Waiting for a house that never comes

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Fifty-eight houses built by government in Nyanga, Cape Town, to be given to those who needed them. It should have been a happy ending – but it hasn’t turned out that way at all.

A report last week told the story of how the state-subsidised houses in Nyanga have been vandalised beyond repair: broken into pieces in a dispute over which residents would have first access to them. It’s a sad tale which reflects a wider problem – people waiting for houses still believe in a “waiting line” that doesn’t really exist any more.

Last week, GroundUp website published the story of the Nyanga houses delivered by the City of Cape Town in 2010 and promptly vandalised as Nyanga residents quarrelled over who should rightfully take ownership of them. Today, none of the 58 houses have roofs, doors, windows or toilets.

The article quoted an angry Zwelitsha resident: “We do not understand why the people who stay in shacks get first preference, when those who have been staying in Nyanga for years do not get houses at all. Since 2004, we were waiting for houses.”

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI)’s Kate Tissington says this kind of a response isn’t hugely surprising. “When it comes to housing delivery, the selection and allocation processes are so opaque and top-down that it creates a lot of tension, especially when there is no clear sense of the process and how decisions are made,” she says. “People need to know where they stand in terms of ever receiving a housing opportunity.

Right now I think this is not the case – people are extremely invested in the so-called waiting list for an RDP house as the solution to their housing needs as promised by government, but are extremely isolated from decision-making processes around how this will be determined, where, and when.”

Tissington has good reason for terming the queue for housing a “so-called waiting list”. At the beginning of this month, SERI published a research report in collaboration with the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre (CLC) detailing some of the problems around housing allocation in this country and attempting to outline possible solutions. It’s called “Jumping the Queue, Waiting Lists and other Myths” – a provocative title, but one borne out by the report’s contents.

More than two million houses have been built in South Africa since Apartheid to be given to low-income families. Though the precise figure is disputed, it’s a statistic that the ANC likes to throw out quite a lot; home ownership has emotional resonance, and giving someone a house is one of the biggest things you can do to immediately improve their quality of life. (More cynically, handing over houses also makes for great photographs and TV footage).

It is well known that there are a lot of people waiting for houses - according to the last Census, around 2,3 million South African households need housing. The “housing backlog” is frequently spoken of as something to be eradicated, and people often speak of having been on a “waiting list” for a house, sometimes for many years.

But this idea is actually rather misleading.

“The dominant discourse around housing delivery is that there is a ‘waiting list system’ which constitutes a housing ‘queue’, and that people must patiently wait until their name comes up in terms of a ‘first come first served’ process,” the ‘Jumping the Queue’ report notes. When people don’t wait, they are punished: the Anti-Land Invasion Units established in recent years use notions like the waiting list to justify evicting people from spaces they occupy.

“There is an assumption, often unarticulated, amongst the public that the system in place operates in a rational way,” the report continues. “For example, the assumption is that if 10 houses are being built, then the first 10 people who applied on ‘the waiting list’ will receive houses.”

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? But the truth is that the system simply doesn’t work that way any more. In the early years of housing delivery it did, but then it became clear that there were additional complexities. Initially it was the case that wherever a house were built, if your name was at the top of the list, you got that house – failing to take into account your existing social and economic links to another area. To address this issue, location became a factor in allocation. Then it became clear that the ‘special needs’ of potential beneficiaries should be considered too.

Adding to the complications, the data the waiting lists were built on was often out-of-date; the report quotes a City of Cape Town official as saying that one of their biggest challenges is to contact people when housing opportunities arise, because contact details are so frequently invalid. Another problem was that in some areas, “numerous waiting lists would be drawn up by different groups with competing political agendas”.

There has also been the issue of fraud to deal with. Public servants have been known to allocate themselves state-subsidised houses. People who might not qualify for state-subsidised housing have also taken occupation of houses without them being allocated – either through bribing the relevant officials, or through simply moving in.

An additional reason why the notion of a housing “waiting list” is misleading is because it suggests the only way that people get given a house is via the RDP handouts. But in reality, the delivery of RDP houses is just one way that houses get delivered to low-income households in South Africa: other methods include the upgrading of informal settlements and the provision of emergency housing (after natural disasters, for instance). People who receive a house via one of these alternative streams may thus be unfairly accused of “jumping the queue” in some way.

Then there’s one of thorniest matters of all: the fact that many people who receive state-subsidised houses either rent out or sell their houses for cash. The government has been vocally opposed to this practice for years, stating that nobody other than the legal beneficiary can live in an RDP house, and the issue is rendered further complicated by reports that the houses are often sold or rented to foreign nationals, breeding resentment around housing shortages.

But some housing analysts say that people should be able to use their housing assets as they wish. Kecia Rust, of the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, clarifies that the policy that prevents recipients from selling their houses is not absolute.

