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The state responses required to enable and support the backyard housing sector

Isandla Institute | 2023-09-06 | 508 views

Backyard housing has long formed part of the landscape of South African communities. It is a community-driven response to housing shortages for many who fall through the cracks of state programming and unaffordable private rentals. More than 1 in 7 urban households live in backyard housing, and research suggests that backyard housing has been growing faster than informal settlements.

However, it remains a neglected and sometimes invisible sector. While some municipalities have taken welcome steps in developing policies or programmes to enable and support the backyard housing sector, these are still piecemeal and not part of a coherent strategy or guided by national policy. National government must therefore take the lead in creating a policy framework, supported by guidelines on the utilisation of existing grants, to create an enabling environment for municipalities to develop appropriate responses to backyard housing. There are a number of issues that the Backyard Matters project (a partnership between Isandla institute and the Development Action Group (DAG) begun in 2019) has identified that need to be addressed through these national, provincial and municipal responses.

The lack of accurate data on the profile and extent of backyard housing in municipalities across the country means that there is no firm evidence base from which to develop appropriate policy and plans, let alone budget for and implement programmes to support the sector. The results of Census 2022 will undoubtedly prove valuable, but given the dynamic nature of housing (in)security and urbanisation, municipalities cannot rely on data collected once every 10 years. Rather, municipalities need to improve data collection on the backyard sector to inform planning, budgeting and service provision.

Public services provided by municipalities often neglect backyard residents because they are not considered in assessments of local needs or the allocation of free basic services. Assumptions about service provision are typically centred around one household per erf. Although various legal opinions affirm that municipalities have the authority and responsibility to provide basic services to all municipal residents, including backyard dwellers on private land, the challenge of limited bulk infrastructure capacity underscores the importance of accurate data on backyard housing to plan for infrastructure improvements. National government needs to promote the roll out of free basic services by municipalities to backyard residents, create legal certainty regarding extension of services to backyard dwellers on private land, and National Treasury should maintain the use of the Urban Settlements Development Grant (USDG) for financing services infrastructure extension to backyard residents, as provided for in the 2022 Division of Revenue Bill.

Backyard residents face various levels of tenure insecurity in their housing arrangements, which when faced with economic insecurity, may lead to eviction, homelessness or occupation of new informal settlements due to economic instability. Based on a cost-benefit analysis, municipalities must determine whether supporting backyard residents to maintain tenure security is more favourable than dealing with the consequences of evictions, which could increase housing responsibilities for municipalities. To ensure tenure security of landlords/home owners, the national government should expedite the issuance of title deeds (e.g., through Operation Vulindlela) in collaboration with provinces and municipalities, while municipalities should address issues hindering title deed transfers related to township establishment. Provincial Rental Housing Tribunals and municipalities can promote formal lease agreements with inclusivity and flexibility according to context, and community dispute resolution mechanisms should be encouraged and supported.

In the shift in human settlements policy emphasis from full-top structure delivery (now limited to identified vulnerable groups) to site-and-service, there is a need and opportunity to support and enable self-build housing and incremental housing consolidation. Self-build is, in fact, an inherent but neglected part of current human settlements policy. Self-build can be enabled and supported through municipal-led Housing Support Centres (HSCs), which could, among other services, provide access to information, advice, pro-forma lease agreements, pre-approved prototypical building plans, assistance with applications and fault reporting, local artisan and contractor databases, and referral to CSOs and private sector companies providing training and finance.

HSCs, with the required uptake in national, provincial and local policy and programmes, can help shift the housing focus beyond site-and-service provision towards incremental consolidation in both informal settlements and in established neighbourhoods where backyard housing is providing affordable rental accommodation. Furthermore, there is a need for government subsidies to support households with limited financial resources for the purpose of self-build. This support is not only necessary but also permissible within the existing policy framework.

There needs to be a focus on local economic development in the housing value chain and women’s empowerment, as the majority of backyard landlords are women. National sector departments should cooperate transversally to capacitate women landlords, micro-developers and contractors through financing and skills development, among others. To create safe and inclusive neighbourhoods, municipalities need to include backyard residents in communal service provision planning and programming; and pursue area-based violence prevention interventions that target social inequality and promote community upliftment and local economic development.

The backyard housing sector plays a critical role in affordable housing provision, local economic development and people’s livelihoods. The time has come to give greater recognition and support to this sector, in policy and programming at national, provincial and local level. Inclusive policy and programming needs to embrace the voice, needs and agency of backyard residents and landlords. State enablement of and support to the backyard housing sector can play a vital part in realising the 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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