Access to decent housing is a fundamental human right. Across sub-Saharan Africa, however, this right remains an elusive dream for many households.
In Ghana, for example, the government estimates a staggering deficit of 1.8 million homes. Many households don’t get basic services either: 28.6% rely on wells for water, over a third use public latrines and one in ten dispose of waste indiscriminately.
Ghana’s housing market suffers from inadequate regulation. Landlords often demand exorbitant rents of 2-5 years in advance, even for poor accommodation. Both first-time and regular tenants save over seven months of their incomes to raise the advance rent. The burden of unaffordable housing weighs heavily on renters of all income levels.
Against this backdrop, the March 2020 announcement of a lockdown in the Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi metropolitan areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic raised concerns about how households would cope.
We are urban and housing studies scholars who research issues of housing in Ghana. Immediately after the lockdown restrictions were lifted, we conducted a study to explore how housing characteristics and households’ circumstances affected adherence to COVID-19 health and safety protocols in Kumasi, Ghana.
We found that residents struggled to comply with the lockdown in their homes. The reasons they gave included lack of access to sanitation, ventilation and space.
We propose the formulation of a pro-poor housing policy and enforcement of provisions in both the existing Rent Act and the Building Code to prevent landlords from charging rent advance beyond six months, and compel landlords to provide toilets in all habitable dwellings, respectively.
We conducted interviews with 27 household heads across eight suburbs in Greater Kumasi. The Ashanti region, with Kumasi as its capital, has the highest proportion of compound houses in Ghana (62.8% against a national average of 57.3%).
Compound houses refer to a traditional form of housing where multiple dwelling units, typically single rooms and/or chamber and hall arrangements, are grouped together in a single or multi-storey building. These units are organised in two main layouts: single-banked, where the units surround an open courtyard, and double-banked, also known as “face me I face you”, where units are situated on both sides of a common lobby, with the courtyard at the rear.
The courtyard serves as a significant space for social interactions and inter-household activities. Households within the compound share common facilities such as toilets, kitchens, drying lines, water, and electricity meters. The sharing of toilets and bathrooms raised concerns during the lockdown.
The areas studied were Old Tafo, Kentinkrono, Manhyia, Adiebeba, Santase, Kwadaso, Deduako and Appiadu. We selected these areas because of their different characteristics and prevalence of traditional family homes, which are collectively owned and occupied by between 10 and 15 households. Additionally, we sought expert insights from five housing professionals representing the Ghana Institute of Architects, Rent Control Department, Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, and the Ministry of Works and Housing.
Our study uncovered realities that hindered households’ ability to comply with COVID-19 protocols during the lockdown. And even after the pandemic, what we’ve learnt can be used to address Ghana’s housing crisis.
Lack of water: People living in compound houses disconnected from public water mains were unable to benefit from the government’s suspension of water tariff payments. They had to buy water from commercial vendors for essential activities. Cooking, bathing and laundry left little water for regular hand-washing.
Inadequate sanitation: The absence of toilet facilities in some compound houses forced households, including children, to rely on public toilets. This increased their potential exposure to the coronavirus as they queued to use these facilities.
Poor ventilation: Being confined to the house during the lockdown was uncomfortable where ventilation was poor. Some homes had small, blocked and poorly oriented windows. Cooking within confined spaces, such as terraces or porches, made it worse for some people, and increased the risk of virus transmission.
Limited space for isolation: Some households were compelled to share rooms with family members who had contracted the virus because there were no spare rooms. Inability to isolate increased the risk of infection among household members.
Distracting work environment: Some formal sector workers such as consultants and teachers had to work from home. They faced challenges such as a distracting environment, lack of suitable work spaces, and unreliable internet connectivity.
The way forward
Our research underscores the urgent need for policy changes and regulation to tackle Ghana’s housing crisis.
A recent seminar involving policymakers and stakeholders in Ghana’s housing sector yielded a consensus that housing policy and supply should put the needs of the poor first. Poor households found it difficult to comply with the COVID-19 protocols. The existing pro-market housing policy does not help the poor to get decent accommodation.
Regulation should focus not only on the advance rent period but also on the provision of basic facilities. Toilets and bathrooms should be provided before properties are rented. The ongoing pilot of the National Rental Assistance Scheme is a start.
This involves the government paying the rent advance on behalf of renters and receiving payback in the form of monthly loan payments. It presents an opportunity to ensure landlords can benefit from the scheme only if their rented properties meet these basic sanitary requirements and are decently equipped.
The affordable toilet programme in which local authorities, with support from the World Bank, build decent toilet facilities for households should be extended beyond the Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi areas. Poorer households could be offered flexible payment arrangements so they could participate.
We also propose a rethink of house design, construction materials and their sourcing. The growing preference for imported construction materials, such as doors, windows and roofing, without considering local weather conditions increases the cost of construction and can result in unpleasant housing conditions such as excessive space heating. Thus, it is crucial to initiate a conversation about sustainable and context-specific housing design, and use of local construction materials.
The housing crisis in Ghana demands immediate action. Our research highlights the underlying issues of inadequate housing, limited access to basic services, and the unequal burden borne by the poor. As Ghana navigates the path to recovery from the pandemic, it should seize this opportunity to transform Ghana’s housing landscape to ensure most if not all households have access to safe, decent, and affordable housing.
This article is a republication from The Conversation. Read original article here.