EDITORIAL COMMENT: Condemned buildings: Win-win solution needed

the-herald-onlineNine high-rise buildings in central Harare urgently need attention from their owners, having been condemned, on safety grounds, by the Harare City Council. But it is important not to exaggerate the problem, nor is it strictly necessary that the tenants of these buildings need to be thrown into the street while the minimum of renovations and upgrades are completed. Major reconstruction is not required, only compliance with safety regulations.

For a start none of the buildings has been condemned as likely to collapse. So to even discuss this is unnecessary grandstanding. The minimum renovations in most cases are fairly basic and not that expensive and the council does not appear to be demanding any reconstruction. All appear to be structurally sound, but all are in breach of council safety rules, especially those regarding fire and this is a serious matter that must be addressed.

Fire escapes are missing, fire hoses are missing or badly damaged, the modern requirements for signs to emergency exits are missing, and escape doors are not easily unlockable from the inside. Clearly, this must all be fixed, and fixed soon. Some of the buildings have electric wiring that is in a bad state or which has been badly repaired or by-passed. Again this is a safety problem; again it can be fixed without too many problems. One building has no water, and that might well be a symptom of more serious damage.

Several thousand Zimbabweans rent space in these buildings for their small businesses and they are making a living, supporting their families and educating their children by providing services others want and need. We do not need to see these businesses closed down except as a last resort.

Among the advice and comments on the problem one stands out as a sensible start, for the tenants of each building to form a committee and start negotiations with the owners and the city council. In most cases a fair slice of the rents for a few months, plus some internal organisation over escape routes, door locking and the like, could fix the problems without closing the buildings.

Even when more dramatic work is required this could be done floor by floor and temporary arrangements made for a couple of dozen tenants at a time to be housed elsewhere.

The city council has legal powers to close the buildings, but it should also be prepared to help owners and tenants to come up with sensible programmes that will see the safety concerns resolved without thousands of families flung into poverty. After all the council manages to meet its own basic safety rules in the Mbare Hostels without much fuss.

In other words, the council can use its powers to force owners and tenants to start the work, but at the same time give those willing to cooperate a little leeway while the work is done and offer advice and help to enforce agreements over financing the work and give its own expert opinion over how the work should be done.

We need safety concerns addressed, but we do not need while we do this to destroy livelihoods.

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