Emergency Effort Needed to Solve Western Cape Housing Crisis

Wednesday, 19 August, 2009 - 10:08

There is a crisis in housing in the Western Cape. In Cape Town alone, there is a backlog of 400 000 houses, which is increasing by 18-20 000 a year, with only 8-9 000 houses built annually. The ANC’s goal of eliminating all informal settlements by 2014 is more likely a pipe dream; and it is equally foolish for the DA to try to implement a policy of zero tolerance for land occupations. Until sufficient housing can be provided, space must be allowed for the swelling urban population to build shacks on vacant land

It is good news that Tokyo Sexwale and Helen Zille have decided to bury the hatchet on the petty squabbling between the African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA) (largely, let it be said, initiated by the ANC) over the N2 Gateway project and land allocation in the province.

The spat has hampered housing delivery in the province. We are now told “the three spheres of government are to sit around one table to decide on the future of the project.” (‘Sexwale, Zille and city to decide on N2 Gateway’, August 10).

But Sexwale, Zille, Dan Plato and their officials would be making a big mistake if they believed the future could be settled without involving beneficiary communities, through their representative committees, at the decision-making table.

Unlike his predecessor as housing minister, Sexwale has at least already gone on walkabouts in N2 Gateway Phase 1 and the Joe Slovo informal settlement. But walk-abouts are not the same as meaningful involvement in decision-making.

In the past “consultation” or “negotiation” for officials, meant merely informing beneficiaries of dogmatically set plans without any intention of altering them. What needs to happen is that the past needs to be rectified and the future of N2 Gateway planned with the beneficiaries rather than over their heads.

There is a crisis in housing nationally and in the Western Cape. In Cape Town alone, there is a backlog of 400 000 houses, which is increasing by 18-20 000 a year, with only 8-9 000 houses built a year.

On that basis, the housing backlog will never disappear. It is time for some bold and imaginative thinking.

Let us recall that the Auditor-General’s special report on N2 Gateway found:

  • Parliament still has not passed the legislation underlying the project, though it was started in 2004;
  • The business plan for the project was not finalised before the start and was not available for audit;
  • Sufficient land was not secured before the start;
  • There was non-compliance with the prescribed requirement of listing the proposed beneficiaries in the final business plan;
  • Documentation was not consistent on qualifying criteria for proposed beneficiaries, especially the monthly household income requirement;
  • Affordable housing was not provided in Phase 1 for the target market identified (Joe Slovo informal settlement residents);
  • There was considerable “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” on the project – Parliament’s Scopa estimates up to R2 billion;
  • The initial building consortium (Cyberia Technologies) was sixth on the tender evaluation list, its appointment was not properly authorised and it had no contract;
  • Thubelisha Homes was appointed in 2006 to replace Cyberia without proper tender procedures or a contract. (Thubelisha has since gone bankrupt, replaced by the National Housing Agency).

Deficiencies in construction of the Phase 1 flats mentioned in the Auditor-General’s report include:

  • The certificate of completion for the building contract issued by the principal agent was issued erroneously;
  • Compliance with registration and inspection procedures identified in various regulations could not be verified;
  • Instances were identified where “as built” specifications did not comply with minimum specifications for social housing;
  • There were deviations from contract specifications;
  • The large public stormwater canal constituted a foul health hazard; and
  • Site inspections revealed numerous cracks in the walls and floors, peeling paint, doors that were not fitted properly, loose fittings, uncovered drain pipes and blocked drains.

This amounts to a morass of officially committed illegality. The beneficiaries have borne the consequences and need redress.

For example, residents in Phase 1 have held a rent boycott for two years because of the defective housing and higher rates than they had been told to expect. They are being asked to pay exorbitant rentals to make up for the cost overruns and corruption in the construction of the flats.

This is unfair.

Recent Thubelisha head Prince Xanthi Sigcau has claimed that residents in the area were aware of the rentals when they moved in. But they moved in during a period of the transition in management from Cyberia to Thubelisha – well before Sigcau appeared on the scene.

