How social housing can help to heal South Africa’s urban fractures

Written by Professor Stephan de Beer

South Africa’s cities and towns remain deeply marked by apartheid planning and segregation. Healing these fractures demands bold strategies that are properly funded and well executed. It also requires collaboration among people with the vision and passion necessary to build a more inclusive urban future.

Social housing is one of the most powerful strategies for enhancing socio-spatial inclusion and justice, but we need to accelerate and optimise delivery if it is to live up to its potential. First, we need to overcome a range of obstacles to social housing provision; its diversification in terms of location, housing types and housing beneficiaries; and its ability to serve those in need of well and managed housing.

We should celebrate social housing as a gift for the following reasons:

  • It offers well-located, affordable housing, often in central parts of the city, for people who would normally be unable to access it.
  • Quality social housing offers beneficiaries access to economic, educational and social opportunity, as well as to more diverse transport options.
  • The design of most social housing projects is sensitively done, fusing aesthetic appeal with robust finishes, and, in many projects, modelling innovative mixed uses.
  • Institutions that manage social housing are often based in communities, practicing participatory management styles and encouraging the involvement of tenants in housing projects.
  • Social housing policy, although not perfect, provides a mechanism for innovative housing solutions, combining access to funding with strategic location, affordability, good design and responsive management.
  • Housing for people with special needs is included in social housing policy. This has enabled innovative demonstration projects that house people who otherwise be homeless.
  • A number of good practices have been developed country-wide – these can be learnt from and built upon,
  • The Social Housing Regulatory Authority (SHRA) and the National Association of Social Housing Organizations (NASHO) provide the necessary platforms to build a robust and responsive social housing sector.

Nonetheless, as we mentioned earlier in the article, we face a range of challenges that inhibit the rapid rollout of cohesive social housing strategies:

  • Governments, and officials tasked with human settlement development often lack the understanding of social housing and the will to effectively drive implementation.
  • Access to land is one of the greatest challenges for social housing delivery. Private land is too expensive, and government-owned land is often inaccessible because of inefficiencies between different spheres of government, bureaucracy, and a lack of political will.
  • Existing social housing policy and social housing funding mechanisms are not flexible enough to reward innovation. There is a ‘one-size fits all’ approach that inhibits context-friendly, organic or innovative design and delivery.
  • Although the social housing ladder starts at income levels of R 1,500 per month, the bulk of social housing units today serve those in higher income brackets. Those earning below R 1,500 and people only earning a government subsidy are hardly served.
  • Although provision is made for special needs housing in the social housing policy, few social housing institutions work in this space. Special needs housing can include orphans and vulnerable children, people with disabilities, older persons, terminally ill persons, victims of domestic abuse, and persons in transitional phases of life.
  • Another exclusion from social housing is of people who are not South African citizens, yet have refugee or asylum status.
  • There is often limited understanding among civil society, social movements, and even housing practitioners, of what various housing policies allow for, and how social housing could interface with other policies.
  • There is insufficient knowledge infrastructure to inform social housing delivery, through on-going documentation of good practices, shared learning spaces, and ongoing sector-informed research.

Starting a new conversation about social housing

To unlock the benefits of social housing and break through the obstacles we face, we should start a national conversation about the role of social housing in building a more equitable South Africa. Let’s share visions, experiences and knowledge to shape a more effective social housing policy for the future.

There should be no sacred cows as we evaluate what has worked in current social housing policy and practice, and what needs to be changed. To ensure ownership and buy-in – from national government down to local communities – this conversation should not exclude anyone.

All stakeholders have much to contribute to the discussion: social housing regulators, practitioners and beneficiaries; housing and land activists; relevant politicians and government officials; built environment specialists; financial and donor institutions; researchers; civil society and faith-based leaders.

We have an opportunity and an imperative to forge a road-based and broadly-owned social contract, committed to collectively owned priorities – one that is not just about economic redress and inclusion, but also about moving towards a forward-thinking, self-confident African identity. Let’s seize the moment and accelerate the creation of innovative contextually appropriate social housing solutions that help heal the wounds of the past.


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