With rural-to-urban migration increasing in Zimbabwe and urban squatter camps growing, the shortage of affordable public housing has become a contentious issue.
According to the Ministry of National Housing and Special Amenities, there are approximately 1.2 million people on the government's national housing waiting list, although the exact figure is not known because most local authorities do not collect the necessary data.
"With thousands of young people in the countryside completing their secondary education each year, the country has seen an upsurge in the number of people migrating from rural to urban areas, hoping to secure better employment opportunities. This has been a trend dating back to the days before the country gained its independence [in 1980]," said an official from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, which has estimated the waiting list number at closer to 1.25 million.
The government has had multiple plans to roll out public housing schemes around the country, including a national housing policy launched in 1999, but it has lacked the resources to keep up with rising demand.
Special Sibanda, director in the housing ministry, said the ministry invested over US$25 million in housing development in 2012 through joint ventures with land developers and local authorities. However, another senior official in the ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said $176.5 million was required annually to address Zimbabwe’s public housing backlog by 2015.
The government’s 2005 slum clearance programme, Operation Murambatsvina, made over 700,000 people homeless and worsened the country’s housing crisis. Promises to re-house those whose shacks had been bulldozed have gone unfulfilled. Thousands are still living in squatter camps.
Precious Shumba, director of the Harare Residents Trust, a local NGO that advocates for Harare residents to be represented in local governance issues, blamed the government’s reliance on unscrupulous housing cooperatives. According to the Zimbabwe National Association of Housing Cooperatives (ZINAHCO), these cooperatives are typically formed by a group of workers from a single company or industry, or by people from the same geographic location. Members pool their resources to ensure that they all benefit in improving their living conditions.
But according to Shumba, housing cooperatives acquire housing stands from corrupt city council officials at very low prices. They then build houses and sell them at inflated prices, which buyers pay off monthly over at least 14 years before being given title deeds.
"Local authorities and the government of Zimbabwe have not really invested in the provision of housing and accommodation to the citizenry, except to relinquish this responsibility to housing cooperatives, the majority of whom are siphoning off the little financial resources of low-paid workers," Shumba told IRIN.
He added that rapidly growing communities in Harare meant to accommodate low-income earners - such as Hopely Farm, Caledonia, Hatcliff and Whitecliff, all built by housing cooperatives - are lacking social infrastructure such as schools, health and recreational facilities, and shopping centres.
"The miserable condition of the emerging communities is attributed to poor planning and corruption by officials in the Housing and Community Services Department, as well as among councillors and officials in the urban planning and environmental management committees, where reports abound that corrupt housing cooperative leaders have been allocated land in some reserved open spaces where clinics, schools and shops were meant to be put," he said.
Meanwhile, in some of the squatter camps north of Harare, where many of the people made homeless by Operation Murambatsvina now live, politically connected housing cooperatives are reportedly duping individuals into paying thousands of dollars for housing stands the cooperatives do not have title deeds to.
Marilyn Mutarara, a 44-year-old widow with six children, from Harare's Caledonia Farm squatter camp, said she bought her housing stand for $2,375 from a local housing cooperative four years ago, but has not yet received a title deed for it and, as a result, cannot get approval to build on the land. Local police have failed to take action because of the cooperatives’ political connections, she said.
Maurine Sambiri, a 48-year-old single mother from Mbare, Harare’s oldest low-income suburb, told IRIN she has lived as a tenant for 23 years. She pays $140 a month for the two rooms she occupies.
"I still don't have a place to call my own home. The government has not come to my rescue as a single mother, although I always hear there are government houses for the poor," she said, adding that she was placed on a government housing list several years ago.
According to the National Housing Policy, after registering with the government's public housing department, homes are allocated on a rent-to-buy basis determined by the individual's income. Twenty percent of government houses are reserved for civil servants who are required to pay a deposit of $3,600 for a house while non-government employees are required to pay a deposit of $10,000.
But with unemployment in Zimbabwe estimated at 60 percent, the Harare Residents Trust say very few can afford the deposits to buy government houses.
"It does not need a person from Mars to know that most Zimbabweans are self-employed and have no fixed monthly income. And personally, I doubt if some of us on the housing list will ever get the houses because, honestly, where will we get the $10,000 deposit?" said Terence Mugwadi, a tenant from Harare's Highfield low-income suburb.
Many residents who IRIN spoke to also alleged that the allocation of government housing was done by corrupt officials. They said they had failed to make it onto housing lists despite providing proof of their monthly income.
"Often [they] demand bribes from us merely to place us on a housing list," said Richard Chiriga from Glenorah, a low-income suburb near Harare.
Glenorah is where Harare’s most recent batch of government houses was completed, following years of construction. But according to residents in the area, distribution of the houses has not been transparent.
In 2012, Harare City Council signed an agreement with the Central African Building Society (CABS) to build 3,102 more houses worth $15 million, a cost local authorities indicated they could afford annually for similar projects to meet the housing demand in the capital.
According to the agreement, the houses meant for low-income earners are to be built over a two-year period, with four-roomed houses costing approximately $12,000 each.
But lifelong tenants like Eunice Chambati, a single mother from the city's Mabvuku-Tafara low-income suburb, say they have lost all hope of ever acquiring a government house.
"This is my life now,” said Chambati. “Living as a tenant for me is now very normal, and I have come to accept this."