New consensus emerging on housing policy - Helen Zille

DA leader says ANC WCape unaware of national govt's position on the matter

Housing: Better Together

Developing sustainable policies, and implementing them, is the biggest challenge facing any government. This is particularly the case in developing countries with limited resources, facing huge demands.

Housing policy is the most complex arena of all. The big question is: what role should the state play in housing delivery?  What is affordable, and sustainable? What role should individuals and communities play?

Should the available budget be distributed broadly, in an attempt to deal with the scale of the need? Or should a smaller number of beneficiaries receive a higher subsidy, while others wait their turn, sometimes for decades?

Every political party has grappled with these questions in the 18 years of South Africa's democracy.

Finding answers has become increasingly urgent, given the enormous demographic shifts, across the sub-continent, leading to the mushrooming of un-serviced informal settlements in all urban centres. Despite the "delivery" of some three million "RDP" houses since 1994, the backlog is now greater than ever, and growing.

In this most complex of debates, there is an emerging consensus on some key issues. Firstly, everyone agrees that the reason people move to cities is to secure an income, not a house. Indeed, many people leave adequate housing behind in rural areas to move to shacks in urban settlements, as they search for a job and services, ranging from electricity to adequate health care. 

In fact, there is near unanimity internationally that if developing countries can solve the jobs crisis, the housing crisis will increasingly resolve itself. That is one reason why the key focus of government policy must be to create a context for rapid economic growth and job creation (rather than entrenching dependency on the state). All political parties in South Africa agree on this, but differ on how best to achieve job-creating growth. 

While this debate, correctly, becomes the focus of public discourse, there is growing convergence in the field of housing policy - an important and welcome development.

In line with developing countries world-wide, the shift in South Africa's housing policy has been led by the national department of Human Settlements over the past five years. The new approach is based on the insight, articulated by Minister Tokyo Sexwale, that our past approach is proving "totally unsustainable". Those lucky enough to receive a house, benefit from a state subsidy of approximately R100,000 per house, while on the other hand, increasing numbers of urban migrants live in settlements without services.

Whereas some receive a lot, many more get nothing. Given the available budget allocations, and the regulatory environment, most shack-dwellers will wait more than 30 years for a house. And ironically, many who are fortunate enough to get a house will end up back in shacks.

Because their primary need is a source of income, many move out of their houses, and rent them or sell them (at a massive discount) to people who do not qualify for a state-subsidised house in the first place, and who could afford to access housing through the market.

This unintended consequence of the "down-market" raiding of state-subsidised houses is enormous. In one Western Cape housing development, for example, 80% of beneficiaries moved back into shacks within nine months of receiving their new homes. 

While it may be argued that letting or selling a state-susidised house does indeed enable families to get what they most need - a source of income - this is not a particularly cost effective way of achieving this (to put it mildly) and merely serves to entrench dependency on the state, while aggravating the problem of homelessness amongst the poor (which is the problem the policy was designed to resolve in the first place!).

After facing these anomalies, the national department of Human Settlements launched a new approach, summarised in a policy document released by Minister Tokyo Sexwale in 2010:

"The current housing development approach with a focus on the provision of state subsidised houses will not be able to meet the current and future backlog and there are questions related to its financial sustainability. We need to diversify our approach to include alternative development and delivery strategies, methodologies and products including upgrading of informal settlements, increasing rental stock, and promoting and improving access to housing opportunities in the ‘gap' market. The core subsidised housing product must be but one of many approaches."

This policy shift is based on the point of departure that housing solutions in poor communities must be the product of a partnership between the state, individuals and communities. As a result the subsidy regime has been adjusted to encourage the upgrading of existing informal settlements, developing site-and-service schemes, and to make bank loans more affordable. There is also a new focus on affordable rental housing. The new policy and subsidy approach is designed to address the myriad demands for state assistance in housing, while encouraging the active participation of the people themselves in securing their accommodation.

Minister Sexwale summed up the new philosophy recently when he said: "I'm often frowned upon when I say this, but free housing can't and won't go on forever in this country. I urge people to capacitate themselves in order to build their own houses." 

This statement has been backed up by President Jacob Zuma who in 2010 set a national target of delivering 400,000 serviced sites, a goal that requires a substantial shift away from delivering "houses", towards the delivery of land and services instead. This is the basis for what is known as "incremental housing development" which benefits far more people and is more sustainable.

If the DA wanted to score political points, we could pounce on the revised national housing policy. We could claim that the government had abandoned the poor by scaling down the hand-out of free houses. But this would be disingenuous. In fact we believe that housing delivery should be lifted out of the terrain of party political point-scoring, because the policy imperatives are so clear, and the escalating need so great.

We have to use the government's available resources to offer a range of options, to provide basic services to the millions who need them, to support and partner communities in upgrading their dwellings and communities - and to retain the delivery of houses to those who are prepared to wait. We acknowledge that trade-offs are necessary.

While the DA recognises the factors behind the national policy shift, ironically many ANC public representatives and activists do not. In fact, many seem entirely unaware of the developments in housing policy over the past five years. While the DA is promoting co-operative governance in the field of housing delivery, in line with the new national policy framework, many ANC officials are seeking to score political points out of their own party's policy shift, by blaming the DA for it! This reflects the extent of confusion, incoherence and division within the ruling party.

In the year of Mangaung, the ANC in general (and Tokyo Sexwale in particular) are not being particularly pro-active in clarifying the confusion. Indeed, they seem to be doing all they can to avoid explaining their new policy direction to their own followers, in case they face a backlash! 

They should not be so coy. It is very encouraging to experience the enthusiasm with which some communities are welcoming the broader range of options available to support them improving their lives.

It was my privilege in recent weeks to visit Langrug, an informal settlement near Franschhoek, where the community is actively partnering the local authority and a range of other organisations, to upgrade their shacks and infrastructure. I believe this partnership could provide a blueprint for upgrading informal settlements in the rest of South Africa. The Langrug community started by facing a stark reality: 72 people shared a single tap and 49 people a toilet. The demand for housing was growing at such a rate that families faced a 72 year-wait for access to an RDP house. So they opted for alternative solutions.

They established a partnership with the Stellenbosch Municipality, and community organisations associated with the South African Shack Dwellers International Alliance (SDI); an innovative NGO called the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC); and the Informal Settlements Network (ISN).

This partnership is one of the first of its kind of which I have become aware. They have a long way to go, but their progress is encouraging. Residents have conducted an enumeration survey to determine the community's needs, families have co-operated in the relocation required to construct and managed storm-water and grey-water run-off channels. The community has participated in re-designing the settlement in a block formation to maximise security and enable services to be "retro-fitted" while retaining current densities.

In turn the local authority is playing an active planning role and allocating finances necessary for services and incremental upgrading. Located in a spectacular setting, Langrug has created a vision of its future as a stable, sustainable Franschhoek, and I have no doubt they will achieve this, in significant measure through the community's participation and efforts. 

They are active agents of change. They are owning their future. They refuse to remain dependent and passive victims of circumstances. They symbolise our dream of sustainable development in South Africa. Politicians from all parties owe such communities the dignity and respect they deserve, rather than turning their efforts into the political footballs of electoral contests.

Sincerely yours,

Helen Zille

This article by DA leader Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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