Housing is one of the most pressing needs in Zimbabwe. Attaining Vision 2030 and making Zimbabwe a middle-income country will be rhetoric if those middle-income families are living in sub-standards homes in rural areas or squashed to a room in urban areas.
A number of approaches to get the required mass production of houses and flats have been mooted and implemented in the past four decades, but the shortfalls keep growing and the endemic corruption of the later years of the First Republic pushed out far too many serious developers in favour of the cheats and fraudsters.
A proper effort, building on what we know works and dumping what we know are useless programmes, can build large numbers of new homes every year. We have proof of this in other countries.
Two of the most spectacular success stories are Germany and Japan, the losers in the Second World War who were heavily-bombed. They rebuilt their cities in a decade, and that rebuilding not only put roofs over heads, at one stage absorbed 10 percent of the working population, helping to kick-start a lot of economic growth.
In more recent decades, we have seen China rebuilding or extensively renovating vast areas of its cities and towns, and again this sort of construction helped not just house China’s population in decent quality housing, but the construction industry and the associated materials manufacturers were major economic drivers.
There are a lot of strands making up present day housing in Zimbabwe. Rural people have always largely been responsible for their own building. Sewage treatment in rural areas is septic tanks at one end, blair toilets at the other.
Water is digging your own wells or drilling boreholes, although piped water would be possible if the system used in many countries, of grouping farmhouses into small villages, became more common here.
But housing in urban areas is intrinsically denser, and in large cities putting a million people together has already happened and will probably be more common.
This can only work when engineer planning, the road network, sewers and water reticulation are planned from the start. Only large plots, 4 000 square metres, septic tanks are allowed, and these can even be used on smaller plots once developers have done the engineering studies, but generally as you drop below the “acre” you need sewers.
In the development of our towns and cities, this basic servicing of putting in roads, water pipes and sewers, and the electricity poles has been done by local authorities, the Government and private developers.
Most middle income and upper income suburbs are private developers on private land, but Government and local authorities put in planning rules and servicing rules and the suburbs were largely developed properly, with land set aside for things like schools. There is nothing evil about properly done private development.
The land barons and land scandals arose from another source, private illegal sales of Government and local authority land. The barons got their foot in through a cooperative door.
These started as a well-meaning attempt to help people get together and develop their own new suburb. It did not work, largely because the members did not have the engineering and planning skills on hand.
But all the cheating and bribing that went on put back housing development, and a lot of people lost a lot of money. The cliché in reports tends to be “desperate home seekers”.
That phrase reveals a truth, that a lot of people will make a very serious effort to own or build their own home, and if there was a proper supply of fairly-allocated serviced land then there would be buyers.
The private sector can cope with the rich. These developers just need to be supervised, and possibly in time given opportunities to buy a block of State land, since the private farms they used to buy for new suburbs are now in State ownership.
Where the majority needs help is getting back to someone competent, using the old standard of no-profit, no-loss, to plan and service land and then sell stands to people on a waiting list, a properly maintained and monitored waiting list at that.
Under the old systems, anyone going onto a waiting list for public housing had to show they were on just one list, and had to show they owned no other property. People who wanted a street of houses had to go private.
The Urban Development Corporation, Udcorp, is now moving out of talk shops and doing this sort of thing in Norton in a cluster of new suburbs.
The corporation in the planner and the controller, but private development is not just allowed, it is publicly encouraged, to complement the public housing. In some areas people will buy and build, in other areas they will be buying complete houses.
Flexibility, once roads, sewers, water pipes and electricity lines are in place, can be encouraged. We do not want or need tens of thousands of identical boxes, or even identical middle-income bigger boxes or for that matter identical mansions.
But we can enforce standards. These standards already exist in our laws. The recent corruption and the like were not exploiting loopholes, they were ignoring basic clear legal requirements.
We have decades of trying out new ideas. We know what to do. We have technical skills. We have factories and people who can make materials. We even have people prepared to give criminals money to get a house, and who now need honest people to buy from.
So let us now end the debates, and get cracking.