Government-Built Sprawl

Part 3 of my South Africa Series

N2 Gateway Project HouseThe lack of progress bridging the social divides in South Africa has not been due to political will. In addition to a variety of political rights (many which Americans will be familiar with from our Bill of Rights), the South African Constitution includes workers’ rights to join unions, a right to education, a right to a clean environment, a right to access to government information, and a right to “adequate” housing, among others. The housing section reads as follows:

1. Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.
2. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.
3. No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

In order to achieve that goal, the government’s National Department of Housing has spent considerable funds to construct free or very low cost housing for citizens housed in sub-adequate conditions. Since 1997 the department has constructed 2,355,913 homes. Although I cannot find the precise break-down, I believe most of those were free homes provided first time home owners. This graphic illustrates where in South Africa most of these homes have been built.

Housing Delivery in South Africa

Despite the millions of new homes, the government continues to struggle to accommodate the long lists of needy citizens. The model of housing adopted for the early phase was a 6 meter by 6 meter square house, or less than 400 square feet, located on a roughly 2,000 square foot lot. The houses are provided a small bathroom and power and the poor are provided a small allocation of power and water free of charge. These admittedly “starter” homes are intended to house the most needy, although the program has been fraught with criticism. Moralists critique the lack of privacy resulting from more than one family living essentially in the same room. Extensions to the original house often amount to little more than a tin lean-to. Finally, the mass development of these homes at the city edge, where land is cheapest, has created large communities of poor far from jobs and municipal resources. To make matters worse, most of the poor do not own automobiles, and are heavily reliant on public transit. (Luckily, unlike in America, the commuter rail system and shared taxis do service the periphery.)

During my stay in Cape Town we were able to visit a government-funded housing project under construction in the area known as Delft. Here the homes being constructed in an area known as the “Cape Flats,” beyond the airport on a vast flat sandy area miles from downtown. At the site two demonstration houses stood next to a container retrofitted as a mobile office.

Yohan Construction Site

We spoke to the employee of a civil engineering firm who was overseeing the construction of basic infrastructure – sewer, electrical, water pipes, and streets. Here a pile of manhole covers and drain grates (designed to have no value as scrap iron to deter theft) stood stacked waiting for installation. We were told the entire project would include some 50,000 homes when complete.

Delft Construction Site Delft Model Home

Google Earth captured a similar project under construction that conveys the scale of these developments:
Housing Construction

The problems associated with the mass construction of these homes have sparked a sea-change in the thinking of government officials. Currently officials talk about the need to move beyond the single-minded focus on mass construction, and attempt to create “sustainable human settlements,” and this summer have issued a new official policy statement dedicated to creating sustainable communities. The current model of housing construction is also fundamentally at odds with the government’s strict approach to urban growth: each city has an urban growth boundary, and the government is attempting to pursue a policy of “densification” to focus development in already-urbanized area. Newer projects, such as the N2 Gateway project in Cape Town, have experimented with a variety of housing types (condominiums, duplexes, single-family homes) as well as tenure (rented and owned). The reason most housing to date has been small single-family homes is complex, and has to do not only with user preference and the high cost of high density housing, but also a stigma against government apartment complexes dating from Apartheid-era policies.

However, despite inspired policy documents issued from housing authorities, the simple fact remains that the cheapest land is the farthest from the city center, and a house designed at a minimal cost leaves much to be desired. While American government policies such as home loans, freeways, and the mortgage tax deduction have sparked suburban sprawl, in South Africa the government itself is the builder of impoverished, sprawling, low-density communities.

In both cases, residents and city builders are now facing a similar challenge: how to transform these landscapes into something more sustainable and urban to better serve residents’ needs.

Author: Rob Goodspeed