The short answer is Yes!
In 1960, there were no slums in Nairobi, a beautiful city with a sunny, but quite cool, climate, on a fertile plateau in Kenya. Inapproriate government policy and failure to deal with the housing needs of a growing population led to the present position where over half of the three million population of the city live in shanty slums.
A brief comparison of the history of Dublin and Nairobi shows that, with poor urban government, it could happen here. Note some important ingredients:
- Zoning laws that restrict the land available for housing;
- Housing regulations that prevent the building of affordable housing;
- Lack of title of residents to the place they live.
18th century Kips:
The Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the 17th century caused a great influx of homeless people into Dublin. The word "Kip" originally referred to a sleeping place or boarding house. In Dublin of the early 18th century it came to mean a building where homeless people were provided shelter for the night. These often had no beds. For a modest sum, you were provided with a space along a bar. With others, you slept standing while leaning against the bar. The kips were notorious for robbery and assaults and for prostitution. The Penal Times (18th century) were peaceful and prosperous. Dublin mushroomed and quality of life improved. Land and houses were owned by protestants and the bulk of the population were Catholic tenants.
19th century Slums:
Following the Act of Union in 1800, the population continued to grow, but the economy declined. By the end of the century Dublin had the worst slums in Europe (and the most notorious Red Light District).
1930s, 40s, 50s
Public housing converted the green fields of Cabra, Drimnagh, Crumlin, Raheny, Coolock, etc., into houses. Tenants were enouraged to buy the houses from the local authorities and these areas became largely owner-occupied.
From the 19th century, a large segment of the housing of Dublin was in rented accomodation. In 1914, rent restriction was brought in and this was extended continuously up to the 1960s. As a result, the housing landlords were impoverished and the stock of rented houses deteriorated and declined. A housing crisis emerging in the 1960s was met by the building of the high towers in Ballymun. This provided places for the people to sleep, but failed to provide normal urban living facilities. Unfortunatelfy, what could have been an excellent development was just a huge collection of kips (i.e., sleeping places).
1970s and 80s
The growing population of Dublin was not being catered for by the city plan; insufficient land was to be zoned for housing. Individual initiatives (Liam Lawlor style) succeeded in re-zoning large tracts of land in West Dublin, against the wishes of the city managers and planners. Without these initiatives, we would have seen a huge homelessness emerging and an immense bubble in property prices in Dublin.
A redevelopment of Ballymun ran out of steam. Instead of improving the existing tower blocks and adding the needed urban amenities, the blocks were torn down and replaced by much of the same (well, with some improvement). For many young people seeking temporary accomodation in Dublin, bed-sits provided an affordable solution. The regulators, however, seeking to make things better, prohibited any further letting of bedsits. This removed a large stock of affordable housing from the market, one element in the emergence of homelessness. There is now no affordable short-term accomodation in Dublin. The financial crash left thousands of house-purchasers unable to repay their mortgages. NAMA was set up to save the banks and purchased the bank loans at a discount. It could have re-sold to the house-owners at a profit for the state, but still at a discount on the original cost. Instead, it sold at a discount to Vulture Funds, re-introducing 19th century landlordism. House-purchasers, unable to repay their mortgages, were evicted, the main cause of our current homelessness. Meanwhile the population of Dublin is increasing more rapidly than the stock of houses, meaning we are headed for Nairobi style slums.
Coming soon: shanty living in Dublin
In Nairobi, with nowhere to live, the homeless people built their shacks from sticks, corrugated iron, cardboard and plastic, along the banks of the rivers, on the flood planes, and in other open places. We can expect Dublin's shanties, if affordable housing is not provided to meet the rising population, along the Dodder, the Grand Canal, the Tolka, Ringsend Park, Bull Island, and any open spaces available. Imagine 100,000 people settling on the lawns of St Stephen's Green. The Board of Works comes along, supported by the police, bulldozes the shacks and drives the homeless people off. Where do they go? Onto Merrion Square, the banks of the Grand Canal and the Dodder: until they are bulldozed out of there.
A Brief History of Nairobi
Nairobi was an uninhabited swamp, served by a network of small rivers, on a fertile plane, with a sunny but cool climate. It was part of the lands of the Maasai, a nomadic people. These did not believe in the ownership of land, but drove their herds of cattle and goats over the plains. "Nairobi" is a Maasai word that means "cool water." A railway was being built from Mombasa (then capital of the territory) to Uganda, and a depot and camp was set up at Nairobi. Around the camp, shacks and bazaars quickly developed.
1900 - 1926
A Town Committee was set up to organise the place. The area of the town was declared to be a 1.5 mile radius surrounding His Brittanic Majesty's Commissioner's office. A town hall, hotel, banks, trading centres, Catholic Church and school, and other facilities were provided and the town developed very rapidly.
Nairobi was given the status of a city by Royal Charter, March 1950. (In 1964 Keny became independent and Nairobi's Mayor indigenous. In 2013, the title of Nairobi City Council was changed to Nairobi City County).
1960 to now: growth of slums
Conflict, tribal clashes, drought, rural depopulation, refugees from wars in neighbouring states and other events brought floods of people into Nairobi. Land was not provided for the new people to make their home. They had to settle illegally on open land. They had no title to this land, but have to pay large rents to speculators who claim to be owners of the land, most of which was, in fact, public open space. Any attempt to build proper buildings is frustrated, because the land grabbers, who claim ownership, often through corruption, move in with eviction orders and bulldozers and demolish whatever buildings the slum-dwellers erect.
Visiting Nairobi in 2002, I stayed in a house in the grounds of the Mater Hospital, beside the slum of Mukuru. "Mukuru" is a Swahili word meaning "Dump." The City Council had many years ago declared that the area was unfit for housing, being located beside a dump. This meant it was open space on which homeless people could settle and build their shacks. Now around half a million people live here in that dump.
I woke on my first morning in Nairobi to the shock of a large mass of men marching by my window. "What's going on?" I said to my sister, Mary, "Have I arrived in the middle of a revolution?"
"No," said Mary, "These men are walking into the city to work."
It transpired that 100,000 men walk every day from the slum into the city to work!
"If they have jobs," I aked, "why are they living in the slum and not in proper houses."
"Because," came the answer, "property is too expensive in Nairobi. People with unskilled work can't afford houses."
So: the main reason for the slums is lack of affordable housing. This is caused by failure to zone land for housing to compete with existing housing areas. It is also caused by the failure to allow poor people to own their own plot so that they can build for themselves houses of better quality than the present shacks, if not of a quality to satisfy housing regulations.
Lack of land zoned for housing (on the open plains) to compete with existing urban areas means that land and buildings are grossly over-priced.