“Beneficiaries are not allowed to sell their house until after eight years,” Rust told the Daily Maverick. “That came into effect around 2000 and was put into place because the urban legend was that people would sell a house for a case of beer.” In 2004, the government’s Comprehensive Plan for the Creation of Sustainable Human Settlements (more often known as ‘Breaking New Ground’) reduced this period from eight to five years, but this was never implemented legally.

Rust says that if people are able to enter into the sale of their RDP house from an empowered position, the results can be very positive. She gives the example of someone who might be able to sell their house for R180,000 and use the proceeds as equity to purchase a better house.

“In an ideal world, their next house is then delivered by the private sector, and in that way housing delivered by the private sector becomes a relevant supply for the low-income person who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy a house,” she says.

Government-subsidised houses cost around R150,000 to deliver, Rust says, whereas the cheapest private-sector home is about R280,000, putting it out of the reach of the type of households bringing in R3,000 or R5,000 per month. “If you allow houses to trade, you create more fluidity in the market because there’s more supply. You also give people a reason to invest in their houses if they know they will realise a return.”

Of course, consumer protection issues remain. Research conducted in 2010, cited by SERI and the CLC, found that since 2005 around 11% of all RDP houses had been unofficially traded. The majority of these went for between R5,750 and R17,000: “i.e, well under what a serviced house should trade at on an open and competitive market,” the report notes. The fear here is that allowing RDP houses to be sold would open up the process to “downraiding”: when better-off people buy into low-income housing schemes, and exploitation results.

Rust says that making the trades open and legal would provide greater protection for buyers and sellers. Her organisation has undertaken research which found that people who had bought a government-subsidised house informally were deeply worried that when the seller died, there would be no proof that they were the house’s owners. “The property market has real risks, and one has to recognise that, but it seems to me that freedom to participate is something that should be available to everybody,” Rust says.

For some, buying a government house may be the only way they’ll get their hands on one, because in recent years, the pace of housing delivery has notably slowed. The Department of Human Settlements aims annually to complete 220,000 housing units per year, but over 2010/2011 it managed only 121,879 units.

“Government sees state-subsidised housing as very expensive and a never-ending black hole of demand – housing demand is increasing and supply is just not keeping up, due to under-spending, corruption, focus on other kinds of delivery and so on,” Tissington told the Daily Maverick. “During Tokyo Sexwale’s tenure [as Minister of Human Settlements] the focus was on facilitating access to the ‘gap market’ – i.e. getting bonds for middle class people to buy houses - and also on rectifying badly built RDP houses.” Tissington says the new high-level push is towards the upgrading of informal settlements before housing delivery.

If the houses can be built, which is the fairest way to allocate them to those in need? If only there were an easy answer to that, experts lament. In Durban, the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality has tried a lottery system. Housing projects were advertised and people invited to apply. Applications which passed a pre-screening test were placed in a box and numbers randomly pulled out.

“While accepting that random selection has been critiqued for not catering to a person’s geographic and social location, the municipality believes this system is more equitable and efficient means of allocating houses than the chaotic, and sometimes politically motivated, waiting list system,” the report states.

Eleswhere these days the allocation system rests on a huge database, the National Housing Needs Register, launched in 2009 as a database to capture details of citizens waiting for housing. Information is obtained via surveys by fieldworkers. Seven provinces are currently using this system; Gauteng and the Western Cape have their own provincial databases.

The NHNR is supposed to work in tandem with the National Housing Allocation Strategy, which dictates that houses should be allocated via first come first served; vulnerable groups (eg women-headed households with children); and to the disabled and the aged. The Western Cape also announced in 2010 that priority in housing allocation would be granted to disabled people, elderly people and female-headed households.

But the NHNR is by no means perfect: SERI and the CLC mention that municipalities using it struggle with the system, citing a lack of support and its costliness to run. They recommend that the DHS needs to undertake a comprehensive review of its use and cost.

One point that seems unambiguous is that greater communication to communities regarding housing is needed, and more transparency is required with regards to who gets the houses. An idea the report moots is that there should be an agreement between communities and the state to identify suitable housing beneficiaries. Whether this is implemented or not, the report recommends that posters or other materials should be produced “clearly detailing existing housing allocation processes” in laymen’s terms.

SERI and the CLC are adamant that a vital first step is for housing officials to stop talking about a waiting list. “The housing waiting list is a myth,” the report concludes. “It should be treated as such and eradicated from public discourse on housing, in favour of a more nuanced way of characterising the rational, appropriate and humane responses to the broad range of housing needs in South Africa, which are not currently catered for by the market.” 

Photo: Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town's crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012. Picture taken July 9, 2012.


Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary.

Source: The Daily Maverick