Housing for the poor

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FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold a banner during a demonstration against rising rents and gentrification in Berlin

The residential environment probably has the most profound impact on human health, behaviour and satisfaction, since this is where people spend the greatest part of their lives, rear children and develop social habits. Although decent shelter is a major human need, the current housing picture contains enormous deficiencies. Millions people live in appalling housing conditions and there is a formidable global shortage of desperately needed dwellings and this situation is likely to worsen.

Mere statistics fail to capture the true dimension of the urban residential crisis. At the community level, the crisis is aggravated in many countries by a growing polarization of the population according to the location and quality of their houses. Although overall living standards have risen in most countries over the past decade, the supply of housing to low-income families remains far too minor. The urban poor also bear the greatest burden of the mismanagement of the urban environment, as it is in the poorer areas that essential services are often of the lowest standard.

Housing is a contentious political issue in this country. Strict social engineering during apartheid meant that black people were disadvantaged. Cities were racially divided, and the black population forced to live far from places of economic activity and without public amenities. Gauteng has a backlog of a million houses and the problem has been exacerbated by numerous budget cuts. In addition, it is said that more than 100 000 people move to Johannesburg each year, making it impossible to address the scale of demand.

This lack of affordable and well-situated rental or social housing accommodation is not unique to South Africa. There are many urban centres around the world where land has run out and state support is insufficient to keep up with demand, let alone plan for the future.

Affordability remains a major stumbling block. Lauren Royston and Michael Clark of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute report that current estimates of households living in the inner city of Johannesburg who earn less than R 3 200 per month are in the region of 34 000 households. “Thirty-one percent of these earn less than R 1 600 per month and can spend R 450 per month on rent, while 18% of these households earn between R 1 600 – R 3 200 a month, and can afford to spend between R 450 and R 1 050 a month – a range that private rental does not reach and social housing barely touches…”

In addition, for years authorities have been sanctioning the eviction of illegal occupants of buildings (mostly derelict) and what is termed illegal informal settlements. While these people are indeed occupying these structures illegally they have no other option. They are for the most part homeless or migrants from far off villages either looking for employment or working for meagre salaries.

When considering buildings people often transact with middle men that charge exorbitant rent relative to the earnings forcing several people to occupy dwellings designed for only one or two occupants. The residents are often unaware that they are occupying these premises illegally. As a result of the evictions residents often have nowhere to go, thrown out on the street with their belongings unsympathetically strewn about. These evictions highlight the deeply rooted problem of the lack of housing for South African citizens. This is not a novel problem, the issue of inadequate housing is one of the major legacies of our country’s turbulent history.

Under apartheid, segregation was mandated by law.  Blacks could not live in “white” areas but had to live in townships or in impoverished rural areas know as Bantustans.  Very little housing was built for black people by the apartheid regime.  As a result when the new government came to power there was only 1 formal brick house for every 43 black people compared to one for every 3.5 whites.

The urban backlog alone was estimated as at least 1.3 million units in 1994.  To meet population growth, 130 000 houses have to be built every year.  In 1993 only about 50 000 houses were built.  Between 7.5 and 10 million people lived in informal housing such as shanties in squatter camps and back yards of black township houses.  In the 1980s, as part of the struggle against apartheid, township residents organised rent and services payment boycotts. Today, millions of people still live in shanties and squatter camps.  The government estimates that an additional 2 to 3 million homes are required to meet their needs.

The conversation.com suggests the following potential solutions that the government could pursue. These include, rethinking government’s role as the sole funder. Diverse funding streams and the involvement of a range of stakeholders would allow for low cost and affordable housing to be an integral part of all city developments in well located, mixed income, mixed function, mixed community settings. There should be a shift away from ownership and more focus on rental options. Private developers must be supported to operate in the field. Delivery needs to be quick and efficient with minimal bureaucracy and delay, and must acknowledge the social as well as the technical aspects of housing.

Policymakers must revisit the questions of who should be targeted, what housing products should be delivered and how they should be delivered. For example, there needs to be a shift away from individual subsidies and products to collective models of housing. There has been surprisingly little innovation in the field of housing. It’s time for that to change, before it’s too late.


Craig Mudaly has over 16 years experience in the forensic audit and investigation sector. He has worked extensively in large private and public sector forensic audits including large state owned entities, including some of the largest frauds in South African history.