The urban housing issue

(This policy bulletin is an extract from an FMF monograph published in 2006, written by David Dewar)

The objectivesof housing policy

It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of creating decent living environments for all South Africans. Housing, broadly defined, impacts on almost all dimensions of an individual’s and a family’s life. From a societal perspective, widespread conditions of inadequate housing contribute significantly to social instability, as witnessed by the tragic violence in black townships, and to general attitudes of despair and desocialisation.

The factor that makes the issue of housing complex is that “housing” does not simply relate to the provision of shelter. In obtaining “a dwelling space” the individual in fact gains access to a number of different products. These products all have the potential to contribute to an improved quality of life and thus generate a range of objectives which should direct the formulation of a housing policy. The main products associated with a housing decision, and the objectives which should be associated with them are as follows:

Access to land

Two sets of objectives should govern this consideration. The first is maximising the environmental quality of the site. Different land parcels have different environmental characteristics which suggest different developmental treatment. The issue is particularly important since the land outlasts any one generation of users. Inappropriate action at any point in time can, in a real sense, destroy the legitimate heritage of future generations.

The second is security of tenure. Access to land must be secure access. Security of tenure has a profound effect on satisfaction, psychological health, the degree to which land and housing can be used as an economic asset, and so on. It follows that the greater the security of tenure within the housing system, the better the system operates, regardless of the legal form of tenure (e.g., whether it is owned or rented, etc.); all forms of tenure should be as secure as possible.

Access to location

Each land parcel not only has different site characteristics, it also has unique relationships with other land parcels and with the opportunities and facilities of the city. “Good” location, in the sense that the household has easy access to economic, social, commercial, cultural and recreational opportunities, significantly affects peoples’ sense of satisfaction and their costs of living. Different locations impose different sets of costs, particularly, though not exclusively, transport costs.

Access to utility services

Access to utility services, particularly potable water, energy and sewerage but including other services which extend beyond the confines of the individual erf (stormwater and garbage removal) significantly affects health and levels of comfort. These services can be supplied in a variety of forms and levels, utilising different technologies and reflecting different cost parameters, and the range of effective options available is affected by natural conditions such as climate, soil, drainage and so on.

Access to shelter

The dwelling unit itself impacts on the life of the individual and family in a number of ways. It impacts on physical health (adequate air circulation, space, protection from damp, from temperature extremes and so on, as well as adequate safety from fire and attack, are all important in this regard); psychological health (e.g., via overcrowding and a lack of privacy); social conditioning (particularly through adequate privacy and space for positive social interaction); economic health (particularly according to the degree to which the cost of shelter represents an unaffordable drain on family resources, its effect on education and learning and the degree to which it may be used as a locus for economic activity); and it affects, by its design and the amount of space available, the extent to which the unit facilitates and enriches household activities.

Access to an external social and physical environment

Every dwelling unit is affected by, and contributes to, the broader environment within which it is located, and the quality of this environment affects levels of satisfaction of the household to a considerable degree.

From a social perspective, the central issue relating to access to an external environment is that of community: access to a reinforcing and stable social environment. This is a critical dimension of housing choice in any low-income situation, where time and monetary constraints are tight, institutional back-up is limited and informal social reinforcement is almost the only type of help that people can obtain. It is particularly important in low-income areas in South Africa, where applications of the Group Areas Act shattered community ties in many situations and where tentative new social bonds are just beginning to re-emerge.

Source: This policy bulletin may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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