Urban Services Group

Tuesday, 7 February, 2006 - 11:45

Dealing with the Soft IssuesSustainable Livelihoods in Housing ProjectsEstablished in 1991, the Urban Services Group (USG) works in the urban housing field, providing OD (organisation development

Dealing with the Soft Issues

Sustainable Livelihoods in Housing Projects

Established in 1991, the Urban Services Group (USG) works in the urban housing field, providing OD (organisation development) support to local institutions rooted in poor communities in the broader PE metropolitan area. A defining feature of its work is its emphasis on social facilitation and education to enhance informed decision-making by community members.

Responding to the need for the support of grassroots social processes, the USG grew out of collaborative discussions between the Port Elizabeth (PE) Black Civics Organisation, the Kagiso Trust, Planact and a handful of progressive individuals.

Director Clive Felix joined the organisation during its infancy in 1993. Felix has an inspiring professional development path that reveals a high level of self-discipline. He started out as a learner draftsman at the PE municipality, studying part time towards a college diploma in civil engineering. Following his 13 year tenure at the local authority, Felix spent a decade at the Urban Foundation during which he also managed to complete a university degree in Building Arts as well as play a pivotal role in an in-situ upgrading project that saw 10,000 families in the Soweto-on-Sea informal settlement receive secure tenure and basic services. He also managed the first self-help housing project in Port Elizabeth - currently referred to as the people’s housing process.

Felix emphasizes the fact that he majored in sociology in order to balance the technical nature of his training. In many ways this characterises the essence of his reputation which is built on his passion for demystifying technical issues for non-technical people, particularly the poor.

Dodging Development Mercenaries to Increase Community Participation
USG’s niche focus is community participation. However, the organisation goes to great lengths to ensure that it works beyond local structures to include the broader community in order to expand the general understanding and awareness of specific project issues. This strategy is based on hard earned experience that showed time and again that well placed individuals hijack legitimate public processes for personal gain. According to Felix, there is no shortage of opportunistic individuals who partake in project committees. He contends that these development mercenaries have other ideas about project funding.

While this may come across as a harshly patronising view, it needs to be understood within the context of an environment where scarcity motivates a particular brand of resourcefulness that presents any opportunity as an exploitable situation. As a result, while USG’s historical approach favoured local structures, it now recognises them, but chooses to work with the wider community as well.

Broad Based Housing Programme Doesn’t Sufficiently Segment the Poor
Felix also holds the controversial view that the state should stop building houses for the poor as this is not helping them. He argues that the state should locate communities optimally in relation to social and economic opportunities, providing them with basic services and targeted support to substantially improve the quality of their lives while creating the opportunity for them to build their own houses.

Felix contends that the state’s broad spectrum bean counting housing programme does not sufficiently segment the poor. While some people have the capacity to absorb housing - others don’t – creating a secondary housing market where the under assessment of houses, completely undermines and wastes the state’s capital subsidy scheme.

Currently, housing is developed in a vacuum and does not address the complexity of the social strife experienced by the poor who receive houses without access to wider social infrastructure.  This problem is compounded by the fact that people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are often poor at articulating their needs. Many people say they want houses, but what they actually mean is that they need water, sanitation, jobs, schools, clinics and so on. Of particular concern is the deficient development of community based government offices that are critical interfaces for ensuring services delivery and disbursing social grants.

Felix acknowledges that municipal Integrated Development Plans are wonderful blueprints for holistic development but protests that there has been a complete failure to implement them.

Supporting Community Projects as Opposed to Owning Them
According to Felix, community projects must have developmental outcomes. Quoting their involvement in the high density Sakhasonke housing village, Felix submits that USG’s role has been to focus on the soft issues, such as the livelihoods strategy of this community.

USG has worked for 18 months implementing a social facilitation process in this community, which Felix argues is extremely challenging because the poor and marginalised have been severely traumatised and tend to be dysfunctional. In this case, a simple tactic was employed to encourage respect for the community’s living environment and improve nutrition. A food and flower gardens project has been initiated to encourage subsistence activity and improve the aesthetics of the environment. At the same time, these activities have detracted from the arbitrary dumping of litter.

USG has also exposed the community to a number of other issues and has attracted other support agencies to work with and advise the community on these issues; the Maranatha Mission (food gardens), HIV/Aids (St John’s Ambulance and St Francis Hospice) and the Nelson Mandela Metro Municipality (indigent policy) are some examples. 

USG's experience in dealing with livelihoods matters has been extremely challenging to date. The organisation hopes to learn more as it continues to work in the Sakhasonke project. One thing is clear: the success of any livelihoods strategy is based on the formation of partnerships that can deliver wide ranging support to the community.

A Balance between Size, Impact and Effort
When Felix took over the reigns at USG, he set the ceiling for organisational expansion at eight staff members. In his view this is big enough to handle complex projects as well as respond to less onerous requests from communities. At any given time, the organisation is handling one major project with a life span of 2-4 years as well as responding to ad hoc community requests.

This also means that the organisation has a modest annual budget of R1.6 million which ensures that it can focus more on programme work and is not consumed by fundraising.

Land Restitution Hampered by Undemocratic Democratic Processes
The current major project that USG is winding up is a land restitution project. The project was initiated because USG felt deeply about returning to people, land that they had lost. This coupled with its strong approach to integrated development, encouraged the organisation to search for prime land, which was found in the historically white, but previously mixed suburb of Fairview.

The project, which is now in its tenth year, has been bedevilled with problems created by the provincial and local authorities. It has taken three years to get the land transferred to the implementing agency. During this time, disaffected claimants, brought lawsuits against the project to settle some old political scores with the claimant body’s leadership.

At the same time, he court cases took their toll on USG and brought additional challenges and burden to the organisation. However, USG also encouraged claimants to hold out for the land and reject financial compensation which is often less than the value of the land.

The land transfer process is finally nearing completion and some of the more salient features of this restitution project include:
• integration with the city
• a business node
• social infrastructure

Looking into the Future: Short and Long Term
In the short term, there appears to be good prospects for USG to get involved with urban renewal issues in the Soweto on Sea project, which Felix worked on during his early days at the Urban Foundation.  USG has also managed to successfully implement a community based maintenance programme in Grahamstown that is delivering certain municipal services to 1500 households in Tantje. The project has created 41 permanent jobs and the intention is to promote the project in other local authorities.

Finally, in the longer term, USG will continue to stay in the housing sector, but with an emphasis on soft issues such as livelihood strategies. The organisation has also facilitated the establishment of a CBO platform with a number of CBO’s it has worked with. The platform's purpose is to encourage peer learning and exchange.

- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director/Portal Editor, SANGONeT

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