Prof. Sarah Charlton

The case for using well-located state land for low-income housing in South African cities June 2016

Dear Premier Zille,

In order to undo some of the disadvantages of apartheid spatial and urban form, urban policy documents have for many years advocated reversing the historic spatial pattern through a variety of mechanisms including new housing development. A key strategy is to develop well-located land in former white residential areas or areas offering advantageous access to opportunities of the city, for the benefit of those people previously excluded from the area and currently struggling to gain access because of financial barriers.

At a practical level, making use of well-located land to accommodate poorer people can amongst other things offer commuting relief – significant time and cost saving – for low paid workers whose labour sustains these areas, it offers them access to safe, decent and secure accommodation, and access to facilities and amenities of a privileged neighbourhood. Further, an intervention such as this highly important for the message or demonstration it reflects, of an alternative to elite suburbs being places to live for high income residents only. It speaks to the possibilities of a different future, one referred to in many of our policy documents and urban visions – of a more socially and economically integrated society with more income mixing and less geographic polarisation along economic and associated racial lines.

There are relatively few instances where significant numbers of both wealthy and poor are living together in the same neighbourhood in SA cities. Instead there are examples where contestation from established property owners have severely hampered or slowed down the implementation of state-driven low income initiatives. Consequently in the drive to produce housing at scale, low income accommodation has tended to be deflected onto uncontested land in less favourable areas. This has enabled rapid housing delivery, but has impacted little on the entrenched spatial forms within which privilege operates.

Efforts to establish better located developments within established areas have not only encountered resistance but have also bumped up against the high land prices in these areas which have made land acquisition very difficult. State-owned land in areas of privilege thus offers considerable opportunity to explore alternatives in this regard, in which the asset can be retained by the state and rental accommodation can be held in perpetuity for people of a similar demographic to that initially intended, protecting also from gentrification and displacement.

While much more work is needed on how to structure the financial, economic viability of these housing developments so that they are accessible to those with very low incomes, we can build on experiences and mechanisms piloted to date to forge developments that can support lives that in many cases are having to span large geographic areas of the city to manage the diverse localities of home, work and school. Research has shown that some people are managing more than one form of accommodation precisely because of travel difficulties resulting from a spread-out spatial form, including having overnight accommodation for some nights of the week at the same time as a family residence elsewhere. Diverse forms of accommodation are needed across our cities, and cheap rental units are a key part of these.

It is therefore crucial to that we renew efforts to combat both the original distortions and the more recent way in which apartheid spatial patterns have been reinforced, and state owned land offers an incredibly important window of opportunity in this regard. We must be very wary of trends, initiatives and ways of using the land that serve to reinforce and perpetuate a pattern of spatial inequality, rather than seizing key opportunities to demonstrate a different alternative, one which exhibits the advantages of embedding poorer members of society more directly into the fabric of areas in which their sources of income depend.

Sarah Charlton

Associate Professor

School of Architecture and Planning

University of the Witwatersrand


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