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Leveraging the hidden potential of backyard housing in the context of increasing tenure insecurity

Isandla Institute | 2022-11-17 | 791 views

At the national roundtable on informal backyard housing recently hosted by Isandla Institute, a human settlements practitioner estimated that ‘backyard housing currently provides more housing opportunities than municipal and provincial housing programmes combined’. While this, at first blush, may sound like an overstatement, statistics do in fact support this assertion. More than 1 in 7 urban households live in backyard housing, and research suggests that growth in backyard housing outpaces the growth in informal settlements.

Historically, backyard housing emerged as a necessary form of community-driven ‘self-help’ for many vulnerable households who are unable to access housing options via the private market and/or who often fall within the cracks of state housing programmes or are frustrated by long housing waiting lists. Backyard residents can thus range from middle income residents, who use backyard tenancy as an opportunity to access neighbourhoods and amenities that are well located without having to commit to the permanency of property ownership, to economically vulnerable residents dependant on social assistance. While backyard residents are often employed and engage in income-generating activities, the majority of backyard residents, particularly those in informal backyard housing, fall within a spectrum of economic vulnerability. Landlords in the backyard housing sector, similarly, are not a monolithic group. Landlords can range from individual, small-scale ‘subsistence’ landlords who leverage the asset of their property for rental to make ends meet, to entrepreneurial landlords and even micro-developers, who recognise the need for backyard housing and wish to capitalise on the economic investment and returns that backyard rental stock could potentially yield.

While the backyard housing sector fills an important gap in the context of housing backlogs, it has not been immune to the severe economic shocks and stresses which have contributed to increased housing and tenure insecurity. The current financial downturn attributable to many factors, including Covid-19 as well as recurring risks such as fires, water shortages and protest action, has severely impacted the security of tenure across the human settlements landscape, but more-so residents who live in the informal sector, including residents of informal settlements and backyard residents.

Due to economic insecurity, we have seen the transitioning of backyard residents along a spectrum of tenure insecurity, often following a trajectory from paying tenants to evictees, in need of ‘emergency accommodation’ because they have no other alternatives, to homeless people and possible land occupiers in informal settlements.

One of the key arguments that we raise in the civil society submission into the legislative and policy review by the National Department of Human Settlements (2022-2023) (Backyard Housing: An essential part of the solution to South Africa’s Housing Crisis) is that investing in increased rights awareness for tenants and landlords will go a long way towards strengthening security of tenure. Rights awareness, including making use of community dispute resolution mechanisms as well as the services of the Rental Housing Tribunal for dispute resolution all strengthen security of tenure and go some way to stymieing the trajectory of backyard tenants from tenure security to homelessness. Increased tenure security also increases the standing of backyard residents as members of the community, enabling them to leverage their agency and voice, not only in relationships with landlords, but within the broader municipal community.

While the backyard housing sector has a degree of fluidity, what is clear is that backyard housing is not transitory. Many who themselves considered backyard dwellings as a temporary solution until they ‘finally get their home’ have lived their entire lives in backyard housing. It is therefore important that in the same way as informal settlements have been recognised as a permanent feature of the South African landscape, that the needs and rights of backyard residents are also formally included in legislative and policy frameworks and government programming.

Beyond security of tenure, access to basic services remains a contentious issue. In the context of backyard housing it is common for backyard residents to access basic services via the main house or through some service-sharing arrangement. Research reveals that disputes around basic services usage and/or exploitative practices are a key source of contention between tenants and landlords. Significantly, in part because of the invisibility of the sector, very few municipalities roll out basic services to back-yard residents. So, whereas residents in informal settlements are often acknowledged and accepted as a part of municipal planning and programmes, backyard residents are often overlooked in the allocation of free basic services. As previously outlined in an earlier blog post, in practice, municipalities raise the argument that the provisions of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) prevent the provision of infrastructure for basic services on private land. With reference to a legal opinion procured by Isandla Institute, it is clear that municipalities have both the power and obligation to provide basic services to all municipal residents, including those backyard residents who live on private land. While we acknowledge that complexity and challenges exist in practice in extending the necessary infrastructure to achieve this, we argue that opportunities exist and must be explored to ensure the progressive realisation of the right of backyard residents to access basic services.

In addition to basic services, an equally significant aspect of the right of access to housing is the right to live in dignified housing which includes facilitating the ‘right to self-build.’ In the context of a clear shift in housing programming from the delivery of houses to the delivery of serviced sites only- it is important that the state at all levels enable and capacitate people to build their own homes. If self-build is not supported, people will continue to construct what that they can afford – which may result in large numbers of informal structures, replicating the status quo. As outlined in the submission, we advocate for the establishment of Housing Support Centres within communities which could enable self-build both in the informal backyard housing sector and in informal settlements in ways that capitalise on the agency of communities and foster partnership-building, all contributing to building dignified communities.

The CSO submission acknowledges that government has taken some steps towards engaging conditions of informality and the opportunities which exist to strengthen the housing opportunities in informal settlements and the backyard housing sector. For example, a portion of the Urban Settlement Development Grant (USDG) may now be used towards increasing municipal bulk and construction/provision of internal engineering services, including to backyard residents. The work of certain metro municipalities in capacitating micro-developers is commendable in expanding the availability of dignified rental stock in the backyard sector. These steps, however, have not kept up with the accelerated pace of densification necessitated by housing need, nor will they ever be sufficient or adequate given the variety of need and opportunities in the sector We advocate that various incremental steps must be implemented both at a policy and legislative, and programmatic level, to ensure certainty. This requires national leadership. At a municipal level, there is a need to finally give this sector the attention it deserves in municipal policy and programming. The State must be seen to be both a present and an enabling agent in assisting those who live in conditions of informality to realise their right of access to housing and dignified neighbourhoods.

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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