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The complexities and challenges of the housing waiting list

Isandla Institute | 2023-12-05 | 671 views

A housing waiting list serves a valuable role in mediating supply and demand of housing. However, in South Africa where demand far outstrips supply and corruption and patronage have undermined the housing allocation process, the housing waiting list is a complex and contentious issue. Instead of offering a housing solution in the short- to medium term to all in need, it caters – at best – to long-term aspirations of subsidized housing. Yet, the promise of ‘houses for all’ has led to a deep-seated expectation and growing frustration at the lack of fulfilment of this promise. In Khayelitsha, tensions between backyard residents and land occupiers have recently turned violent, resulting in the destruction of shacks. This has stemmed from the occupation of land that had initially been earmarked for the Mahama Housing Project, which backyard residents believe would allow them access to formal housing. Similarly, in Randfontein the occupation of 360 near-completed social houses has sparked rumours of corruption of the housing waiting list, which in turn has stalled the completion of the housing project. In the meantime, intended recipients are unable to able access these houses until occupiers are removed.

The housing waiting list was established to provide dignified and affordable housing to poor citizens and to address the backlog of informal housing. When looking at the fundamental issues of the housing waiting list, it is evident that it is a procedural tool without any guarantee of access to affordable housing. There continues to be a constant increase in the demand for affordable housing, yet housing delivery has been shrinking. While in 2018/2019 over 75 000 subsidised public houses were built, by the third quarter of 2022/23 this had declined to around 25 000 for the 9-month period – suggesting that at best less than 35 000 homes would be completed in that financial year. Given the persistent backlog, the growing housing need and the significant decline in public housing provision, government should be transparent with citizens that registration on the waiting list does not equate to eligibility for a government-subsidised home.

Key bottlenecks to access to affordable housing are well-known. These include access to well-located land, and in particular public land not being prioritized for affordable housing. Land occupations have further compounded this problem, as have corruption and patronage. Fundamentally, the top-down approach to housing provision needs to shift to a more people-centred approach, involving residents, landlords, community structures and other civil society organisations. This would allow for the championing of other viable housing forms, such as backyard housing, and enabling self-build housing construction.

Many citizens realize that the houses they have been promised will take too long to be delivered. Instead, what they are asking for is better accommodation that is affordable, dignified and well-located in relation to socio-economic infrastructure and opportunities. This presents a key opportunity for government to enable and support self-build and (improved) backyard housing as it would reduce pressure on the housing waiting list and enable citizens to create housing solutions that serve their needs over time. Backyard housing and self-build may also be a viable housing option for those who are not eligible to get a house, given the narrowing of the qualifying criteria.

So what should be done? A fundamental starting point for addressing the issue of the housing waiting list is for government to have the courage to be honest and transparent about the lack of capacity and resources in addressing the current affordable housing deficit. Government also needs to be open about the current rate at which housing can be supplied to avoid people waiting for their subsidized housing indefinitely. Government should also address issues of land accessibility and availability. If there is available well-located public land that is not being developed for public good, it should be released for social housing and self-build. This would allow for the densification of cities, curb peripheral sprawl and enable greater access to socio-economic opportunities. Last but not least, government should shift its role from being a provider of housing to being an enabler of housing. It should facilitate bottom-up approaches to housing through self-build and provide the necessary resources, tools and capacities to support it.

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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