Govt's new mixed-model housing plan raises more questions than answers

The point of the new plan is to move away from providing housing alone, but to put people's fate back into their own hands.

FILE Picture: Xolani Koyana/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - The Department Of Human Settlements has decided to add rapid land release – the delivery of serviced land – to its mandate for South Africans who can afford to buy land and build their own homes.

The 2016 community survey found that of the nearly 17 million households in the country, more than two million were still informal and the department says more than half a million South Africans have registered on its needs register for affordable housing.

But has government thought this plan through and does it understand what suitable land is and how long it takes?

Have beneficiaries and civic groups been adequately consulted?

How will the land owners access finance, and will this not open the door for financial institutions to debt trap them?

Eyewitness News spoke to some of the stakeholders about the affect of the plan on people.

Sbu Zikode of the well-known South African shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, said the move was important.

“Abahlali baseMjondolo welcome the release of land and serviced sites. For a very long time we have been calling for government to actually release land for impoverished people in order for them to be able to build houses for themselves. For the past 15 years … our call has always been about the release of land because we have always called for the provision of free housing. RDP housing are not sustainable and government cannot afford to build everyone a house,” Zikode said.

The organisation was formed in 2005 to fight for land, decent housing and dignity, and today has 82,000 members.
It forms part of the 600,000 people on the Department Of Human Settlements housing needs register that documents people who need help to acquire and own land or a house.

The department said it did not abandon the housing subsidy model or RDP houses. But its integrated approach will now include serviced stands that have basic services such as roads, water, electricity and sewage in developments that have amenities like schools, clinics, retail and parks.

Deputy director general Joseph Malekutu Leshabane said: “It’s not a change in policy as much as it’s an emphasis on how far do you go down the line in terms of delivering residential opportunities – so we will do those integrated settlements except for a few cases. And the minister has been clear on that we will now provide at the point where the township is registered, we are then able to release those serviced residential stands so that those people that can build houses for themselves – that is top structure they can do so quite quickly but at their own pace instead of everybody waiting for government.”

What people want

Leshabane said the department received calls from South Africans who said they could afford to build their own houses once-off or incrementally – they just wanted serviced land. The requests ranged from those who need it to be subsidised, to those who can buy land and build.

“[From] 2020/21 – to 2021/22, we can then produce or prepare 200,000 residential stands and allocate those residential stands to people who are on the housing needs register - and people must have registered and qualified. Some people will qualify for the full package including a house, others for just the land, and others will not qualify and they can say ‘I want to buy the stand’. There are many people who have said ‘I am working – I don’t qualify for a subsidy but i still need a house so can I be assisted’, and that’s how this programme comes in,” he explained.

But political analyst Tinyiko Maluleke questioned whether government thought the plan through properly.

“The need is for dignity - dignified places of residence - otherwise we wouldn’t have this many squatter camps. People want land where they can build, keep a few animals, plant something on it, to live on. Will the land be big enough or will it be this little stokkies of land that we see people being squashed into, which will be a formalised squatter camp?”

Leshabane said all this was taken into consideration. But one body in the business of providing serviced stands for the past two years said it was not that easy.

CEO of the South African Housing and Infrastructure Fund, Rali Mampeule, said actually identifying land for settlement was a big challenge.

“Literally, we go hunting like house-hunting. So we call people like town planners who know where there is a need, and sometimes go to farmers and buy the piece of land. Sometimes we get into joint ventures with land owners who are happy for us to go through town planning and get a purchase price at a later stage. Sometimes we sign a cheque immediately.

"We then contact a town planner to apply and give us a plan to say in this piece of land – let’s say it’s a 100 hectare piece of land - we can sit down with the town planner and say this is the number of stands we are be able to yield.

"We do an environmental impact study, simultaneously we do things like geo tech studies where we test the soil to see that the soil is good for us to build houses there, [all] while we are busy processing the town planning processes.

"So it becomes a team of sometimes 14 professionals all looking at different areas like civil , town planning, geo tech… That’s where it gets exciting. Then we submit the document to the authorities,” he said.

A long-drawn process

Mampeule added that for a private developer, this process could take between 18 months and two years because it also presents other challenges.

“People give you feedback and say ‘why are you bringing affordable housing in this area - how is it going to affect our land’, and that’s exciting because you get to engage with people. And once you start telling them ‘where do you want these people to stay’ and you look at their faces and they get back to you and say ‘you are quite right’," he explained.

"Then we go through the process of public participation and eventually what gets exciting is when you get the love letter that says your township establishment has been approved. We then go through a tender process of actually looking at entrepreneurs and this is more exciting because that’s when we add value into other engineers, other real estate developers, where we then call for proposals to say this is what we want to do in terms of installing services," Mampeule said.

"We install services that include fibre. We [then] have a final product and we decide if we want to offload that to listed companies, or sell the individual stands to individuals, or we partner with organisations. Sometimes we offload the land to government institutions who are looking to build affordable housing quicker, or developers. It can take an average of 18 months to two years – but that’s what we do – we buy on time we get [it] ready. Sometimes we buy ready land that we can just rezone.”

