Land for the Landless — The Burning Issue

Key issues in Namibia’s 2020 municipal elections — Part 1

A man walks past burning shacks at Twaloloka in Walvis Bay, where over 100 makeshift places of shelter went up in flames in mid July.

The recent fire that ripped through Twaloloka in Walvis Bay — in which a one-year old boy lost his life in mid-July while over a 100 homes were destroyed — was only one of many gruesome examples of a humanitarian crisis that plagues this country. And it is rooted in landlessness.

The following Sunday, at the DRC in Swakopmund two children and their mother also perished in the flames that incinerated their shack. They were among a vast number of shack fire victims over the last two decades, whose names rarely make it into the news.

Addressing the housing crisis is clearly a matter of life and death for thousands of families across the country, and the onset of Covid19 has only made the matter more urgent. The Right to Housing should, I would argue, be seen as a basic human right, not a luxury reserved for the wealthy few.

Although a range of options should remain open to residents with different needs, for the majority of landless urban dwellers we can solve the housing problem with a broad social justice policy of allocating free residential plots to households in need.

The allocation of land in new areas for home-building should not be done through the usual market mechanisms (which tend to prefer the highest bidder), but rather on the basis of a democratic process; on the basis of needs assessment; according to agreed criteria and rules of fair allocation.

It is possible to offer serviced plots, measuring around 400–600 square metres (depending on the population density of the areas in question) to households on a transferable and renewable lease, without the need to buy the land. Residential land can be offered on 30-, 60-, or 90-year lease.

The specific criteria for the order of land allocation must be agreed on by the community and municipal officials but council should uphold the minimum house building standards in line with health and safety regulations, as well as within the overall town plan to ensure basic service infrastructure — water and sewage lines, telecoms and power — is available to all residents.

An aerial view of the fast-growing shackland, known as the DRC, to the northeast of Swakopmund.

It may be necessary to offer specific housing solutions for the elderly and infirm, such as new retirement villages to comfortably accommodate residents in old age. It is also necessary to consider municipal housing support for young workers, such as communal housing complexes and shared living spaces.

Municipal bungalows that have gone unused for months due to the collapse of the tourism industry can also be leased to local workers on a long-term basis, thus reducing congestion in the townships, generating income for council from the otherwise empty houses, and improving public health.

But for the majority of landless urban residents who are of working age and in need of their own home, council can solve the problem through the allocation of serviced residential plots to workers in communal urban areas, meaning people would not be required to pay for land but only for service installation.

To meet the needs of the majority, instead of alienating the land through sale and private title deed, council can (and should) allocate residential land on a secure leasehold basis to residents who want to construct their own homes — without the need to buy the land — by means of urban communal land tenure.

Although the leaseholder would enjoy full legal possession of the residential plot as their own — meaning they can build and sell their house, transfer the lease and move elsewhere if they want — the land itself cannot be bought or sold. It would remain the common property of the town.

There are existing examples where this was done, as in Tamariskia, where Rossing built hundreds of good quality houses — most of which it has since sold — on land that still belongs to the town.

This would bring down the cost of first-time home ownership by removing the artificial cost of land, while boosting the construction sector by freeing up household capital and innovation. Savings and loans that would’ve been used to buy land can now be put into bricks and mortar: into construction.

It makes sense in the context of the current unemployment crisis to undertake the large-scale construction of new homes through massive municipal-led house building programs.

The revival of the construction industry and large-scale house-building initiatives will also ease the pressure on the existing housing stock and cool down rental prices by reducing the demand for rental properties in the private housing market, because workers would be able to acquire an easily affordable lease on land to build their own home, rather than slaving away just to pay the rent for years on end.

This would mean increased household savings on income, a higher quality of life, and security of tenure for the average family. It also means allowing for a mixed tenure system to address different residents’ housing needs, but in a way that protects the rights and respects the needs of those who — for obvious historic and socioeconomic reasons — can’t afford to buy land.

The servicing of residential land should include the installation of water and sewerage lines, as well as an ablution block, where necessary. But clearly everything in this world is not free. This costs money. So it makes sense that new leaseholders should contribute to the cost of installing basic services, although — as noted above — they should not need to pay for the land itself.

To cover the installation cost of bringing municipal services to the yard, new leaseholders should be given a grace period to pay off the cost of service installation — which has obvious labour and material costs — that the land in itself does not. This arrangement would enable the council to continue delivering serviced land to others in need.

For households that are clearly destitute — where necessary and feasible — the cost of land servicing can (and should) be subsidised in whole or in part. Above all, we must ensure high standards, total transparency, fairness and equal treatment of all residents in the allocation of such leasehold rights.

The free allocation of land as part of a deep-going poverty-alleviation strategy should be undertaken as a measure of social justice to correct the injustices of the past, which left a great mass of urban dwellers without land, comfort or security of tenure.

It is one of the foremost tasks of our generation to solve this problem in a way that speaks to the needs of current and future generations. I believe we can correct many of these historical injustices by allocating free land in order to counteract the main causes of household poverty and homelessness.

We must be ambitious and aim to end the scourge of homelessness this decade. To fundamentally uproot the causes of household poverty and destitution — such as high rent and mortgages — tackling landlessness through fair allocation should be a priority of the highest order.

If we can ensure that no more of our people needlessly perish in hellish shack fires, if we can ensure that nobody is landless in their motherland, then this is certainly something worth fighting for.

Writer, reporter, activist