; the approach to progressive universalism. The inclination is never short of romanticism and glorification of slum dwelling. Most studies on housing across Africa focus on the slum settlements: how many people live in slums and their predicament.

While such studies increase sense of urgency among development actors, for experts who seek to improve housing they may not be as useful. Because experts would like to know housing statistics across the board, across all classes, how many people live in rental housing, how many own housing, where is the biggest growth, which classes have the biggest contribution to housing stock, how much cooperation exist among various subclasses in mixed housing. All this data is usually not available or even discussed.

A closer look at the rental housing market, a significant degree of class cooperation exist in most African cities as various classes and subclasses cooperate in the rental system. In the rental market, multi-habitation housing and family housing are common in most African cities.[12] Most of the middle-class families that own housing have not been living alone. They also accommodate extended family members who would have migrated from rural areas until they secure their own housing.  When building single-dwelling housing units, the middle-class households usually build additional rooms and rent them out to other residents in search of cheaper rental housing. It also generates extra income to support their livelihood.

The rental system is also the case with some of the upper middle-class who lives in suburbs. Because of the legacy of staff quarters in an outbuilding, they still build the staff quarters usually as their first house while building the main house. When they finish their main house, they usually rent out the outbuilding to the lower middle-class in search of rental housing. This renting approach is also prevalent in low-income neighbourhoods where illegal lean-to-shacks are developed and rented out.[13] Regardless of the prevalence of this rental system across Africa, it does not feature much in housing policy and housing research. When it does, it is usually focused on the ‘furthest behind’—low-income neighbourhoods where illegal backyard shacks are mushrooming.

The view of the city in absolute lenses of class conflicts and urban revolutions is making rights-based housing approach lose a rare opportunity to create inclusive cities across Africa. Few countries are now leaning towards holistic inclusion by introducing supplementary inclusionary housing policies. Their main housing policy, however, remains focused on the ‘furthest behind first.’

The phenomenon of “middle-class poaching” will not be improved only by improving the governance issues such as the well-intentioned efforts of the World Bank. Under the current approach, the ‘poaching’ will keep persisting across Africa. The success of slum upgrading and housing for the furthest behind depends on the success of middle-class housing. This is most evidenced in Morocco, which reduced its slum population by 45.8 percent between 2000 and 2010. It ranked second in the World’s Cities without Slums as a result.

The Morocco Housing Model

In July 2018, under the Machel-Mandela Fellowship of the Brenthurst Foundation, I had the privilege of studying the housing model of Morocco which has emerged with considerable success. It was a month after the housing Ministry of Morocco had declared in June 2018 that 58 of 85 of its cities were now ‘slum-free.’ Under the slum upgrading programme Villes Sans Bidonvilles (Cities without Slums) which started in 2004, Morocco had made major strides on comprehensive housing.[14]

While many challenges are associated with any housing programme given affordability concerns in developing countries, this housing approach did not focus only on the furthest behind first. It served all classes including the middle-class, through engaging private developers for subsidised housing projects. As a result, the case of ‘middle-class poaching’ was very minimal. [15]  Within sixteen years, Morocco reduced its housing shortage by 67 percent—from 1.2 million in 2002 to 400 000 in 2018.[16]

A city works best when it is in equilibrium. Whenever it goes into disequilibrium it takes the path that leads to dysfunction. This is what rights-based housing proponents as other specialists are challenged to consider. Social housing needs to be proportionate to market housing if the two are to operate together harmoniously. Given the city’s diverse groups of people that fall into various classes and subclasses, it will be challenging and a problem to prioritise resources to one group while marginalising the other. Given the interrelated nature of various social classes and subclasses, it requires housing experts to serve each group equitably and rationalise resources for best use to create more inclusive cities.

[1] Lefebvre, Henri. The Right to the City. In Kofman, Eleonore; Lebas, Elizabeth (eds.), Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996: p. 158.

[2] Cohen, Michael, Madavo, Callisto E. Dunkerley, Harold: Learning by doing: World Bank lending for urban development, 1972-82. Washington, DC: World Bank, 1983. 

[3] Peattie, Lisa R. Affordability. Habitat International. 11(4), 1987; pp. 69–76.

[4] Most of this data was collected during studies on Slum upgrading by the African Urban Institute.

[5] This was Sh15 000 rent and Sh1000 service fee paid to the estate.

[6] Ashton, Glenn. Houses for All: A Concept in Crisis. The South African Civil Society Information Service, 2010. Available:

[7] See Redvers, Louise. Angola’s Chinese-built Ghost Town. London: BBC News, July 03, 2012. Available:

; Badkar, Mamta. Check Out the Massive Chinese-Built Ghost Town in The Middle of Angola. Business Insider, July 03, 2012. Available:

[8] See for example, Watson, Vanessa. African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares? Environment and Urbanization. 26(1), 2014; p. 220.

[9] SAPO. Centralidade do Kilamba tem Mais de 80 mil Moradores em 4 anos. SAPO, July 13, 2015. Available:

[10] AfDB. The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa. Market Brief, African Development Bank. April 20, 2011.

[11] See Mahama, Callistus and Antwi, Adarkwah. Land and Property Markets in Ghana. A discussion paper prepared by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors for presentation at the 2006 World Urban Forum. London: RICS Research, 2006. Available:

[12] See Amole, Korboe and Tipple, 1993; Yetunde, 2014.

[13] Gilbert, Alan, Mabin, Alan, McCarthy, Malcolm and Watson, Vanessa. Low-income rental housing: Are South African cities different? Environment and Urbanization, 9(1), 1997; pp. 133–148.

[14] Atia, Mona. Refusing a “City without Slums”: Moroccan slum dwellers’ nonmovements and the art of presence. Cities, Article in Press, 2019.

[15] See Martin & Mathema, 2008; Jenkins, 2017; Alaoui, 2018.

[16]  Kacou, Flore. Morocco reduced its Housing Deficit by 800,000 within 16 years. Ecofin Agency, October 09, 2018. Available:

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.


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