Cost and affordability

The deputy director general said servicing land costed about R46,000 per site, but the cost of acquiring the land is added to that and, depending on whether it is state land or commercially bought from private owners, on delivery a site can cost anything between R50,000 and R100,000.

The gap market that the stands are targeted at is people who don’t qualify for housing subsidies or loans from commercial banks and earn between R3,500 and R30,000 per month.

This means not all of them will have enough money to buy the site, build, or to qualify for a bond. So how will they buy the sites, let alone build their houses?

Leshabane said the department provided facilities, including the rural housing loan finance that still provides incremental loans. Communities could organise themselves into groups to access the Zenzeleni support facility that provides building materials and municipalities are expected to ensure quality control.

No dependency model

Abahlali’s Zikode said the organisation was clear – it wants no more dependency.

“People are willing to buy houses for themselves. Some people are also willing to save money through savings schemes such as stokvels in order to build houses for themselves as long as they can be given serviced sites and be assisted with skills. But there are those who would still need government intervention in terms of assisting them because the rate of unemployment is high.

"But we don’t want to create a dependency syndrome. Government should also revisit public-private partnerships where banks can be subsidised to lend - many people don’t save money to build because they are evicted.”

Maluleke warns that government should not hand people over to banks to indebt them for the rest of their lives.

“I don’t want a situation where government and banks gang up on people - because that’s what will happen – and people are then given yokes that they will put on their necks for the rest of their working lives, which will be passed from one generation to the next. And what’s the difference between that and the apartheid-era matchbox houses that people never owned? If anything, they were pushed out if the breadwinner in the house dies, so we don’t want to go back there. We don’t want to merely hand people over to the bank because even people who earn a regular income like myself – you never finish paying a bond.”

He is also wondered if the type of house one could build would be a condition upon application.

“If the project comes with minimum standards – that the house must have A, B, C and D - you are likely to find that people struggle, including those with jobs, by the way. So many people are not going to be able to put up a structure. If they do, it will be a ramshackle structure. Will they be allowed to put up a shack until they are able to build, and if they are allowed to build a shack what stops this from becoming another squatter camp?”

Leshabane said the rules around this would be flexible, with a view to have permanent structures eventually.

“The informal structure that you put up there - I’m talking about a mohukhu (shack) – you can [only] have it for so long. The reason that people don’t invest in their homes in informal settlement is they don’t have security of tenure because they are insecure in that space. So when people are given security of tenure they do amazing things. I am a personal witness of all of this, so the policy recognises that and therefore we don’t envisage a scenario where you are having to force people - people have to be encouraged and provided with the framework,” he explained.

The DDG said stand procurement would be done by provinces, metropolitan municipalities, or bought from private developers.

“A private developer will say ‘in my development I will make provision for subsidised houses, can we agree that you will take them up? I will be focusing on producing this stock that will sell but I want to partner with government so that we also produce the subsidy houses’. So in that case, we don’t need to procure, we merely need to enter into an agreement with them to say we will take up those stands or houses that you are producing.”

Corruption

Leshabane said there were controls in place to ensure that corruption didn’t cripple this initiative but Maluleke is skeptical

“If you study the R250 million set to intervene in terms of asbestos roofs carefully you will discover that there was never really a project that was intended to replace asbestos roofs – it was merely an excuse for people to transfer money from government into other accounts and their own pockets. I am always fearful every time government comes with a new intervention – whether we are not having the asbestos saga again.

"Same thing with the [coronavirus personal protective equipment] in 2020 – it was with fanfare that we were told that R500 billion has been set aside and one wonders if even at the time of making the announcement that the president was aware of the corruption that was likely to follow. So is the rapid land release another such project?”

The department said it had a robust consumer programme to ensure that prospective land- and home-owners knew where to go and what to do. But Maluleke said government should also ask groups like Abahlali how this should be done.

“If I learn from you, whether I admit it grudgingly or I don’t admit it at all, I must really talk to you because you are the leader. I am not the leader. Have they really spoken to the initiators and the beginners and starters of squatter camps to learn how land is identified , what sort of things they are looking for when they identify land and how they sustain themselves because, let’s face it, Ivory Park in Tembisa that is now being electrified was started like this - not by government but by people, [so] don’t pretend to innovative.”

Abahlali said consultation with them was yet to happen.

“Our serious concern is the inability of government to consult with Abahlali to consult with all other stakeholders dealing with the issue of housing and land within the sector. It is very disappointing that they have not given us any details of this programme… There hasn’t been any consultation. As always, this is one of the disappointing parts of government. So we are saying it was fair for government of acknowledge the fact that it could not provide housing for [everyone]."

But Leshabane hoped this shift would stimulate local building construction, create trade employment, and give people the power of an address.

“When people have this tenure, they have an address – the financial sector becomes activated - so it provides a stepping stone in upward mobility. The one thing that I hope we won’t miss – when you build your own house you don’t cut corners and local builders will not cut corners and run away.”

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