Monday, June 4, 2007

Can't illegalities be tolerated for the good of citizens?

As part of its effort to beautify Addis and curb illegalities in housing and business related construction, the Addis Ababa city administration is busy with demolishing houses which it says are built illegally. This engagement of the caretaker administration compelled me to ask the question; can’t illegalities be tolerated for the good of citizens? And can we demarket the boarder between legality and illegality?

Shelter is a basic need and a right to all citizens, no one would argue about that. So everyone is entitled to have a place to live in. To this end I would further argue that same has to be enshrined on our constitution be it the one we already have or a better one which we long for.

These days the housing problem in Addis has gone beyond limits, let alone the poor the middle income groups are failing to afford a decent house be it rented or owned. Plots in the informal market cost fortune, and getting one from the formal channel has become a lifetime process. Where do the poor and middle income people of Addis supposed to live? Or the city in particular and the state in general do not care about it?

The city administration effort of building condominium houses can be seen as a good start but the basic fallacy is who can afford those houses? How many houses have been delivered up to now? And how many houses have been demolished in the process of delivering these few condos? Ultimately, is the housing stock increasing or decreasing as a result?

The squatting and informality problem is not unique to Ethiopia. Many developing countries and even the developed one are facing similar problems. But the measure being taken to avert the situation by the squad of the caretaker mayor of Addis is an outdated one. In the 70s such measures as “slum clearance” were popular in many countries but soon after abandoned, the lessons learned were that kind of engagement adds to the problem nothing more than reducing the available housing stock. The current direction in this regard is acceptance to the informal/squatter settlements and finding ways to integrate them in the formal system. Millions in Africa depended on these settlements because that is where a roof over their head is affordable.

If the city administration is committed to fight illegality, where is the border line of illegality? It can be said that a person who acquired plot legally from the city administration but build without complying with the planning standard is illegal. This includes, not allowing adequate offset from property line to building, going higher in building heights than stipulated, wrong building orientation or not allowing adequate green spaces within plot or even putting a window at the wrong place amount to illegality. Are all these illegal constructions subject to demolishing or are they outside the realm of illegality?

I wish the city administration and the state get the wisdom so that they can know these illegalities are that make millions of Ethiopians to have shelter, while many live on streets and in sewer lines as we learned it recently from BBC.

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