Defend Truth


Housing: The need for more realistic debate

Lauren Royston is the Director of Research and Advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), where Stuart Wilson is the Executive Director.

On 15 July, Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu delivered her Budget Vote speech to the National Assembly. There are aspects of the Minister’s address that should be welcomed. But there are also a number of weaknesses in her approach that speak volumes about how the state views its constitutional obligations to the poor.

Perhaps the most welcome aspect of the Minister’s speech was the acknowledgement that the “delivery of houses has dropped drastically across all provinces” by as much as 30%. The significant decrease in the delivery of housing has been a long-standing concern. It has been obscured by unreliable claims of successful delivery.

Many have criticised the government’s claim to have “created 3.7 million housing opportunities”. In reality it is hard to know what this means, and what has actually been delivered. What exactly constitutes a “housing opportunity”? Is it a subsidy approved or (as government spokespeople often spin it) a house actually built?

In the absence of clear statistics in this regard, the Minister’s concern about decreased delivery is an important place to start. We would like to see more transparent and reliable statistics and more effective monitoring of delivery by the Department of Human Settlements.

The Minister’s acknowledgement that the government is no longer delivering the volume of housing that it once did makes her call for us to consider an end to “free” housing that much harder to understand. The Minister criticises the “dependency” syndrome that the provision of free goods and service by the state allegedly creates. In a stagnant or shrinking economy plagued by rising inequality, such talk is unhelpful. While on the face of it there is nothing wrong with people making a contribution to their housing within the framework of a state subsidy programme, this will remain dependent on what people can afford.

The failure to grasp the reality of what people can really afford is evident in what the Minister says about rental housing. “Rental stock at reasonable rates, that which we call Social Housing, is the way we will find sustainable provision of affordable housing.” The emphasis on rental housing at reasonable rates is, in general terms, to be welcomed.

However, the conclusion that social housing provides a complete solution is simply inaccurate. Social housing schemes are effectively public/private partnerships in which the state subsidises medium to high density rental housing in blocks of flats and cluster complexes, which is then managed by non-profit social housing institutions. The state provides no further assistance for management or maintenance costs, which the social housing institution itself must meet by charging rent and other service fees.

Few people, even those within the social housing sector, would argue that social housing goes “deep down market” – the label used within the sector to describe the demand for housing amongst people with little or no income. In the Johannesburg inner city alone, the cheapest social housing unit available costs R1,036 per month, which is only just less than the actual income of approximately a third of inner city residents. What they can afford is rent of no more than R450 per month. Accommodation at this price simply does not exist outside state-owned housing stock.

Important though social housing is as a component of a national rental approach, it does not fill the gap that exists for affordable rental housing. For that, an ambitious national public rental housing programme is needed. The Minister points out the “onerous responsibility” on municipalities in our inner cities. A national public rental programme is required to support those municipalities who are shouldering some of this burden, and even more so for those that are currently not.

Much of the unmet demand for affordable housing manifests itself in informal settlements. The recent past has seen intensive investment in planning and capacity development for incremental, in situ informal settlement upgrading along the lines envisaged in the National Housing Code, 2009 and the National Informal Settlement Upgrading Programme. The Housing Development Agency and the Department of Human Settlements, through the National Informal Upgrading Support Programme, have been working for the past several years on building capacity, undertaking planning, producing technical assessments and so on.

However, the informal settlement communities with which we work are no closer to seeing actual implementation.

The Minister’s speech said nothing about informal settlement upgrading, which is absolutely essential to providing affordable housing at scale. The Minister’s speech focused instead on “revving the engine on high voltage” glitzy mega-projects, rather than the unglamorous but important work involved in careful and sensitive community engagement needed for effective informal settlement upgrading. The failure to mention upgrading – a policy that the Minister herself promulgated ten years ago – may not have been intentional. But it is worrying.

Serious resources still need to be allocated to the process of actually implementing upgrading projects. The Minister’s silence does not bode well for the direction that the state might take.

The Minister has called for debate. That is to be welcomed. But the debate must focus on the need that actually exists on the ground. Sometimes, that need is for old-style RDP housing. Sometimes it is for secure access to serviced land. Sometimes it is for emergency housing after eviction, or for ultra-low-cost rental housing at the kind of scale that would render forced evictions unnecessary.

As the Minister says, these sorts of opportunities must be “affordable”. But in a shrinking economy, with high levels of poverty and world-beating levels of inequality, “affordable” sometimes means “free”. Or at least at a price that is so low that the state – not the market – must provide. It makes no sense to avoid this simple truth, by wagging fingers at the “dependent” poor. 

Royston is the Director of Research and Advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), where Wilson is the Executive Director.


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