The Housing Debate – some thoughts on the way forward

The State of Housing in SA formed the focus of the opening debate at Architecture ZA 2010 (AZA 2010), the architectural festival that was held in Johannesburg in September last year. The debate looked at the successes and challenges of South Africa’s contemporary housing strategy and how it contributes to the restructuring of South African society in economic, social and spatial terms.

AZA collaborated with the University of Johannesburg and SHiFT (Social Housing Focus Trust) to bring together a panel that included architect, Heather Dodd, Jackie Dugard of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA, Patrick Magebulah from the Federation of the Urban Poor (Fedup), Fanuel Motsepe, president-elect of the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA), Diego Ramirez-Lovering from Monash University, Australia, Dr Amira Osman from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and Butch Steyn, spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance on Human Settlements. The discussion was facilitated by radio talk show host, Kieno Kammies.

Opening the proceedings, Al Stratford, immediate past president of the SAIA, acknowledged that to a great extent, over the recent past, architects had not involved themselves in the development of housing or the social and economic issues around providing housing for the millions of people in the country who live without adequate shelter. While this may be considered an indictment on the profession, Stratford did emphasise that architects can make a valuable contribution to the development of human settlements going forward. The discussion around housing at AZA 2010 was just one step in this process.

To establish a framework for the debate, Fanuel Motsepe provided a brief summary of the presentation ‘Faster, Harder, Smarter: Working towards a shared vision for human(e) settlements’. This had been delivered to the Department of Human Settlements by Tsela Tshewu Design Team – a team drawn from the SAIA, the CSIR, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) and their partners – as part of the Social Contract Planning and Development workstream.

Motsepe outlined the 10 key principles that formed the core of the Tsela Tshewu presentation. In brief, and in no particular order of priority, they called for:

  • Revised zoning to allow for desegregated mixed use developments;
  • Sustainable densification opportunities – from small to big – supportive of own business development;
  • Just add housing – in existing urban and suburban areas, even in office parks, for example – instead of creating islands of housing without amenities and remote from economic opportunities;
  • A refocus of government subsidies to support the development of 3km wide/1½ hour walkable neighbourhoods, rather than individual buildings or institutions – thus subsidies should extend to the public realm, the shared space of the neighbourhood;
  • Street edge activation as a condition for development approvals – to counteract the development of sterile and unsafe traffic corridors and bring life onto the street;
  • Phased and adaptable developments which allow for incremental growth;
  • Distributed decision making – to embrace a broader range of stakeholders;
  • Culturally adequate and dignified environments which support familial and social networks, work and play, and the cultural needs of people and families;
  • Public-private partnerships and committed project teams, drawing together public and private funding and expertise;
  • Technical innovation in service of a vision, NOT vice versa – instead of developing materials and technologies in isolation of a vision, a solution based on the given principles needs to come first and technologies then developed to serve that solution.

Motsepe pointed out that these 10 principles are essentially open-ended and discussion should be ongoing. “We need to sharpen our thinking to develop a holistic vision for housing and human settlements in South Africa,” he said.

Housing subsidies

From the panel, one of the main issues of debate centred on housing subsidies – how they are governed and how they are used. Heather Dodd proposed that there should be a move away from specific subsidies to options that support the broader development of neighbourhoods within a functioning housing market.

Seeing the present subsidy system as unsustainable, Amira Osman endorsed the call for subsidies to be redirected to the 1½ hour walkable neighbourhood. She also raised the concern that subsidised ‘low-cost housing’ or ‘affordable housing’ does not form part of an integrated housing market and that this would need to change to create a fully functional housing market.

Informal settlements

Another critical aspect of the debate focused on informal settlements and ways in which the capacity of people to build for themselves can be harnessed and supported rather than discarded. There were calls to allow for the in-situ upgrading of informal settlements, supporting people’s own endeavours to build their houses and create functioning communities.

Patrick Magebulah who heads up the Federation of the Urban Poor, which represents about 45 000 families – or 80 000 people, is also chairman of the Informal Settlements Network Organising Committee, which represents communities that want to improve their environments within the settlements where they are living, instead of being relocated to other areas and other houses. Magebulah made the point that instead of the current subsidy system, government should be promoting self-reliance, encouraging people to save and plan and guiding them to build their houses on suitable land. Magebulah also made the point, which was supported from the floor, that people in informal settlements and communities would welcome architects and other building professionals working with them, advising them on proper planning, building standards and building materials.

Speaking from the floor, Rose, a member of Fedup, said, “Generally, the informal world is seen as untrustworthy by the formal world. We’ve had the People’s Housing Process, but still these houses are suspected and are not formally recognised. We are told we must meet the ‘Norms and Standards’ in our buildings – yet we see these RDP houses – built to Norms and Standards – now being destroyed.” She urged government to use what the people themselves know how to do. “Give us the framework, let the people themselves build. You do not need to see the poor as problematic. You can design with us, don’t just give us limited options and say this is what and how you must build.”

Butch Steyn from the DA said that they advocate subsidies for site and service schemes, with legal tenure allocated per site, as well as rental subsidies for individuals rather than for institutions. The DA supports the People’s Housing Process – both formal and informal. Steyn pointed out that there are already hundreds of organised informal communities who have their own ideas of what can work. “We need to work with them, upgrading settlements rather than relocating them. This encourages people to be active participants, rather than passive beneficiaries, in building their lives and a better future.”

Diego Ramirez-Lovering made the point that in some South American countries which have achieved considerable success in housing development, they have taken an approach focused on designing systems rather than individual houses – systems that allow for the community to be involved in the building of their own houses and the wider neighbourhood.

All these thoughts merit consideration in the ongoing drive to establish sustainable human settlements across South Africa.

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