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Enabling the Right to Build through Housing Support Centres in informal settlement upgrading and the development of backyard rental accommodation

Isandla Institute | 2022-09-07 | 592 views

For many people living in South African towns and cities, access to public housing or affordable rental housing is limited. They end up living in informal settlements and informal backyard dwellings. Amid the housing shortage and budget constraints, government is shifting focus to providing serviced sites. But what about housing? There is an opportunity for the right to build, and self-build, to be enabled.

In 2019, civil society organisations involved in informal settlement upgrading, through a collaborative submission, called on government to support the right to build. The right to build refers to allowing people to build their own homes, with the necessary guidance and support from the state and other role players. The right to build is one means, among others, to realise the right to housing. The right to build allows municipalities to tap into the latent willingness and agency of communities for incremental top-structure consolidation, and allows for the building of partnerships with stakeholders and role-players involved in the construction process. However, the right to build is premised on the right to occupy, and therefore tenure security is critical. Housing should be viewed as a process, and not a product, and should be about giving households choice in how this process unfolds. Enabling and supporting self-build in all its varieties can allow for a more demand-led housing process that acknowledges choice, people’s agency and incrementalism.

If government doesn’t support self-build, people will construct what that they can afford, which may result in large number of informal, unserviced and undignified structures – not an ideal outcome. So how can government support self-build?

It can establish Housing Support Centres, which support incremental housing consolidation in both informal settlements and established neighbourhoods, where backyard housing is providing affordable rental housing and densification. Because there are multiple beneficiary and housing types, and housing support needs, including community / individual needs (e.g. in informal settlements and backyard accommodation), Housing Support Centres have to provide contextually appropriate support.

A Housing Support Centre could offer the following services:
• training and technical support on construction;
• access to basic building plans and assistance with regulatory compliance;
• prototype designs for different types of houses;
• access to a database of local artisans and contractors;
• tenure security assistance;
• pro forma lease agreements;
• information on tenant and landlord rights and obligations;
• referrals to Rental Housing Tribunals; and,
• financial advice and referrals to finance institutions.

Municipalities have to ensure they have adequate capacity to run Housing Support Centres. In smaller, under-capacitated municipalities provincial government needs to assist. Extra capacity and expertise can also be drawn from other spheres of government, civil society organisations, the private sector and finance providers. In this way, Housing Support Centres provide an ideal opportunity for partnerships.

A major focus of the site-and-service programme, and therefore self-build, must be on in-situ upgrading, as informal settlements are often situated in well-located areas in terms of access to employment and public services. Denser top-structure construction (in form of semi-detached or two to three storey structures) minimises the number of households to be relocated to install access and service infrastructure, particularly in denser informal settlements. There is also a need, particularly in very dense settlements, for alternative site layout, infrastructure installation and top structure configurations and designs. Therefore, denser prototype building plans need to be developed and provided with other support given by Housing Support Centres and communities need to be convinced of the benefits of denser typologies.

Backyard dwellings are a vital form of self-build infill densification; therefore housing support should be targeted at landlords with a variety of means and aspirations (including subsistence, homeowner and entrepreneurial landlords) through assistance with providing basic services to tenants (e.g. via separate connections), prototype building plans and technical assistance with formalisation or regularisation of existing structures, and supporting tenure security for tenants via lease agreements or less formal social recognition of occupancy.

Physical centres, whether permanent structures or mobile offices, close to where people live are important to make the services easily accessible and to build trust between municipalities and communities. Housing support could be long-term, not necessarily project-linked and therefore time-bound (short- to medium-term). Digital tools and other outreach strategies can also be used to provided information and support. To strengthen community-based knowledge, EPWP workers could be trained on housing rights issues and how to access housing support.

Housing Support Centres can be pivotal in connecting housing needs to broader neighbourhood development issues. Neighbourhood improvement can be facilitated by Housing Support Centres through assisting municipalities with data, community preparation and implementation of area-based violence prevention interventions (ABVPI) such as public infrastructure upgrades (e.g. lighting, parks, public open space, community halls, and libraries); social compacts and sustainable livelihood plans; and infrastructure and building plan support for ECDs.

Municipalities need to simplify regulations and procedures and provide enabling support. National building regulations need to be simplified, with health and safety a priority, and title deed registration addressed. Funding for housing support centres can come from existing grants, but as they become more prominent in local communities, dedicated funding and private sector support would be needed. Financial support for households wanting to build and improve their home incrementally is also important. A voucher scheme could be introduced, allowing recipients to buy materials or pay a small-scale contractor to construct a top-structure. This could be complemented by their own funding, like savings, stokvels or loans.

Housing Support Centres can enable the right to build and advance housing rights, while contributing to increased housing supply to meet the urgent housing need, and transforming and improving neighbourhood quality and safety – particularly in the informal settlement and backyard housing contexts.

Isn’t this a future worth building?

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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