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Affordable housing within abandoned buildings in Lagos

By Yakubu Paul
24 December 2019   |   2:04 am
Na God go punish all these our leaders!!” The agitated crowed started wailing.Some minutes ago, Mr. Seun arrived work limping and immediately, drew the attention of everyone as he nursed the wounds around his body while setting up his street-side barber shop....

Lagos. Photo: BRITANNICA

Na God go punish all these our leaders!!” The agitated crowed started wailing. Some minutes ago, Mr. Seun arrived work limping and immediately, drew the attention of everyone as he nursed the wounds around his body while setting up his street-side barber shop – a small piece of architecture with just a bench, a tool kit and an umbrella. He explained his ordeal to the dismayed crowd around him and every scene within his story increased the chorus of murmurs, sighs and other sounds of pity. He explained how he and other homeless Lagosians have been living in the deserted rooms of the abandoned Independence tower. The ruined structure had served as a safe haven up until last night when they were brutally visitedby the police SARS force. They were called thieves, beaten mercilessly and driven away with nothing but horrible injuries. He slowly pointed to the numerous wounds around his body, sighed, thanked God and claimed he was one of the lucky ones. This induced so much pain and agony within the crowd as they started raining insults and curses on the Nigerian Government as that’s the only outlet for such emotions in Nigeria. “All these their big big buildings just empty and they still want make we dey sleep for road!!”

As abandoned governmental buildings continue to increase and the homeless fill the underside of bridges in Lagos, is this a rare case of governmental capitalism or just Architects Negligence? Population, a poster child for urbanism in Lagos increases, architects are now powerlessly caught between designing the Eko Atlantic for the government or more “developer houses” on the island – All with the brand aim of solving the “Lagos housing challenge”. With this happening, the masses now sadly call decayed structures safe havens while creating housing solutions we neither refuse to see nor deem worthy. Recently, the Lagos State police criticized owners of abandoned buildings in Lagos noting that these buildings accelerate crime as being hideouts for miscreants and criminals. The irony is, 90% of these buildings are owned by the government and these Buildings are still alive because people squat in them. This leaves the fight between the police force and the masses they claim to be all thieves- A rare case of the government fighting the citizens (Buildings) they’ve sworn to protect.

With Nigerians (Lagosians) being the most resilient people you would ever find, they have tactically found ways to shuffle within these abandoned buildings and live better prepared for when next the police come. In the end, no problem is solved but a glaring affordable housing opportunity stares us in the face. Lagos was decapitalised in 1991 and the relocation of the seat of the federal government to Abuja led to the functional loss of many governmental buildings. They include buildings such as: The Federal Secretariat Ikoyi – a potential housing scheme for 3000 households, The Independence building Marina- a probable low-cost mixed-use tower, The NITEL house, The Federal Ministry of Works and so much more. These buildings have struggled for functional and economical relevance over the last 20 years and now stand still, ruling the skyline with no importance. An example is the Former Federal Ministry of Works in Marina, a large 5 floor building which then served as a home for the National Dental Council of Nigeria after the decapitalisation.

The relationship didn’t end well and the building has been abandoned for about 11 years now (Nation, 2017). Taking a survey of these buildings, they amount up to 60 structures within the Central Business District (CBD) and rank between a minimum of 5 floors to a maximum of 20 floors with an average of 6000m2 per floor. With this statistics, these buildings have the potential of cutting the 3million housing deficit in Lagos down by 10% if structured and reconstructed properly. With Lagos being mostly a society without a state, some informal use of these buildings for housing have evolved over the years but have been nothing but failed case studies.

The Nation (2017) reported that a former and influential comptroller in the Ministry of Works in conjunction with its director once put the Federal Ministry of Works and housing building to personal use. The respondent noted that a part of the building was divided into 50 rooms and tenants paid N3,500 per month for about 5 years until the Government shut it down and drove them out claiming they were illegal tenants. The scheme had a socio-economic narrative where two ware houses attached to the building were let out to traders and tenants for commercial use as it aided the payment of rents. It also had a political narrative which included the pressure of unorganised taxes – formal and informal on the landlord and tenants and the absence of a legal tenure for the tenants, all led to the expected eviction.

Presently, there’s continous conflict with different stakeholder’s interest which put the future of these buildings at stalemate. Amidst the fight between the federal and state arms of government over the ownership of these buildings, private developers now appear to be the saviours of the future of these buildings. This needs to stop, there needs to be a dialogue between architects and the government to stop developers and capitalism from increasing the number of people living under bridges. The Lagos State Government has criticised the idea of affordable housing as the future of these structures stating that the CBD was not originally designed as a residential area and using these “Iconic” structures to house low income earners diminishes the value of these former note worthy structures. The former is true but can be reconciled with proper design solutions between the structure and the urban area.

The Later however, is a sad statement as these “Iconic”buildings stare at us every day and beg for relevance. Looking at the principles behind buildings being icons, when a building loses functional and socio-economic relevance is the beginning of the end of its iconic signature in the city. The current state of the independence house and the Late IMB plaza in Lagos tell this city morphology story. The city needs icons that work and learning from the above failed case study, it suggests that these buildings be treated as mixed-use buildings with a simultaneous flow between the informal economy and affordable housing. The Lagos CBD records transactions of about 3 billion naira daily with the traffic of the informal economy playing a huge part. In a study of Nelson, (2004) on the informal real estates in favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Abandoned buildings in favelas where converted to affordable housing by the community but the inclusion of informal economic activities to the building created a dynamic reproduction of Informal space. These buildings were made alive by creating an owner relationship between the houses on upper floors and shops which interact directly with the city on the ground floor. This cements the need for a mixed-use structure that blends affordable housing and the informal economy, hence putting abandoned structures to good use and enabling the CBD thrive.

Revitalising abandoned Federal buildings in Lagos is a major forerunner solution in terms of affordable housing. This article is call on Architects and the government to push this narrative and provide more sustainable solutions for these buildings to be relevant in this context. There is a notion that political constraints in Nigeria are major barriers to such solutions and this has made architects seat, look and fold their hands. The architecture community needs to do more, they need to put out more design proposals, hold more competitions, more lectures and public out-reacheson these urban concepts to in-turn force the hand of the government to limit these political barriers. What if we live in a city where Mr Seun can go back to a proper affordable home on the 15th floor of the independence tower after an honest day at work with a legal claim to the home and notbeing considered a thief? What if we live a city where Mr Seun knows his work in the informal economy is appreciated as well as understands the value of an architect in the growth of the city? What if we create a city where these Federal buildings actually have social and economic relevance to a major population that gives relevance to the economy with informality? It’s a better city, It’s an Honest city, It’s the only kind of city these abandoned buildings would ask for.

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