South Africa’s affordable housing market is developing along with the continued need for social or RDP housing, Gap-housing, or as it is known, Finance-Linked Subsidy Programme (FLISP) Housing.
However, each of these sectors holds challenges of its own and specifically challenges that require a drastic meeting of minds on how best to look at future solutions to address South Africa’s dire housing need.
Gary White from New Urban Architects and Urban Designers spoke to us about the challenges in this landscape, where they feel the development should be focused and what is needed to drive the affordable housing market to new levels.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing this market and why? Gary: The biggest problem, no doubt, is the lack of understanding of the current and future needs of people seeking to enter the housing market at this level. Although there are plenty of government subsidies in the form of partial or full subsidies, not enough is being done to think differently about how to create social upliftment and cities for the future. Instead, the focus in this market is archaic and still caught up in apartheid era approaches to rural development.
For example, South Africa can no longer afford to keep creating residential developments kilometres outside of the inner city or metropolitan areas. The old “buffer” zones, which were created because of the apartheid era’s requirements, are now being redeveloped, but this needs to be sped up and require innovative thinking on how best to utilise these spaces. Essential is the use and redevelopment of strategically located state land, which holds tremendous benefits given that this land is already ideally located.
The secondary problem lies with the funding itself. Currently social housing subsidies are paid to municipalities or development agencies, on pre-approved projects. Upon completion by the developer the dwellings are then allocated to the beneficiaries according to a waiting list.
This process can be flawed for several reasons. The maladministration in many municipal areas has led to a major shortage of funds, which in return means that funding allocated for housing is then used to address other needs. In addition, political complexities and allegiances also play a role not only in where the funds are channelled to, but also to whom the houses are allocated.
Q: What models are we currently using for this market and where can we improve? Gary: In terms of funding, the first thing that should be looked at is the ringfencing of these funds, so that housing funds are spent on the actual development and construction of housing. Developers and the relevant public institutions working on housing projects, need to find new mechanisms for collaboration in the planning phase. More focus should be given to the need to build and develop fully functional cities, rather than just housing. There needs to be an understanding of the movements, needs and realities of this market when identifying land and how to develop it.
Q: What technological advancements can be implemented to fast-track the housing need in this market? Gary: South Africa’s landscape offers other challenges. Globally the construction industry is constantly developing and looking at technology to improve efficiency and cost. In our country the focus is on job-creation, and we already have a significant skills shortage in terms of semi-skilled and skilled construction workers, which means that technological advancement needs to be carefully balanced with the pillars for economic growth.
Q: What would you feel are viable options or focus areas for the improvement of the construction industry? Gary: The processes and models for this market have been simplified to ensure workability in terms of economies of scale, which means that bulk construction does happen fairly quick. Time delays due to skills shortage as well as not being able to bring in technology to speed up the process still hampers the process of delivery. However, of greater concern is the delays in municipal plan approvals, social disruption of sites, continued influence of gangsterism, coupled with slow legal processes and the continued financial difficulties of clients.
Viable options would be to look at integrated design for low-cost and mixed income residential developments from the planning stage. As mentioned earlier, the government is sitting on land that would be ideally suited for urban development, given that the empty land is often situated in areas where infrastructure is well established. Think of places such as army bases and abandoned industrial areas, for example. These should be released to private developers with a government subsidy to ensure that the right type of development is being implemented.
Q: Why are we not getting it right? Gary: Well, South Africa is still a fairly young country. We should be looking at how other countries have shaped their urban planning to ensure the best use of available space now and for the future. It really starts with the bones – the skeleton, i.e., the urban design framework must be right to start with. Retrofitting is costly and time-consuming. If we spend more time at looking at the best practices and how to find new models to serve as benchmarks to create future urban development, we will be far more productive and successful.
Q: Why is it important that we get it right? Gary: There are amazing examples of how being able to buy or be given a house has led to significant social upliftment and improvement in the people who have benefited from these schemes.
We need to change the cycle of poverty and the best way to do it, is to give people dignity. Being able to say that you are a homeowner, brings a completely new mindset to the person and his/her immediate family. Suddenly they are gardening, doing home improvements and generally just strive for a better life. Importantly, they now also have a foothold in the economy and a vested interest in the development and thriving of the country as they now have an asset to protect.
This should be our biggest motivator, not only for the government but also for developers and other players in this space to come together and find ways to make this a reality for far more people in our country. We need more than political will – we need decisive action to improve the lives of everyday South Africans.