Mercury: Tackling the housing shortage

Tackling the housing shortage

April 11, 2008 Edition 1

Matthew Savides and Yusuf Moolla

A LACK of space, spiralling costs, the unavailability of skills and a shortage of building materials.

These are just some of the challenges faced by the eThekwini Municipality’s housing department as it tries to provide 16 000 houses this year.

Department head Cogi Pather said the task was eased slightly by an additional R230 million given to them in the city’s new budget, but that more money would always be needed.

While the city receives subsidies from the provincial and national governments to provide houses, the subsidies only cover the bare minimum on housing sites.

Government funding allows for dirt roads to be built, and the municipality provides extra money to ensure that the roads are tarred. The council also improves on the basic sewage, water and plumbing services that the government funding does not cover – as well as making general improvements to housing sites.

“Municipal funds are used to provide a higher level of engineering services that are not covered by the housing subsidy, such as tarred roads and waterborne sewers,” said Pather.

While it was important to provide houses, it was also important to ensure that they were of good quality.

He said about 190 000 houses were needed in the municipal area at present, with this number growing about 2% a year because of migration and population growth.

At present, about 16 000 houses a year are being built.

Because of the severe shortage of land and space to build on, the municipality was trying to upgrade several squatter camps, building houses on those sites to replace shacks.

The list of informal settlements is used as the basis of a housing database, and upgrading these areas is prioritised based on several factors, including land ownership, slope of the land, flood and danger risks, environmental constraints and the availability of basic services. The data provided would determine if development could take place in a certain area, or if relocation of the settlement was needed.

Those areas that could be developed soon were treated as priorities.

At present, 540 informal settlements are incorporated into the database.

Pather said the department was successful in meeting its targets, but that the bar could be set higher if not for several hurdles in its path.

A severe lack of “developable, affordable and well-located land” was particularly problematic.

However, this had resulted in the department becoming more creative in using available land.

Previously, a 40m2 house would be built in a rectangular shape.

Now, however, the department was looking at building double-storey houses with 20m2 on each floor.

The house would be the same size, but would have less of a footprint, allowing more houses to be built on the available land.

Architects were being spoken to by the municipality to assess the feasibility of such construction and what other innovations could be applied.

Community dynamics, such as people not wanting to be relocated, were also a challenge.

The development boom also posed a huge problem in that skills and materials were being used on mainly 2010 soccer World Cup-related projects.

Contractors were “scarce” and the escalating cost of wood, cement and other necessary materials made the municipality’s task that much harder.

The department is not without its critics.

Shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo spokesman Mnikelo Ndabankulu said that the municipality was not prepared to invest enough in housing.

“The big demand in housing has come at a time when land is expensive, but the municipality does not want to invest adequately in purchasing more land,” Ndabankulu said.

He admitted that there was a huge demand for housing and that projects were being developed, but he said these projects were too far from the city and poor residents would find it difficult to afford transport costs to get to work.

He said the additional money in the budget should be considered an insult as it did not translate into additional housing projects.

“Where does the money go? There is a need for quality houses to be developed, but this is clearly not happening,” said Ndabankulu. Housing department project managers Faizal Seedat and Mark Byerley said that more houses were being developed than previously.

Eight-thousand houses were built in each of 2001 and 2002. This had increased to 12 500 in 2003 and more than 15 000 in 2004.

Several issues, including changes to regulations at provincial and national government level, resulted in 11 552 houses being built in 2005.

However, these issues were resolved and 16 253 houses were built by the end of the 2006 financial year.

Seedat said 16 000 houses would be built by the end of the present financial year, but that the city would aim to exceed this target.

“The number of houses built is higher than in all other metro municipalities,” he said.

At present, 200 housing projects had been approved and were pending development, said Byerley.