Re-thinking the meaning of “well-located” for affordable housing in South Africa

This article is part of our 80:20 series and uses the 80:20 model. It exposes Claire du Trevou views on  the Urban Periphery, discussing  the notion of well-located areas and the role of policies and urban planning alongside architecture for affordable housing.

Affordable Housing Landscape in Cape Town

When we think about ‘affordable housing’ a number of international precedents may jump to mind, and by and large, our minds will probably conjure up images of high density flat blocks in, or at least close to, the inner city. Closer to home the new buzz word, which can refer to accommodation catering to a spectrum of income groups depending who you talk to, doesn’t yet bring to mind a clear or definitive image. Because we don’t have the glossy, glassy buildings the international affordable housing trends produce, we assume that there are no affordable housing products in our city.

Harmony Village in Mitchells Plain

However, move beyond the inner city limits, and you will find a very different affordable housing model that is beginning to emerge. Without romanticising the urban poor, or informality, there are many lessons to draw from the rapid proliferation of additions, alterations and complete demolitions of houses to allow for the construction of medium density residential blocks, that many residents are making to their original single storey houses. These additional rooms and new ‘flats’ are a direct response to the growing demand for well-located affordable rental stock. While homeownership is still valued and aspired to, there are a number of income and age groups – often still transient – who value the flexibility and possibilities rental accommodation offers. As well as those who earning above the R3500 household threshold disqualifying them for a government subsidy house, but not earning enough to be able to afford to purchase a property of their own.

Micro-developments trends in “not well-located areas”

The building alterations we are beginning to see across the urban periphery are allowing homeowners to harass the economic value of their asset through providing a basic product to the growing rental market across the Cape Metro. There are a number of growing case studies (here, here and here) looking at these ‘micro-developers’ who are either buying older RDP houses, demolishing them and constructing block of flats. Or those who are simply and incrementally adding additional rooms or a storey to accommodate for rental tenants.

“Flat of Du Noon”,Photo from

In a recent precursory study undertaken by People’s Environmental Planning; households who had made extensions to their homes were interviewed to understand the key motivations behind wanting to construct these extensions. For many of them, when asked ‘why did you extend’, their response was that stranger would regularly knock on their door asking if they had any rooms to let. These persistent visitors were an indicator of a clear demand for rental accommodation, so once they’d managed to save up a bit of money, they constructed additional rooms for letting. The study found that the rooms never had to be advertised, rental-seekers would just sort of ‘show up’.

In this particular case study, the rental arrangements between landlords and tenants were also extremely flexible and fluid. An amount is agreed upon (and is a pretty standard R1000 across this particular neighbourhood) and should the tenant not be able to pay, a negotiation between the landlord and tenant is reached for that month. This standard R1000 is typically for a single, private room, roughly 15 – 20m2 in size. The tenants of these rooms will share a bathroom, kitchen, and sometimes, a living space. The rooms are simple and the finishes are basic. One may even liken them to ‘micro-units’ that are taking hold in the inner city. This market response is happening at pace in previously disadvantaged areas – or what we may term not well-located areas…

Towards an inclusive definition of “well-located”?

At an ‘affordable housing’ forum, the audience were asked if they lived in a well located area, and if so, why did they believe it to be so. The audience was made up of members from different race groups, socioeconomic classes, historical backgrounds, from all across the Cape Metro. And while most believed that they did live in well-located areas, almost every participant supplied a different justification for their answer.

‘It’s close to my family, close to schools, I can walk to the shops, access to public transport…’

So often when ‘well-located’ land is defined, the physical, financial, proximities to public infrastructure and economic centres are given preference over the social and intangibles aspects of where we live. One has to ask, what about social networks? What about proximity to family, to religious institutions, and community? How does one include the social value of land when we define ‘well-located’?

And further still, the local definition of well-located within different contexts may differ from formal to informal areas. Well-located to some could refer to proximity to public ablutions, taps, safe nodes, or family; rather than proximity to public transport and economic opportunities.

In addition to this, when we define well-located presently, are we considering the future developments and municipal plans for city growth and the impact those future developments will have?

While it is undeniable that we need incentives for the rapid development of ‘affordable housing’ stock closer to the inner city and the historical economic centre; we also need to explore incentives for the continuation of the organic intensification and densification of residential properties taking place within the historical urban periphery. The development of affordable housing within the inner city is an imperative move towards redressing apartheid spatial planning; but we can not assume that everyone want to live in the inner city. Thus we need to interrogate what this intensification and densification of the urban peripheries means for the growth of new economic centres, and how we define ‘well-located land’ – both presently and in terms of the future.

Space, Design and Architecture matter.

Currently the City of Cape Town is drafting an ‘inclusionary housing policy’ and investigating how the City can fast track certain building and planning processes, in order to ensure inclusionary and affordable housing is built quickly in rapidly gentrifying inner city neighbourhoods. The intention is to ensure that lower income residents are not priced out of neighbourhoods they have resided in for generations. The policy takes its lead from many international cities and in essence obligate developers to include a portion of units within new housing developments that are ‘more affordable’ than the market prices.

Delft, Photo “The creators documentary”

In areas such as Delft, Du Noon, Khayelitsha, and Philippi East these additions, alterations, and extensions being made to produce affordable rental products are happening without new policy directives or development incentives; but take a moment to imagine the built fabric and improved urban form of these spaces if there were tax incentives; technical support; new zoning scheme innovations, and additional development rights given to developers working in what we may not currently classify as ‘well located’ areas.

We assume that architects design the built environment – however almost less than 2% of the built fabric is actually designed by architects. Innovation and ingenuity exists outside of the architectural fraternity, however we must consider if there is any design or technical assistance that can improve the quality and quantity of affordable housing solutions, and the urban spaces they contribute to, being developed outside of the city centre.

It is clear that we need inclusionary and affordable housing in spaces where lower income residents are being priced out of their neighbourhoods. We desperately need a suite of public and private affordable housing products in these areas to allow for inclusive regeneration, rather than exclusionary gentrification. However, we can not be naive enough to believe that the housing crisis will be solved through the release of inner-city land, inclusionary housing policies, and state-subsidised housing products. And thus can not ignore the urban periphery. We can not exclude the social value of land and its impact on what ‘well-located’ means, and we simply can not afford to assume 80:20 splits and inclusionary housing development incentives need only apply to the inner-city.

Claire du Trevou is a candidate architect, working in the urban development sector, focussing on informal settlements upgrading and community-centred housing developments. Currently working at People’s Environmental Planning, Claire’s work focusses on enabling communities through collaborative design processes, within the broader informal settlements upgrading agenda.She believes that authentic transformation is only possible through meaningful community participation. While the bulk of her work currently focuses on informal settlements upgrading, Claire has also worked on, and remains interested in projects focussing on inclusive urban regeneration, affordable housing, innovative finance, and role of good design within development spaces.