OP-ED: SOCIAL HOUSING: Location, location, location: The vital role of proximity to city centres in affordable housing

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The lack of well-located affordable housing features prominently in the current election campaign, with political leaders blaming each other for the failure to deliver.

In Cape Town, the debate has become acrimonious, with both the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Good Party touting the credibility of their manifesto pledges to provide affordable housing.

However, details about how such housing will be established are missing, as is proper consideration of what constitutes a “good location”.

Research by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) suggests that the delivery of social housing projects — South Africa’s flagship programme for providing affordable rental accommodation and promoting spatial transformation — has faltered within inner cities in recent years. Instead, there has been a spatial drift of projects towards outer suburbs and townships — notably in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Cape Town.

For example, not a single social housing unit has been delivered in Cape Town’s central city over the past 27 years.

The factors underpinning this spatial drift include the high cost of well-located land; the slow or non-release of public land; and mounting pressure to accelerate delivery, which has encouraged the construction of large-scale projects on relatively far-flung greenfield sites.

While the government’s social housing policy expressed a strong preference for social housing in “urban or inner-city areas” and emphasised the importance of preventing poorer groups from being pushed further away to “distant and marginal locations”, the current mode of delivery suggests a broad failure to prioritise location in producing spatial integration and equitable economic restructuring.

This is not to say that social housing has failed to play a critical role in providing affordable rental accommodation.

Rather the argument is that greater attention should be paid to locating projects in places where residents can enjoy convenient access to decent schools, healthcare, parks and public safety, and improved employment and economic prospects.

International experience shows that social rented accommodation in the right place can be transformative. It facilitates the upward mobility of working-class black families and can also be deployed as a powerful tool to integrate different communities and promote urban restructuring more broadly.

Indeed, it is the only housing policy instrument in South Africa with an emphasis on location and an explicit mandate to tackle the apartheid spatial form. 

Malusi Booi, Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements, recently asserted in an opinion piece that proximity to the urban core should not be the primary criterion for situating social housing projects.

In his view, in the context of contemporary multi-nodal cities, distance from the centre does not necessarily preclude easy access to services and public transport, and should not be the only frame of reference for measuring the advantages that may accrue to social housing tenants from particular locations.

For Booi, projects can be anywhere in the metro, as long as they are close to economic activity and along public transport routes.

When the HSRC organised a public webinar with over 100 participants from government, civil society, academia and the social housing sector in July, there was a lively discussion about the value and impacts of social housing projects in different urban locations.

While there was broad consensus that some areas outside inner-cities can be well-located, participants agreed that further discussions were required to understand what comprises a “good” location in multi-nodal cities and how the parameters for this may be set — for example, what constitutes an acceptable distance for travel to work and amenities.

It was agreed that a more granular form of analysis, ideally at the household level, was needed to understand the impacts of social housing on tenants in different locations.

In addition, notwithstanding the fact that some outlying areas may be adequate for social housing delivery, there was a call to renew the drive to establish projects in and around core urban areas as a matter of urgency. The need for social and spatial restructuring in Cape Town is particularly acute because of the historic legacy.

Participants noted that social housing, which explicitly seeks to shift the racial and social composition of places, is currently the best working mechanism that exists to reverse the long-standing exclusion of poorer, black households from well-located urban areas.

From a practical perspective, infill development on brownfield sites in and around city centres, which are already serviced by appropriate infrastructure and are close to schools and health facilities, offers excellent opportunities in several metropolitan areas.

In the post-pandemic period, cities will increasingly have to look at repurposing and adding to building stock in the urban core rather than new construction on the outskirts. In particular, empty hotels, office blocks and other commercial properties will become available for conversion into decent, affordable housing.

Greater effort must be made to access these desirable locations for social housing. New approaches should be adopted and collaboration among social housing institutions, local authorities and the private sector must be improved. The government’s current emphasis on mega-projects and smart cities, which will take a long time to realise — if they ever are — cannot meet municipalities’ pressing housing needs.

The social housing programme currently remains small and has consistently struggled to scale up even when funds are available. For example, in Cape Town, HSRC researchers reported that over the past 20 years fewer than 10 social housing projects were actually delivered, or had started construction, according to records from the Social Housing Regulatory Authority (SHRA).

One solution to this is to adopt a “massive-small” model of development, that is, to enable the establishment of many smaller projects from the bottom up. This would entail engaging a range of roleplayers, including micro-entrepreneurs, communities, property developers and government entities. Such small infill projects can be implemented with relative speed.

In an effort to foster this model, the benefits of housing consolidation and densification, as an alternative to the state-centric mega-project approach, should be promoted to garner the required political and financial support.

Booi inadvertently made an important point in his article when he criticised the team at HSRC for presenting an incomplete picture of social housing in Cape Town. HSRC’s survey, which was based on social housing projects officially registered with the SHRA, did not include unofficial projects in the pipeline that may or may not materialise.

In order to make this vital information more accessible for everyone, the HSRC study recommended that government and sectoral stakeholders should collaborate to establish an open-access database of social housing projects covering at least the country’s metros.

This would enable regular monitoring and analysis of the location and impacts of social housing, especially if combined with neighbourhood level information on economic activity, transport connectivity and access to key services and amenities.

The hope is that politicians, funders and future city administrations will support this recommendation, which would help efforts to harness the transformative potential of social housing in South Africa. DM

Dr Andreas Scheba and Dr Justin Visagie are senior researchers in the Inclusive Economic Development Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and senior researchers/lecturers at the University of the Free State (UFS). Professor Ivan Turok is Distinguished Research Fellow at the HSRC and holds the SARCHI Chair in City-Region Economies at UFS. Mark Paterson is an independent writer and researcher. 

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