Woes of raising a family in high-rise apartments

Pipeline Estate, Embakasi in Nairobi

Some of the many high-rise apartments found in Pipeline Estate, Embakasi in Nairobi.  Dark and cold houses in Nairobi emerge as a combination of several factors.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

As the demand for housing in urban areas in Kenya continue to rise, the capital is witnessing an increased number of low cost high rise apartments across the city. Housing affordability, proximity to the city and safety, are among the key drivers of the choices urban dwellers make regarding housing.

“Kenya is experiencing a housing crisis and the issue is twofold: One, the influx of people moving from rural areas to urban areas such as Nairobi. Secondly, especially for investors, it's a question of return on investment. An acre of land in Nairobi is expensive and developers need to be able to get back the money they used in procuring it, including the cost of development and earn good profit margins. To achieve this, developers design to accommodate as many people as possible on limited land resources,” says Fadhili Ogova, an architect at Kubuni Studio in Nairobi.

A 2018 report by Kenya Private Developers Association shows urban population in Kenya grows at an estimated annual rate of 4.2 per cent with a housing deficit of 2 million houses.

A matter of convenience

“Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. Devolution tried to help by making government services available at the county level but if you need to deal with a big issue you still get referred to Nairobi. So for most people, living in Nairobi is a matter of convenience -- being able to get all the needed services within easy reach. That is why we have emerging urban settlements still centred around Nairobi such as Kitengela, Ngong and Kiambu. Additionally, Nairobi is still that place people from rural areas go to in order for them to become something. Until there is another way out, we will continue seeing people coming to Nairobi in search of fortunes,”   Ogova adds.

What’s more? Low cost high-rise apartments targeting middle income earners do not come with the supplementary facilities that are included in high-rise apartments which target high income earners in places like Kilimani and Kileleshwa. Such facilities include recreational areas such as swimming pools, gyms and play areas where children and adults alike can play and spend quality time outside the house.

Packed close to each other

High-rise apartments targeting middle income earners are usually small units in high rise apartments packed close to each other. And because the areas are not exclusively residential, the surroundings of these apartments include shops, car parks and traders displaying their wares in stalls, handcarts and small shades. In other words, every available space is take up.

This poses the question of what it means to raise children in such a living arrangement.

Mercy Nyambura is a hairdresser who has been living in Nairobi’s Pipeline Estate for 15 years now with her husband and two children aged 13 and 16.

“I have changed houses only twice but the buildings are similar. When my children were young, it was a big challenge because I could not even let them play on the balcony for fear that they will fall down,” she says.

This meant Nyambura had to closely monitor her children, which ate into her productive time.

“Taking the children to the ground floor to play was not an option because of speeding bikes and the market stalls. There is no space for children to play outside the building so it was almost pointless. The children had to stay in the house all the time,” she says.

Shared toilet and light

Her apartment also has a shared toilet and light gets switched off during the day which meant when the kids were younger, she had to personally take them to the toilet, even at the age where they could have used the toilet by themselves.

“Luckily, my neighbours are clean-conscious so at least the toilet is always clean and I do not have to worry about that,” she says.

The only advantages of living at such a place, Nyambura says, are the fact that she lives very close to the road and she has market stalls close to the house which makes it convenient for her to get everything she needs. And the security is good.

But high density locations are also notorious for having poorly designed houses that do not let in enough light which contributes to keeping most of the houses cold.  Nyambura says when her kids were younger, she had a dedicated cabinet for medicine because her children got sick all the time. Having to constantly by medication consumed a significant part of her house budget and was a great inconvenience.

“If your house is not on the balcony side, no light gets in which means you have to keep your lights on throughout the day, an additional cost. And while the houses are cold and kids would benefit from going out to play in the sun, such options do not exist. The cold gives them chest issues, constant flu infections, and tonsils that do not go away. This improved when I moved to a house that has a balcony and some light now comes into the house. But they still get sick often,” she says.

Exposer to the sun

Dr David Galgallo, the chairman of paediatric and child health department at Kenyatta University as well as a consultant paediatrician and nephrologist says the amount of time children are exposed to the sun has implications on their wellbeing, leading to health issues which people in the tropics are not susceptible to. A problem that usually comes from the fact that most parents can only afford to live in high-rise apartments.

“We have a concern of increasing incidence of rickets in children particularly for people living in the city. If you live in a flat, there is no playground where children can go out to play in the sun. This means children spend most of their time indoors because the environment does not allow children to go out and play. This exposes them to issues such as rickets,” he says.

Dr Galgallo says people in the tropics should not get rickets, strictly speaking. Rickets come as a result of a deficiency in Vitamin D. Our body synthesizes vitamin D from sunlight. When you live in a flat, you may not have a balcony where you can sit and bask. Such neighbourhoods also hardly have playgrounds. The kids are mostly confined in the house watching TV. Most of these kinds have low vitamin D levels, compared to kids who live outside the cities and can regularly go out to play.

Time to play

Nyambura and her husband had to sacrifice to regularly take their children out to playgrounds in places such as Uhuru Park or in malls to make sure the kids get to play.

“Spending too much time in the house means they spend a disproportionate amount of time watching TV. This made them addicted to the TV. Even when they have friends, they still spend time in the house with the friends watching TV because they cannot be out of the house, there is no space to play. I cannot watch my programmes on TV because they will have nothing else to do, so I tend to watch cartoons or whatever programme they are watching with them,” she says.

While she would like to live in a place that has space -- a field where kids can play, and be safe, Nyambura is cognizant of the cost implications and the fact that she has to live within the means she and her husband can afford.

“Income is what determines where you live. Sometimes you don't want to live in a certain place but you do not have options. Assuming you earn Sh20,000 and you have kids in school, rent to pay, and other household needs, it is not possible to live in a bigger house or in an area where there is space because that is expensive. You have to work within your budget,” she says.

Dark and cold houses in Nairobi emerge as a combination of several factors. Mr Ogova says planning is where it all begins.

“We do not have a shortage of planners. The challenge is some are lazy at what they do. The others, however, have not been given resources to implement the conditions that should come into play when planning for high-rise residential apartments,” Mr Ogova says.

Building code

The building code in Kenya came into effect in the 1960s and an update proposed in 2020. The code is what guides professionals regarding issues like ground cover and plot ratio depending on the location. This becomes problematic when people find grey areas and loopholes around them.

“This means that a wide circle of professionals makes competing decisions. A developer will want to maximize on their piece of land. As an architect, your work is to consult. If a project goes against your ethics, you can sign off. But in a situation where architects are dime a dozen, there will always be someone willing to disregard these things because the developer insists that they disregard them. Then we have approval authorities who should work within the law. The first problem is the law is out of date and secondly, the people who do the approvals are sometimes paid to look the other way. There is not one solution that can fix everything. But in my opinion we can start with planning,” Mr Ogova says.

For parents like Mercy Nyambura, living in low-cost high rise apartments remains the only viable option if they are to continue living and working in Nairobi under the same economic dynamics. Experts on the other hand point towards the pressure for housing in Nairobi and the fact that, we are not about to see a slowdown of high-rise apartments.