The residents claim Cyberia announced a rental rise from R350-R500 to R650-R1 050 without explanation and pressured them to sign contracts without even reading them. Phase 1 residents should have their rentals reduced to a mutually agreeable, affordable level. There are also reports that the management of Phase 1 is to be given to the Cape Town Community Housing Company (CTCHC), which since 1999 has been embroiled in complaints, about defective housing quality and exorbitant rentals, from tenants in nine villages. Why must CTCHC, with its appalling record, manage these flats? Why can’t the tenants assume co-operative management? In addition, why can’t some arrangement be made to transpose rents to reasonable bond payments, so that residents can eventually own their homes rather than rent for life?

These ideas have been considered by the representative committee. They are the sort of ideas that Sexwale, Zille, Plato and their officials could consider implementing. The same applies to the residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement, still under threat of forced removal to Delft, from which barely 12 percent of them will be able to return on the existing N2 Gateway plans.

They are victims of the incompetence of Thubelisha.

The Breaking New Ground housing policy, conceived in 2004, was supposed to break with apartheid-style city planning (blacks to the periphery) and practise upgrading in situ. Both provisions are being violated in the case of the residents of Joe Slovo.

Two things need to be considered here – firstly, finding land in Langa, where they can be placed temporarily rather than in Delft -originally, in 2004/5 sites were identified in Langa/Epping but business owners threatened court action. These owners could be persuaded otherwise by Sexwale and Zille. Secondly, higher-density housing – even if this involves, as Plato has suggested, buildings that rise over several storeys. Medium-density housing is being considered in other townships. Both ideas have been considered by the representative committee in Joe Slovo, and they need to be brought into the planning process.

The failures of N2 Gateway are largely of an ANC government (the DA was excluded from N2 Gateway shortly after taking office in the City of Cape Town). But both the DA and the ANC need to reconsider their housing policies.

The occupation of N2 Gateway housing by Delft back yarders in December 2007 and the recent occupations of vacant municipal land in Macassar, Kraaifontein and elsewhere by equally desperate back yarders stems from the housing crisis in the city – with the backlog increasing every year. The city is again threatening to evict Delft back yarders from the shacks they have built on Symphony Way, just as it tore down the shacks of the Macassar occupants – an illegal act, covered up by the city applying resources superior to those of the residents.

The Delft back yarders are all eligible for N2 Gateway houses, but when they submitted their applications, Thubelisha lost them. They engaged in a protest at a handover of N2 Gateway homes and Sigcau promised to deliver new forms but never did so. Now the city wants to condemn them to the prison-like temporary relocation area in Blikkiesdorp.

The ANC may be imagining, in vain, that all informal settlements can be eliminated by 2014. It is equally foolish for the DA to try to implement a policy of zero tolerance for land occupations. Until sufficient housing can be provided, space must be allowed for the swelling urban population to build shacks on vacant land. It is incumbent on public bodies to provide such space. Otherwise the city will face overcrowding, resulting in more crime, drug abuse, and the abuse of women and children – all of which are against the policies of the DA and ANC.

And while Sexwale, Zille, Plato and their officials are reconsidering housing policy – in conjunction with the beneficiaries of N2 Gateway and others – they might consider something else. Four-hundred-and-seventy-five thousand jobs have been lost this year due to the recession, adding to the more than 30 percent unemployment rate (including those discouraged from seeking work). Why not organise, through an expanded public works programme, emergency training for the unemployed (many have inadequate homes) men and women in bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing and so on, so that they can be employed to build the much-needed houses? Cosatu should put its weight behind such a plan.

The current housing budget is only 1.5 percent of GDP as opposed to the developing country norm of 5-6 percent. With an emergency effort, spearheaded by the presidency, resourced through the treasury (Zuma has promised R2.4 billion to retrain the retrenched), and motivated by the beneficiaries, the nationally needed 2.2 million houses could be built quickly.

Martin Legassick is Emeritus Professor at the University of the Western Cape and is active in the field of housing. This article was first published in the Cape Times and is republished here with permission from the author


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