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BPE and standards in housing sector


house.-money.-you-know-the-drillTHE lingering issue of poor or, in some cases, total lack of standards in the Nigerian housing sector drew the attention of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) recently. Through its Director General, Mr. Benjamin Ezra Dikki, the bureau, apparently worried by this situation, revealed government’s plan to initiate reform in the sector “to ensure proper regulations and institute standards.” Mr. Dikki said the reform would replicate the kind of regulatory mechanism in the telecoms, power and other major sectors of the economy and stressed, no less importantly, that the sector’s workers and their interests would be protected during the reform, since government puts a high value on workers’ welfare during such reform.  He also explained that the aim of the reform is to facilitate private sector investment in the housing sector, inject vibrancy into the sector, and ensure that it utilises local content.

Incidentally, Mr. Dikki was speaking at an interactive meeting held in Abuja with members of the Senior Staff Association of Communications, Transport and Corporations (SSACTAC), the umbrella union of workers of the Federal Housing Authority and an affiliate of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). And his remarks can be said to anticipate what most close observers of the Nigerian housing sector would consider a long-overdue reform for standardisation, sustainability and profitability in the sector.

The fact is that, for some of the houses constructed in Abuja, especially in the housing estates owned by individuals, the only semblance of standardisation is the similarity of the housing units. A close examination of the quality of building materials used for the houses would easily reveal that the builders paid little or no attention to standards. In some cases the materials and the end-product, the houses, are of such poor quality that one can practically push a nail into some of their walls with one’s bare thumb.

It is not uncommon to see fancy-looking structures across the city centre with slanted pillars and crooked walls, as if their builders never heard of the plumb line and spirit level, or curiously preferred not to use both instruments. Such are the sights that, compared to other capital cities around the world, stand Abuja out as the metropolis of housing with poor regulation or aesthetics, the city of roughhewn edifices.

If Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, is notorious for such poor quality, non-standard housing, it can only be imagined what obtains in other, less glamorous towns and cities across the country. And the problem of substandard housing in Abuja is compounded by their higher cost compared to standard housing in other African metropolitan cities. An acquaintance once told me that what it costs to rent a typical flat in a “highbrow” area in Abuja could rent a bungalow complete with a swimming pool in uptown Johannesburg. Of course, part of the problem is that, being a far younger city than Johannesburg, in which housing construction has been far slower than population growth, Abuja has become a city where more rent is in perpetual chase of fewer accommodation, resulting in high cost of accommodation simply because demand far outstrips supply. This scenario partly explains Nigeria’s huge housing deficit, by which Abuja is severely affected.

Lagos is not better, with its long history of collapsed buildings and their sometimes high casualty levels, which reinforce the BPE’s case for standardization. For, indeed, each time a building collapses anywhere in the country, as it has done repeatedly in Lagos in the past decade, the calamity validates the case for standards to be adhered to in the construction of buildings nationwide to guarantee their safety and durability. And I cannot imagine a stronger validation for the case than the collapse of a guest house located in The Synagogue Church premises around Ikotun-Egbe area of Lagos State on September 12, 2014.

With the 115 fatalities from that single tragedy including 84 South Africans and one Zimbabwean, we saw the internationalization of a sort of scandal, attributable to non-standard buildings, whose embarrassment was usually confined to our shores. We also saw that, though a collapsed building may be owned by a private individual, the victims could be anybody, including foreigners from distant lands. Also, that the involvement of such foreigners may threaten our good relations with their countries, depending on how our county reacts to the tragedy, which impacts our reputation negatively as a country where practically anything goes, especially in the area of building construction. But have we also seen the need to avert possible future occurrences of such a tragedy by insisting on standards in building construction – as the BPE would have us do?

Besides, as the Nigerian government seeks to diversify its sources of revenue at a time of fiscal distress resulting from a sharp decline in its earnings from oil, it should seek every avenue to stimulate economic growth. This it can do by cultivating a robust housing sector, seeing that the performance of the housing sector, otherwise the real estate business, is regarded as one of the main gauges of overall economic health in an advanced economy such as the United States.

To the housing sector are linked all those who produce the various items for housing construction: wood, cement, nails, blocks, sand, electrical fittings, plumbing fittings, etc. This excludes labour from various types of professionals and artisans like architects and masons who play various roles as employees in the housing sector. And a boom in the sector translates into good business for the producers of such items, professionals and artisans, and by extension for the nation’s economy. It affects a long chain of successful businesses involving manufacturing, sales and services.

In fact, housing, otherwise shelter, is recognised as one of the three basic human needs, together with food and clothing. And in most economies, whether classified as “developed”, “developing” or “underdeveloped”, huge economic prospects are tied to these basic needs. Agriculture and agro-based industries flourish to satisfy the need for food. Textile and fashion industries flourish to satisfy the need for clothing. And the real estate industry or housing sector flourishes to satisfy the need for shelter. So essential are such needs to man’s survival and comfort that the goods and services produced to satisfy them hardly need advertisement. This is an advantage for any system intent on making the most of such goods and services for economic development.

And in addition to enforcing regulations to protect standards in the sector, government and its relevant agencies like the BPE can explore avenues for turning the sector into an engine of economic transformation. Perhaps this is the direction being suggested by the launch of the Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Company, which can transform the housing sector into a magnet for private investment profitable to all stakeholders.

Currently Nigeria’s housing deficit is put at over 17 million. This is a huge deficit. It is also a huge opportunity for progress.

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