Opinionista Helen Zille 10 April 2017

From the Inside: Game changers and reclaiming of city spaces

Single-issue campaigns focus on one contentious issue, using it as a binary socio-political litmus test to separate the good guys from the rest. Are you “for” or “against”? These campaigns don’t usually accommodate shades of grey.

Single issue campaigns have a long history in South Africa. The first I can recall was the Anti-Pass Campaign that culminated in the tragedy of the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, when 69 protesters were shot dead.

In the 1980s, I was active in many single-issue campaigns, ranging from the End Conscription Campaign to the Open City Initiative, among others.

Single-issue campaigns focus on one contentious issue, using it as a binary socio-political litmus test to separate the good guys from the rest. Are you “for” or “against”? These campaigns don’t usually accommodate shades of grey.

There are many single issue campaigns in SA today. They often provide overlapping platforms for a core group of activists who drive several, separate campaigns simultaneously, just as we did in the 1980s.

The most visible current campaign in the Western Cape aims to “Reclaim the City”. If one looks past its combative name, it has the laudable objective of restructuring apartheid’s spatial geography, by ensuring the provision of well-located affordable housing (such as the inner city) in a context of soaring property prices. It is a goal that the Western Cape government shares. Indeed, we have made it a strategic priority.

Several other cities have, unintentionally, achieved that outcome in a way we do not seek to emulate. They allowed their central city precincts to decay to the point where collapsing property values significantly increased affordability. When tenants refused to pay rent, large areas turned into slums. Investment dried up, while businesses and jobs moved elsewhere. Exclusion and division just took a new form.

The collapse of inner city areas helps no one, least of all the poor, and in Cape Town a range of partners have worked hard to prevent this outcome. But we must still face key questions: How can we provide affordable housing on high-value land? And how low on the income scale is it possible to go?

The Western Cape government considered these questions so important that, when we were elected to a second term in 2014, we established a priority project known as a “Game Changer” to answer them.

It is important to note that affordable housing does not mean free housing, which cannot be achieved in the inner city (or even on well-located suburban land).

For a start, it would be impossible to replicate the massive subsidy this would require for more than a tiny proportion of people on the waiting list. How would one decide who would benefit from such a huge and unreplicable “bonanza”? How would it pass the constitutional test of rationality, equity and cost-effectiveness?

Our effort to find a solution soon became a joint Game Changer between the City and the Province, which we call the “Better Living Model” aimed at turning Cape Town into a more inclusive city.

We chose to test the viability of the model on a large piece of provincial land, the former Conradie Hospital site, well-located next to Old Mutual’s headquarters in the garden suburb of Pinelands, which is an inner city feeder community, and close to the Epping industrial area.

The project is making excellent progress and has taught us key lessons about the factors required to provide sustainable, affordable housing on well-located land. These lessons include:

  1. Scale. A very large site is required. Even the 22-hectare site we are using in our Pinelands test case makes the margins of affordability extremely tight.
  2. Sustainable state subsidies. This project requires every possible subsidy the law allows: from discounting the value of state land, to infrastructure grants, to housing subsidies across various income bands.
  3. Market appeal. State subsidies on their own cannot achieve the required levels of affordability. Market cross-subsidisation can only happen if the scheme attracts private investment, both in business opportunities on the site, as well as buyers on the open market. These investments cross-subsidise the affordable units further.
  4. Access to public transport. This is essential to minimise the need for allocating large amounts of space to parking facilities, or garages, which severely impact affordability.
  5. Speed. Costs escalate at such a rate that a project, viable today, will become less affordable with even an eight-week delay.
  6. Red-tape reduction and alignment of government processes. Unless the city and province work closely together on issues ranging from zoning to transport access, environmental impact assessments, heritage impact assessments, planning and public participation, it can take many years before building can begin.
  7. A co-operative surrounding community who will help, rather than hinder, the project.

All these components have come together very well on the Conradie site, where we aim to provide a total of 3,600 flats, using a model that combines state subsidies and market cross-subsidies to ensure that the majority of units are affordable to people earning modest incomes.

How low we can actually go will still depend on all the factors listed above. Despite the fortuitous alignments around this particular site, we will still only be able to actually begin construction in mid-2018. (We were hoping to start earlier, but the new road alignment required has set back our target date unavoidably.)

Nevertheless, this Game Changer has provided enough encouragement for us to have planned a further project pipeline for a potential 40,000 well located affordable housing units across the province, at a cost of R3.2-billion in state subsidies.

In addition we have added two high potential sites to this stock: 1 Beach Road, Green Point, situated between the Cape Town stadium and the Waterfront – currently the site of the unutilised Helen Bowden nurses’ home – and the Woodstock hospital site, right opposite the first house I owned in Earl Street, when it was still an integrated working-class suburb. The surrounding area is now gentrifying rapidly due to market demand.

Both these sites are much smaller than the Conradie hospital site, but we believe that with enough “bulk” (i.e. storeys) they could prove viable for affordable housing (if all the other factors fall into place).

So why has Reclaim the City made such an issue of another site, known as Tafelberg, a disused remedial school, on Main Road, Sea Point? The school buildings have a heritage footprint of about 2,000 square metres awkwardly positioned near the centre of the site, leaving approximately 1.1-hectares for any other form of development. Our assessment of the financial modelling indicates that this is not enough land to meet the requirements of affordability and viability.

The provincial cabinet took a decision to sell the site, on an open tender, to a Trust that plans to convert the buildings into an independent school, using the surrounding space for limited development. One of the reasons for the decision was our plan to leverage some of our assets to help balance our budget in the current economic climate. The sale of Tafelberg School, at a cost of R135-million, made sense in that context.

Protest action by “social justice” campaigners has delayed this sale by almost a year. They will probably delay it further by trying to reverse it in court. In addition, Reclaim the City has turned its sights to other pieces of provincially-owned land. About two weeks ago, groups of activists occupied the Helen Bowden site and the Woodstock hospital.

Why? We have already publicly earmarked both for affordable housing development, so what is the point in kicking down an open door?Reclaim the City’s action will only delay this process, making viability and affordability more difficult.

One of the big downsides of such campaigns is that their singular focus excludes any broader considerations such as competing government priorities, financial viability, the statutory context, or even things such as waiting lists. Single-issue activists claim to own the moral high ground, and any person who says “it is not so easy” is branded elitist at best, and evil at worst.

I hope things do not continue down this binary path. There is a real opportunity to work together here, to restructure apartheid’s spatial geography – unless Reclaim the City actually has another agenda entirely. That is for them to decide.

As for ourselves, we are serious about redress. DM

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