The proposal in section 76 of Kenya’s Finance Bill 2023 to amend the Employment Act 2007 so that employers will compulsorily deduct 3% from workers’ salaries and send that, plus a further 3% contributed by the employer, to the National Housing Development Fund has met with widespread consternation.
The levy is expected to raise around £460 million a year for the National Housing Corporation that administers the fund. Following legal action, earlier proposals for a housing levy under the previous regime had been made voluntary and set at a lower rate of 1.5%. Now, the 3% levy will begin with civil servants before being extended to other parts of the formal and non-formal sectors.
The money will be used both to support developers and building contractors to build 200,000 affordable units and to subsidise mortgages for low- and middle-income households who would be offered an interest rate of 7%, half the market rate. By some calculations, affected employees’ net monthly salaries will be cut by about 52% when all statutory deductions including tax, the National Health Insurance Fund and the National Social Security Fund, as well as this new deduction, are taken into account.
Trade unions have spoken out against the levy, arguing that a variation in employment law cannot be imposed without consultations. The Kenya Constitution of 2010, Article 118, says that Parliament must facilitate public participation in its legislative work.
According to the 2022 Kenya Economic Survey, there were 2,907,300 employed in the formal sector and an annual rate of affordable home construction by the national government of around 500 units a year. It is not clear under the Constitution that the national government has this responsibility, as opposed to the devolved government at county level.
Kenya’s skewed land ownership
Whilst there is manifestly a need to address Kenya’s dire shortage of affordable homes, it is important to diagnose fully the reasons for this. Land shortages and the high costs of building materials are important causes as Steve Biko Wafula has argued. Kenya’s skewed land ownership is attributable to long-term land grabbing, going back to the colonial period. Importantly, one constitutional provision designed to address this – which calls for the development of minimum and maximum land ceiling laws – has been studiously ignored, especially the setting of a maximum holding. The housing levy will not address this problem: it cannot increase the supply of land for housing.
The levy is designed to encourage developers to enter the affordable housing market by offering them lower land and construction costs and providing tax exemptions, as well as guaranteeing contracts with the government. However, Wafula has also pointed out that the administration of the housing fund is not clear because it relies ‘on a complex system of collection, allocation, and disbursement of funds that could be prone to errors, delays, and fraud’.
Moreover, Kenyans have seen funds such as the National Housing Development Fund used as a revenue kitty. The 2005 Ndung’u report on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land detailed how state corporations were in effect forced into buying grabbed land, as ‘captive buyers of land from politically connected allottees’. The primary state corporation targeted to purchase land was the Kenyan workers’ pension scheme, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). It spent Ksh30 billion (£175 million) between 1990 and 1995 on the purchase of illegally acquired property.
At a time when the government is desperate to increase its resources through raising taxes, Kenyans are also understandably suspicious that some of this money, at least, will end up in general government coffers rather than in the fund for which it is statutorily earmarked – other than that which ends up in party or private pockets, of course.
Whilst some prospective home-owners may be lured by the offer of lower interest rates and longer repayment plans, the proposed fund is also being seen as an unwelcome compulsory saving scheme. Funding can be drawn down after seven years or at retirement whichever is the sooner. But with standards of living being severely squeezed by inflation and with longstanding constraints on wages, as well as existing deductions which yield little benefit, many households will struggle to take a further cut to their take home pay.
Indeed, government workers were not paid their salaries earlier this year due to cash flow problems caused by the country’s mounting debt. It is ironic then that the proposal is in effect asking Kenyans formally to agree to defer a portion of their wages. Furthermore, because contributions are payable from income that has already been taxed and are taxed again when the funds are drawn down, workers are exposed to double taxation.
Workers are being asked to stake their long-term security on the success of a housing fund about which many have unanswered questions. If the promised housing materialises, how can we be sure that it will not be developers and landlords who benefit rather than the intended beneficiaries? There are real prospects that the housing units will be taken up by landlords and that Kenyan workers – having already accepted lower wages because of the housing levy deduction – could still find they have to pay high rents to access housing. What guarantees will there be that the housing will not be financialised in such a way as to put the notion of housing – as shelter and personal security – at grave risk?
Building on Serap Saritas Oran’s work on the financialisation of pensions in Turkey which theorises pensions from a political economy perspective and argues that pensions are fundamental to working class standards of living, we can see how the housing levy proposal similarly financialises a right to housing. Housing is a critical factor in social reproduction, that is, in how life is maintained and labour power reproduced. Turning housing from what Oran calls ‘a social right’ into an individualised personal investment, the levy creates opportunities for speculation and extraction. In this schema, there is a real risk that some who should be the beneficiaries of affordable housing will find that because of interest rates or the accrual of high rent arrears, they in fact become debtors.
We recognise that providing affordable housing is an important goal but we believe other, much fairer ways of raising much needed revenue for housing should be considered.
Might the time have come to have a well-informed national conversation about Land Value Taxation? Given Kenya’s worsening gini coefficient which demonstrates how skewed the country’s wealth is, why should workers bear the brunt of the government’s house building programme?
Land Value Taxation is a progressive tax which ensures that the tax burden is instead borne by landowners who can well afford it. Because land ownership generally correlates with wealth and income, it is much fairer to require those already advantaged to fund the needs of those who do not yet have homes.
Land Value Capture should also be considered. This taxation can be used for example if a road is built or other infrastructure such as a park is improved, causing a rise in the value of neighbouring properties. The principle is that these property owners should share some of their unearned gain with the public.
Elsewhere in the world, funds raised in this way have been used to build lower-cost housing. In addition, the money raised could also be used to fund ongoing operational costs such as maintenance of local roads, schools, and parks. Wouldn’t that be a fair and – given the infrastructure boom of recent years which has bestowed windfall gains on many property owners – very effective way to tackle the shortfall in affordable housing?
A raid on wages
Speaking on Kenya’s NTV news channel Mercy Nabwire, Kenya Medical Pharmacy and Dentistry Practitioners Union National Treasurer, recently described the proposed housing levy as ‘a raid on workers’ wages.’ The economy is in bad shape and public services are threadbare, but the case for asking workers to bear the cost of righting this – especially when their incomes are squeezed and their standard of living plummeting – has not been made. Still less the case for compelling them to surrender their already precarious wages for some nebulous future promise.
This article was first published by ROAPE.