Business Day: Victory for engagement in relocation from San Jose

AN IMPORTANT chapter in the lives of 450 residents of the Johannesburg inner city drew to a close recently, when they voluntarily moved out of “San Jose” in Berea and 197 Main Street in Johannesburg. In 2003 and 2004, the city had declared both buildings unfit for habitation and made a court application to evict the residents.

The residents moved into the converted MBV Hospital in central Johannesburg and the Old Perm building in Hillbrow.

There, they have water, electricity, sanitation and shared cooking and ablution facilities. The city made the buildings available for a rental which will be no more than 25% of the residents’ household income (which is, on average, about R600 a month).

The city, which spent three years trying to evict the residents, has now become their landlord.

On taking leave of the unit he had been sharing at San Jose, one resident borrowed the words of Martin Luther King Jr, proclaiming “Free at last!” as he took the last of his belongings downstairs.

Free indeed. He left a building that was on its last legs, with no water, no electricity and no security. The only thing going for it was that it was better and safer than homelessness — this man’s only other option in the absence of state assistance.

The relocation came at the end of a court battle during which the residents were represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and Webber Wentzel Attorneys.

In March 2006, Johannesburg High Court Judge Mahomed Jajbhay dismissed the City of Johannesburg’s application to evict the residents on health and safety grounds because the residents had nowhere better or safer to live.

In a judgment on appeal against that decision handed down in March last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal ordered that the residents be evicted but that temporary emergency shelter be provided at a location to be determined by the city.

In a further appeal against the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling, initiated by the residents, the Constitutional Court refused an eviction order and directed the city and the residents to engage meaningfully with a view to resolving their differences.

During that period of engagement, the city dropped its initial refusal to provide alternative accommodation to the residents. It offered, and the residents accepted, temporary homes in the MBV and Old Perm properties, until suitable permanent housing solutions could be developed for them.

While it prepared new homes for the residents, the city would reconnect the residents’ water supply at San Jose and 197 Main Street and supply portable toilets, refuse removal services and fire extinguishers.

The agreement was endorsed by the Constitutional Court on November 5 last year.

But preparing new homes for the residents was to take much longer than initially thought. It would be another nine months before the city completed construction work on the two buildings.

During this time, the residents and their advisers worked on the social process of allocating people in diverse existing household configurations to the new buildings. The trick was to match people and households to residential rooms that were either internal subdivisions of former open-plan office spaces or were once hospital wards of different sizes and shapes.

Decisions about the particular building a resident would move to and with whom they would live were difficult and in some cases controversial. The active participation of all of the residents, mediated through a committee, was vital to ensure everyone’s reasonable needs were met.

All the residents had the opportunity to inspect the rooms that they were to occupy in advance. There followed a process in which residents made representations on the suitability of the accommodation and requested alterations to the buildings themselves or the rooms that they had been allocated. Securing agreement on the final state of the buildings and individual residents’ destinations was a time-consuming process. It was, however, essential to maintain community support for the relocation.

The engagement process between the residents, their representatives and the city continued through winter. The residents’ frustration at the delay in preparing the new buildings for occupation was heightened by cold weather and rising paraffin prices.

Inexplicably and without notice, Johannesburg Water disconnected San Jose’s water supply three times during this period. Each disconnection was swiftly followed by a fulsome apology from the city’s chief lawyer and an immediate reconnection, but this did little to reassure the residents that the city was taking the process seriously.

Firm evidence of the city’s commitment, however, came early last month, when it confirmed that the Old Perm and MBV properties were finally ready for occupation.

The move took place between August 23 and 26. Sixteen-storey San Jose emptied one floor at a time, starting at the top. Security guards were posted outside the building from the start of the relocation, as were housing officials, who were co-ordinating the move from the city’s side. The city provided trucks and movers. As the residents had insisted, there was not a “red ant” in sight.

Two residents’ committee members were the last to leave San Jose. As they completed their last floor-by-floor check, and bade their own farewell to a place they had called home for 10 years, the security guards stepped inside.

The San Jose and 197 Main Street relocation has established a beachhead for the poor in the inner city. Around a third of the inner city’s population is too poor to pay for decent housing without some form of state assistance.

The MBV and Old Perm properties are tiny oases of public housing in the middle of what is, for the poor, the desert of the inner-city residential property market. They are also a symbol of what the state can do when it stops making excuses and starts delivering.

What was labelled “impossible” by the city just a few short years ago has now been achieved, largely through active and (mostly) positive engagement with the poor communities. Ironically, it was the difficulty the city had with the idea of engaging with poor people that formed much of the basis for its reluctance to implement an inner-city housing programme in the first place.

Ultimately, though, the MBV and Old Perm buildings are monuments to our constitution and the socioeconomic rights entrenched therein. For without rights to stand on and courts to enforce them, the residents of San Jose and 197 Main Street would have been on the streets years ago.

# Hathorn, Royston and Wilson have been advising the San Jose and 197 Main Street communities on their housing rights for several years.