The decision to impose a blanket ban of housing cooperatives appears to be yet another proposal to deal with symptoms without treating the disease.
There is a real danger that the same problems that have dogged housing cooperative operations could just be transferred to the municipal books while home-seekers continue to suffer at the hands of con people.
The idea of housing cooperatives is to allow urban people with limited means to pool their resources and attain their goals — a basic shelter for the family. There are many Zimbabweans who are living in their own accommodation today who may never have achieved that without joining a housing cooperative.
With a housing backlog of over half a million people, Harare City Council cannot downplay the role that housing cooperatives have played. In fact, it was an acknowledgement that providing affordable housing for a majority of urban dwellers was a major challenge for local authorities that popularised the idea of housing cooperatives in the first place. The situation is worse now than it was back then.
About 30 years ago, the success story of the first housing cooperatives inspired others to take that route to home ownership. The cooperatives gained a bad name over the past few years due to the malpractices of land barons and poor accounting for members’ subscription money. Then councils appeared to have lost control of all land, thus creating further opportunities for all manner of crooks to fleece desperate home-seekers.
Suddenly all stories about housing cooperatives have been negative. Someone thinks the easiest way to solve the problem is to ban them.
But we should not throw away the baby with the bath water. There is a lot of good in cooperatives. What is required is prudent regulation over cooperatives and close monitoring of how land is allocated, where and supervise all construction work as used to happen in the past.
Without excusing criminals who have preyed on the poor in the name of housing cooperatives, it is more important to ask why the crooks have been allowed to get away with murder?
There appears to be no legislation to prosecute those who loot cooperative funds. One high profile case saw the land baron walk off without even a slap on the hand, a development must dissuade other complainants from mounting long and expensive court cases. As long as that situation prevails, stealing from home-seekers will remain an activity of choice for crooks.
We want to state also that municipal authorities, especially those in Harare and Chitungwiza, have not taken their role diligently. They have watched as land barons advertised municipal land for sale or housing development. They watched land being illegally parcelled out and watched construction take place; only deciding to move in much later to destroy completed houses.
This suggests corruption in very high places including City of Harare structures. Why else would they have stood by and watch people losing their money after the whistle was first blown on the land barons? Shifting people to municipal books will not necessarily snuff out the rot within the organisation. Most probably we will see the same few faces get all the stands then sell them off immediately to the intended primary beneficiaries at a huge profit.
What the city needs is to have laid down procedures on the operations of cooperatives followed faithfully. For example, members could join through the city offices and pay for land directly to the municipality, with the cooperative coming in to manage the servicing and development of the area. In addition, all beneficiaries could go through the standard city building processes of approval. The city must be swift in issuing stop building orders on errant constructions. That way home-seekers would be protected from buying stands that do not exist and facing demolition of their houses.
Right now the Harare City Council is struggling to find takers for their Budiriro development in which they partnered with a local financial institution. The scheme, which was ostensibly for low income groups, is priced beyond the reach of its targets. Until they can come up with some particularly spectacular innovation to cater for the low income groups, cooperatives are one of the few options left.