The heavy cost of living in substandard housing

Peeling paint, crumbling walls and soggy floors mean the house probably gets flooded when it rains.
 PHOTOs/Isaac Kasamani 

What you need to know:

At the basic minimum, the home should be free from both unnecessary and avoidable hazards. It should have sound structure, provide adequate facilities for sleeping, personal hygiene, the preparation and storage of food, provide privacy and quiet.

Ms Lucky Natukunda a resident of Biafra a slum in Mbarara City, had persistent health issues with her three-year-old daughter. For months, her daughter was in and out of hospital being treated for a myriad of respiratory complications. Eventually one doctor asked about her living conditions hinting that the child’s problems could be caused by the state of the home she lives in.

“The home I used to live in was always cramped, damp, and cold because it was built close to a water channel. On our last visit, she was diagnosed with pneumonia which took long to heal and this was when the doctor advised me to move from that home,” explains Natukunda.  

The minimum standards

Samuel Barigye, a public health professional in Mbarara, says there are basic requirements that homes should meet in order to be considered as acceptable places to live. 

At the basic minimum, the home should be free from both unnecessary and avoidable hazards. It should have sound structure, provide adequate facilities for sleeping, personal hygiene, the preparation and storage of food, provide privacy and quiet.

Research has established that there is powerful evidence that decent housing contributes to the prevention of crime, to stable neighbourhoods that act as deterrents to criminality, especially among young people potentially heading down paths of criminality.

As noted in the 2003 White Paper  Respect and Responsibility – Taking a stand against anti-social behaviour : “We have seen the way in which communities spiral downwards once windows get broken and are not fixed, graffiti spreads and stays there, cars are left abandoned, streets get grimier and dirtier, youths hang around street corners intimidating the elderly. The result: crime increases, fear goes up and people feel trapped.”

Apart from these psychosocial effects, Barigye notes that the most immediate effect of substandard housing is increased expenses on health care.

Living in houses whose roofing is old and likely to leak or cave in during the rainy season, or whose walls have become weak is not only likely to cause physical injury to the occupants but will also affect their health. Houses built near water bodies and wetlands are likely to experience dampness, cold, and mold, especially during the rainy season increasing risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases

Before you move in

Moses Rubagyera, a real estate dealer in Mbarara City, notes that even when a house does not look physically deteriorated, the owner or occupant should always do a checklist to ascertain that the house is in habitable condition.

“Some things are easy to notice even for a lay person, for example a stain on the ceiling is a sign that there is a leak in the roof. Peeling paint, crumbling walls and soggy floors mean the house probably gets flooded when it rains. For more complicated inspections, you might need to get a technical person, for example, an electrician or a plumber to check for the condition of the plumbing and electricity systems,” says  Rubagyera.

He notes that sometimes the location of the house might be the problem; for example a house near a landfill can lead to the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, but also house in a wetland will easily get flooded and degrades fast. 

“Site location is very important and at times is a leading cause of substandard housing. Slums and wetlands come cheaply but are expensive in the long run,” Rubagyera explains.

Residing near a factory, taxi or bus park, dusty road also affects the quality of your home due to air quality challenges (pollution) because of emissions.

Standard regulations

James Lugolobi an architect from BIRD architectural Designs, Mbarara, describes substandard housing as those houses that need replacement or upgrading and are a threat to both life and health of the occupants and even the neighbourhood.  He notes that a substantial number of homes being occupied are substandard because there are low compliance levels about the laws and regulations that guide construction of buildings in the country. He further stresses that these substandard homes will continue being occupied because people are poor and there is scarcity of quality housing.

“The government has a number of laws and regulations in the Building Control Act 2013, Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Physical Planning Act. There are also a number of Regulations and codes under the Building Control Act but some unscrupulous elements in the construction industry choose to overlook them,” Lugolobi says.

He cites the regulation on compulsory maintenance which states that when a building has fallen into a state of despair or neglect and constitutes safety or health hazard to the public, the owner should be served with a notice in writing and compelled to carry out repairs. 

“But there are so many of such  buildings around that get attention only after crumbling and causing financial and human loss,” he says. 

“Most property owners want to continue getting profits without minding the quality of their premises but section 41 of the Building Act gives the building committee of a district or urban authority  the power to order the owner of the building to demolish or take remedial action on the building as the case may be. But since there is low enforcement of these standards, many building continue to be occupied in states of disrepair or dilapidation,” he adds.   

Enforcing the rules

According to Ronald Arinaitwe, the CEO of Sandhbolt, a construction company, Uganda still follows building standards set by the British. These standards regulate sizes of windows, heights, angles, materials used in construction and placement of rooms.

 “The first enforcers of standards are the architects who make blue prints. They guide the entire construction by pointing out where a bathroom should be placed in relation to the kitchen, what angle should your roof be, and things like that,” the construction engineer explains. He notes that engineers too have a role to play because they determine the structural integrity of the building.

 “For instance we determine the aggregate-cement ratio, the concrete, the strength of things such as the foundation, walls, ceiling will all contribute to the standard of the construction,” he adds.  

The building control process

The building control process involves building inspectors approving some aspects of the building work. If you are going to carry out building work that is controlled under the Building Regulations then you need to notify or get approval from a building control body before you start the work. This does not apply to work which is carried out under a competent person scheme.

Building Regulations approval is different from planning permission and listed building consent. You could need all three. To find out if your project will need planning consents, contact your local planning authority. If you are carrying out work under planning ‘permitted development’ rights, you are likely to need to go through the building control process. Even if your building project follows your planning permission, you must still meet the requirements of the building regulations.

You must check if the work you are about to carry out is controlled under the building regulations before you start work. A building control body can be either your local authority building control service or an approved inspector.


Buildings must be designed, constructed and altered so as to be structurally safe and robust, and also so as not to impair the structural stability of other buildings.

It stipulates design standards that should be adopted for use on all buildings and additionally gives simple design rules for most masonry and timber elements for traditional domestic buildings.

The weight of the building from the walls, furniture and people in the building will be transmitted to the ground, so as not to cause instability to the building or other buildings.

The regulations require buildings to be built in a way that ensures no collapse will occur disproportionately to its cause.

Sanitation, hygiene and water efficiency

Adequate sanitation facilities i.e. toilet.

A house must have either a bath or shower with the ability to heat hot water.

A house must have safe and secure water storage systems; restrictions apply to who can install the system.

Drainage and waste disposal

An adequate system must be in place to carry water used for washing, toilet, bath or shower to a sewer, cesspool or settlement tank.

A cesspool or settlement tank must be impermeable to liquids and have adequate ventilation. It must also have means of access for emptying, not harm the health of any person and not contaminate water or water supply.

An adequate system to carry rainwater away from the roof of a building e.g. guttering carrying water to a sewer.

A place to put a dustbin. The place must not harm anyone’s health.


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