Opinion

Landlords, housing and death

Anguish. It is likely one of the emotions that the Okyere family is experiencing. It is a tragedy that Mr. Benjamin Okyere has been robbed of his life. According to media reports, the man who shot the deceased was his landlord, Mr. Victor Stephen Nana Kankam.   

Apparently, Mr. Okyere’s rental agreement expired two days before he was shot by his landlord, with whom he had gone to speak. What exactly transpired is still unclear. We know this: it is not only the four bullets that caused the unfortunate death of Mr. Okyere. He was also the victim of a form of structural violence –inadequate housing).

To understand this we have to look not at a single event, but the whole. 

On 30th March when the Government announced a two-week lockdown, low income dwellers, especially those not born in Accra and Kumasi sought to return to their home villages in droves.  They were faced with a brutal reality: the lockdown required that people stay in their homes.  However, they had very inadequate “housing”.  In some cases, 8 persons lived in a 12 by 15 feet sized kiosk.  In other cases, they did not even sleep in the kiosk with many others. Matters were worse; they slept on streets, sometimes in front of a shop. And, so many people sought to flee Accra and Kumasi before the lock down came into effect. They were not fleeing COVID-19, but rather the consequences of no housing.  They had long been locked out of housing, now they fled being locked down.

On Tuesday 7 April a fire devastated part of an informal settlement in Old Fadama, where 800 wooden houses were burnt.   It is estimated that thousands of persons were rendered homeless.   As dwellers of informal settlements, they had long been locked out of housing.  Therefore, COVID-19 was especially threatening given their cramped living conditions and limited access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

On the 28 April 2020, Mr. Samuel Atta Akyea, the Minister of Works and Housing reminded landlords that demanding rent payment beyond the legally allowed 6 months could land them in jail for two years. 

It is important to recognize how these different events are symptoms of a greater whole. What links them is the structural violence of inadequate housing. I mean the everyday housing conditions that perpetuate inequality, which creates and maintains conditions of insecurity for many, especially those living with low incomes. 

Consider a mother forced to reduce the meals of her children to scrape together money to pay for rent. When tenants are compelled to pay two years rent in advance the tenant bankrolls the landlord. Consider, alternatively, that some tenants “prefer” paying rent years in advance. Such are the survival strategies in the face of the housing crisis.  Thus landlords access interest free loans. Importantly, structural violence creates conditions of privilege, in varying degrees, for those who have access/control over financial resources.

Critically, the structural violence of inadequate housing enables the structural power of capital.  Let me give a simple example.  Nationally, the housing shortage is about two million.  Landlords as owners of capital are immediately in a position of advantage. They can demand two years rent because the options of tenants are limited.  The failure of the state to enforce the law is not only because there is no real political will or because the Rent Control department, at all levels, are under resourced.  The state is limited because there is not enough quality housing stock available to create alternatives and the state itself refuses to enable, let alone champion housing justice. Housing, then, is at the mercy of investors seeking profit.

Yet, creating housing justice is possible.  Fellow tenants, we must strive to make positive change happen.  These are some key areas for social justice organizing:

  • Seek to end the 6 months in advance payment to landlords.  It is time for monthly payments. This requires a change to current legislation and most importantly, enforcement. 
  • Persuade the government to make the current stock of “affordable” housing immediately available in a transparent and equitable manner.
  • Call on the government to nationalize incomplete corporate housing projects that have not paid property taxes/rates for the past two years.  Such properties must be transformed into social housing.
  • Convince the government to enable and finance housing cooperatives to lead the construction of quality social housing, which will remain the property of the housing cooperative
  • Demand the government directly build social housing.
  • Insist that government immediately end all tax holidays and exemptions for luxury housing construction.

Fellow tenants, we know that inadequate housing leads to social death and also kills — literally.  Everyone one of us deserves quality housing. This is only possible if we muster the determination and political will to create housing justice.

About the author: Chaka Uzondu (Ph.D.) is a Policy Analyst. His writings cover topics ranging from water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), health, housing, agroecology and political ecology.