Advancing the Right to Housing Through Self-Build

By |2024-04-30T16:03:16+02:00April 18th 2024|Housing and Construction|

“A house for all” is a promise made by the South African government, which has not yet been fulfilled. Annette May of Isandla Institute highlights this ongoing struggle and advocates for policy reform to address systemic challenges in housing delivery.

After 21 years of waiting, 85-year-old Ms. Jeanette Wyngaard finally received a home of her own this April. Her story is one with a happy ending, but for every story like hers, there are countless others of frustrated residents who have waited for many years for the promise ‘of a house for all’ to be fulfilled. There is, however, widespread uncertainty and corruption surrounding the administration of housing waiting lists.

Challenges in Housing Delivery

Following the end of apartheid, South Africa embarked on one of the most ambitious housing projects in the world. However, housing delivery has dwindled. Many factors — including compounded backlogs, the fast rate of urbanisation, increased inequality, poverty, and decreased budgets — have hindered the government’s ability to meet the surging demand for housing. Consequently, housing shortages persist, leaving many without access to affordable accommodation, caught between the cracks of state programmes and unaffordable private rentals.

Communities, left with few alternatives, have been forced to stretch already meagre resources in their pursuit of their right to adequate housing. This often manifests in the form of informal settlements and backyard housing communities, often located in under-serviced township areas.

For those living in informality, the reality is stark. Accommodation often lacks safety and dignity, while access to basic services is not guaranteed despite a national policy of free basic service allocations that every indigent household should receive from their municipality.

Shifting Policy: The Draft White Paper for Human Settlements

The draft White Paper for Human Settlements, released in December 2023, acknowledges the state’s struggle to continue housing delivery. This document marks a significant departure from the traditional role of the state as the primary provider of housing, signalling a shift to the state as an enabler. Under this approach, state programming will focus on providing “serviced sites” rather than fully constructed homes. While a narrow category of vulnerable beneficiaries will still receive ready-made solutions, the broader strategy aims to grant recipients access to land plots and services.

Several civil society organisations, including Isandla Institute, have strongly argued against a shift to the ‘site and service’ approach leading to state withdrawal. Instead, it must focus on empowering individuals to realise their right to self-build their homes, providing support from inception to completion. This must translate into a range of interventions, from technical assistance to education and capacitation to financial resources and access to building materials, tailored to the specific needs of residents.

Isandla Institute proposes the establishment of Housing Support Centres at the community level. The centres would allow municipalities to provide these services to communities in an accessible manner. Housing Support Centres would improve communication between municipalities and communities, building trust along the way. They would, importantly, also foster the development and formalisation of local expertise in self-build construction processes for the future.

Housing is not simply a product, but rather a process. However, in South Africa, the emphasis of human settlement provisioning has, for too long, focused on traditional, formal housing typologies with programming directed at creating the ‘cities we want’ often ignoring the housing realities that have emerged in the form of informal settlements and backyard housing. These tend to be located in communities characterised by poor public social amenities, poor basic service delivery and inequality, all of which enable and foster conditions of crime and violence.

The Invisible Population: Backyard Residents

Backyard residents, in particular, remain invisible to the state, often leading to their exclusion from essential services. Despite national policies, backyard dwellers are frequently overlooked, denying them recognition as an integral part of communities with agency and voice.

The relationship between landlords and backyard residents is often characterised by tenure insecurity and a lack of education about rights and responsibilities. This dynamic can give rise to evictions, which in turn may result in homelessness – a growing problem for municipalities. By investing in education and strengthening landlord-tenant relationships, municipalities can facilitate improved living conditions and access to services while strengthening the sector and its ability to provide dignified housing.

Embracing Self-Build Construction and Community Development

Embracing self-build construction and supporting the backyard housing sector can address many of the core constitutional obligations of local governments in South Africa. In facilitating self-build construction, municipalities will be fulfilling one of the key obligations of local economic development at the community level.

The backyard housing community is diverse, comprising many subsistence landlords, often older women who rely on their property for income in order to survive.  There are also ‘micro-developers’ who develop affordable backyard rental opportunities in lower-income areas for profit. Similarly, while a lot of backyard residents are indigent, others are willing and able to pay for basic municipal services.

While there are municipalities who are eager to innovate and respond to these basic service and housing needs, real progress requires policy and programmatic guidance along with dedicated funding. Unfortunately, the current draft of the White Paper does not pick up on these opportunities and challenges. Given that the White Paper will shape the human settlement policy approach in South Africa for the next 15–20 years, the Isandla Institute in partnership with other civil society organisations has called for a substantive rewrite that will embrace a clear, strategic partnership approach that incorporates the diverse knowledge and experience of communities and civil society. Whether this will take place before the scheduled national elections in May is uncertain.

Annette May
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