Opinionista Helen Zille 27 February 2017

From the Inside: The painfully slow battle to provide housing

Given the entangled social and regulatory barriers to housing delivery, I am amazed we make any progress at all.

At least once a month since 2006 (when I became Mayor of Cape Town) I have been contacted by a succession of people promising to solve South Africa’s housing crisis. Almost without exception, the latest proposal involves a new building method that, I am told, will save time and money without compromising quality. In other words, we could build houses faster and cheaper.

At first I took a real interest in each proposal (and some were truly amazing) until I learnt that no new building method, however innovative, could get to the heart of the problem, even if the new material met the state’s tortuous compliance requirements (which most didn’t).

Over many years I learnt that the intractability of our housing crisis revolves around: 1) vested interests and 2) the regulatory environment. In combination the two elements create problems that are almost insurmountable.

Vested interests are primarily associated in the public mind with the NIMBY syndrome (Not in My Back Yard). While this is a factor, it is not the main one. Vested interests come in many guises and across all communities, and often generate extreme forms of conflict, which inevitably block development.

Service delivery in poor communities almost always threatens vested interests (or creates new ones), revolving around access to resources, ranging from jobs on projects, to the ultimate prize: a free house on its own stand and free services.

Whenever there is a huge and growing demand for a limited resource (such as land, housing and jobs), it is essential to have clear and fair rules that govern the process from the inception (at land identification stage) to the final allocation. This process inevitably extends over many years, given all the steps the law requires, each accompanied by a new round of public participation.

It is far easier for people to stick to the rules when a public asset (such as a large stadium) is being built than it is when housing for individual families is at stake. This is the key reason that it is so much easier to build a stadium than a low cost housing project. When land and housing for individual families are at issue, Ubuntu – the legendary African capacity for mutual support and help in deprived communities – tends to evaporate, as competition escalates.

It starts with land. As soon as word gets out that a piece of land is earmarked for affordable or free housing, land invasion looms. People know that if they manage to stake a claim to a site before the formal process begins (and remain on it for 36 hours), they will be legally protected against eviction unless a court orders it. And it takes so long for the matter to get to court (normally 2-3 years) that by the time it does, people genuinely no longer have any other place to go (their previous backyard accommodation having long since been let to someone else). They cannot then be evicted unless the state provides alternative accommodation. Which means that they will have successfully leap-frogged the housing queue.

It does not take long for word to get around that people who wait their turn and play by the rules are likely to lose out every time.

And it does not take long for land owners, who want the state to pay top dollar for land they would otherwise have battled to sell, to encourage occupation.

If a project gets to the point of service installation, conflict goes up a gear, usually over the employment of people from the community. There are never enough jobs for everyone, leading to severe tension that often erupts into violence, criminal behaviour and sabotage of the site itself, as competing interests demand employment on the project. This regularly causes the construction companies to withdraw, occasioning lengthy delays, for which penalties are often payable by the state.

Then there is the whole gamut of environmental regulations that serve to delay many projects. A site may be ideal for housing, but if a wetland (for example) has been discovered in the area, the process grinds to a halt as an environmental impact assessment is done, which takes at least two years (by which time the site is invaded anyway).

Developing housing on open unencumbered land (known as a greenfields site) brings all these challenges.

But they pale into insignificance compared to “in-situ” upgrading – which describes the process of improving housing conditions on land where people are already living in informal circumstances.

A good example of this can be observed on the drive from Cape Town to the airport. On the right of this road, houses, with brightly painted facades, are popping up, like mushrooms after the spring rain. The run-up to the building programme has been lengthy and torturous, but it was completed without a land invasion as officials waded through a swamp of regulation. The actual construction of houses, in partnership with the independent Mellon Housing initiative, is the easiest part of the process to date.

On the other side of the road, where we are trying to replace shacks with formal flats, progress remains painfully slow, more than 10 years after the project began.

After umpteen court cases and escalating rounds of community conflict (replete with assaults and death threats), we are still being prevented from building on the next cleared space of land by a man who lives with his family in a sizeable shack in the middle of the site and wants to remain there. His refusal to participate in the voluntary dismantling of shacks so that formal construction can begin has resulted in an impasse which is entering its second year. In the process he is depriving at least 300 other people of the right to a formal structure.

When we finally went to court for an eviction order to break the impasse (after repeated failed attempts to reach a mediated agreement), the court sent us back for more mediation, although I cannot work out what more there is to mediate. In this way the project can remain stalled indefinitely, while we continue to pay penalties to the contractor.

There are many additional blockages in the way of our attempts to address the housing backlog, including widespread community resistance to paying even modest rentals, arising from the general expectation that the government is obliged to provide free housing (usually in the form of a formal brick-and-mortar house on a separate erf). This drives resistance to densification, which is essential in order to meet the growing demand on available land.

Equally, there seems to be little appreciation of the fact that large-scale land parcels are required for affordable housing, to enable economies of scale and support cross-subsidisation.

Given the entangled social and regulatory barriers to housing delivery, I am amazed we make any progress at all. The greatest looming risk is the complete collapse of the rule of law in the housing allocation process and a regression to a battle of competing interests which sees the most lawless and ruthless emerge triumphant.

Ironically, if this happens, it will be the result of a policy and regulatory environment so complex, and so out of sync with the requirements of the times, that it becomes increasingly irrelevant, with grave consequences for society as a whole.

But it is not easy to establish viable alternative approaches in this most complex of policy arenas which requires a new approach as a matter of urgency. DM

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