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The nuances of backyarding: What do we know?

Isandla Institute | 2021-07-13 | 237 views

Informal backyard living is a long standing feature of South African cities and has been steadily growing in recent years. It offers many urban residents an affordable housing solution, particularly those who are not eligible for public housing, those who qualify but find themselves on the long housing waiting list, or those who do not qualify for a bond and who cannot afford formal rentals. In fact, recent research on backyard housing in Cape Town conducted by the Backyard Matters Project, jointly executed by the Development Action Group (DAG), Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) and Isandla Institute, found that a significant proportion of tenants opt to live in neighbourhoods they have lived most of their lives or where they have social networks – areas where formal rental opportunities are scarce or non-existent.

In many of these instances, informal backyard housing sustains families and supports social networks by sharing an asset – an erf and its service connections – and converting it into a pooled resource. Backyarding can also be an example of local entrepreneurship and support local economic development.

However, often the quality of housing structures and services provided are sub-standard and are not adequate for dignified living. And while our research in Cape Town found high levels of tenure security, even in the absence of formal lease agreements, tenants may be subjected to the whims of landlords who can arbitrarily decide on evictions or service access. This then raises critical questions about the role of cities to support this housing sector and protect the rights of tenants to dignified housing and quality services.

As our Planning4Informality tool shows, the response from South African cities, and government in general, to this dynamic sub-sector is mixed at best. It is easy to turn a blind eye when it comes to this sector, as it is literally of out of sight. Cities also struggle to make sense of developments that are hyper-localised and that involve an arrangement between private parties (landlord and tenant). Furthermore, where backyarding takes place in privately owned land, cities often consider this outside of their mandate or power to respond to.

Nonetheless, some cities have sought to develop interventions that address the limitations of the informal backyard housing sector and/or support emerging opportunities. For example, the City of Ekurhuleni used a special land use dispensation to formalise and regulate backyard through the relaxation of building norms and standards, increased density and relaxing building lines. The City of Cape Town opted to focus on service provision to backyarders living on Council owned land, whereas the City of Johannesburg experimented with an urban management intervention in Cosmo City to enable backyard housing. Unfortunately, none of these initiatives have gone beyond the stage of pilot interventions; they haven’t been replicated, sustained or upscaled. It’s too early to say whether the City of Cape Town’s recent approach to support micro developers in small-scale housing construction in townships will buck this trend – or whether it will provide adequate housing to those at the lower end of the affordable housing income range (i.e. between R3,500-R15,000/month).

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased housing insecurity, particularly amongst backyard tenants who are amongst those that suffer its devastating economic impact disproportionately. More than ever, our cities are called upon to develop programmes that improve access to basic services, tenure security and quality housing for backyard tenants. In addition, as the Backyard Matters research findings show, neighbourhood level improvements, particularly those aimed at enhancing safety and preventing violence, are also critical. Ke nako…



Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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