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Enabling the Right to Build through Housing Support Centres


Year published: 2022
Categories: Research Article
URL Link: https://isandla.org.za/en/resources/item/download/275_c42e09b7bfe6ba720dde44ee62cb5f0a

Author / Authors:

  • The Isandla Institute



There is a growing discourse around self-build housing construction, and the role of communities in development more broadly, but there is a risk that this, in practice, becomes state withdrawal from or neglect of housing consolidation. In the absence of state support for and enablement of self-build top-structure construction and incremental housing consolidation, people will construct top-structures to the standard that they can afford, which may result in large number of informal structures – not an ideal human settlements outcome.

There is currently uncertainty regarding the downscaling of delivery of top-structures in favour of the delivery of serviced sites (rapid serviced land release/site-and-service) and how self-build can be enabled, supported and regulated. The state is increasing the individual housing subsidy, but not the overall housing budget (Eglin, 2022), and sharpening the focus of subsidised housing to those considered most vulnerable – the elderly, people with disabilities and military veterans – thereby reducing its prominence in large-scale subsidised housing provision. This presents an opportunity for civil society to engage the state on the details of how this shift in focus can happen, and make suggestions as to what a site-and-service policy should and could entail and how self-build can be enabled, supported and regulated. The lack of detail also presents an opportunity for civil society collaboration and advocacy to contribute to and inform ongoing discussion on how to enable and support the right to build, and feed into the ongoing review of housing policy and programmes.

The right to build refers to allowing people to build their own homes, with the necessary guidance and support from the state and other role players (Cape Town NGO Collaborative, 2019). The right to build allows municipalities to tap into the latent willingness and agency of communities for incremental top-structure consolidation, and allows for the building of partnerships with stakeholders and role-players involved in the construction process. However, the right to build is premised on the right to occupy, and therefore tenure security is critical. Recognition of the right to build is not just a moral imperative, but presents an opportunity in a constrained fiscal environment. Housing should be viewed as a process, not a product, and should be about giving households choice in how this process unfolds. Enabling and supporting self-build in all its varieties can allow for a more demand-led housing process that acknowledges choice, people’s agency and incrementalism. The right to housing, encompassing the right to build, is enshrined in the Constitution and there is broad acceptance of the importance of housing and sustainable human settlements in terms of poverty reduction and asset creation. In the context of fiscal sustainability, the acknowledged issues with large-scale subsidised housing provision and the shift in focus to site-and-service, self-build must therefore be enabled.

An appreciation of the context of housing needs, settlement typologies and socio- economic realities needs to inform discussion around housing consolidation processes and self-build. There is currently a housing shortage of approximately 3.7 million, which is estimated to be growing at 178 000 annually (CAHF, 2021a). The average monthly salary (in February 2021) was R23 122, but given extreme inequality, just over 25% of the population or 7.7 million households earn a monthly income less than R3 500. An additional 7.2 million households have a monthly income ranging from R3 501 to R20 000. With existing lending terms, income levels and the price of the cheapest newly built (80m2) house costing R473 440, most urban households are unable to afford to purchase a new home. Government’s FLISP programme accommodates the ‘gap market’ and provides subsidies on a sliding scale for households with monthly income between R3 500 and R22 000, who qualify for a subsidy of up to R121 626. However, this income range is broad, and therefore it is more attractive for financial institutions to lend to those towards the upper end of the income band who meet the stringent application requirements, leading to de facto exclusion of those towards the lower end of the range. The Social Housing Regulatory Authority (SHRA), an agency of the Department of Human Settlements, is mandated to deliver affordable rental housing, targeting those with monthly incomes between R1 500 and R15 000, where a similar concern can be raised regarding such a broad range, as it is easier to provide affordable rental housing towards the upper end of the income range. About 81.9% of households in metropolitan areas live in formal dwellings, while 16.8% live in informal dwellings (GCIS, 2021), mostly in informal settlements. It is important to recognise the housing (in)security continuum, including homelessness, informal settlements and backyard housing, and that this should be addressed as part of a holistic and integrated human settlements response. The Covid-19 pandemic and the current economic environment have fundamentally affected housing insecurity, exacerbating “houselessness”1 (the lack of housing), which is different from “homelessness” (where a person feels unwelcome in the family home or feels that they would not be welcomed or assisted by relatives, and where there is a possibility of reintegration into families and communities).

Backyard dwellings house 13.4% of urban dwellers, and Census 2011 data (Statistics South Africa, 2011) shows the number of backyard dwellings growing faster than those in informal settlements. Backyard rental accommodation refers to secondary dwellings or residential units in lower income areas on either state or privately-owned land, and can include backyard ‘shacks’, ‘wendy houses’ or more permanent backyard structures (brick, concrete blocks etc.) with varying levels of access to basic services (Isandla Institute, 2020a). Equally there exists a varied number of landlords and tenants types within this sector, with varying levels of employment and income: landlord types can include subsistence landlords, homeowner landlords, and entrepreneurial landlords (the latter also known as microdevelopers, who often build multiple-storey rental unit buildings); while tenant types typically include backyard owners (who own their structures, renting out space in the yard from landlords), backyard tenants (renting out both the backyard structure as well as space in the yard), backyard residents (with an alternative form of tenure, including relatives, or persons residing in the yard on the basis of charity), and lastly; main house tenants (renting a room in the main house directly from the landlord) (Isandla Institute. 2020b). This context of varying housing needs, settlement typologies and income levels argues against housing support following a one-size-fits-all approach, as well as using income bands to delineate housing need as people may fall outside of these parameters, and the breadth of the income bands can result in de facto exclusion. The differing contexts, and the differing incomes and capacities of households, argue for differentiated housing support to be provided.

1 Thubakgale and Others v Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and Others (CCT 157/20) [2021] ZACC 45; 2022 (8) BCLR 985 (CC) (7 December 2021), Footnote 6, cf. The Haven Night Shelter “Homelessness and ‘Houselessness’” (4 January 2021), available at: https://www.haven.org.za/sharingiscaring/2021/1/4/homelessness-andhouselessness

There is a self-build precedent within national housing programmes, namely as part of the Enhanced People’s Housing Process (EPHP), where the state, partnering with NGOs, assists households in actively contributing towards the building of their own homes. Beneficiaries access organisational, technical and administrative assistance via a Housing Support Centre (HSC). More details of EPHP, and lessons learnt by the state and NGOs regarding HSCs in past EPHP projects, will be covered in the next section of this paper. The Western Cape Informal Settlement Support Programme (ISSP) (Western Cape Department of Human Settlements, 2016) also makes mention of a municipal resource centre/housing support centre which could offer technical support and “be a one-stop shop to advise residents and homebuilders of [building regulations and safety] requirements”.

Amid the growing discourse around ‘self-build’, especially in the context of fiscal constraints and the de-prioritisation of new large-scale public housing projects, there is an opportunity for self-build to be enabled and supported through HSCs. HSCs can be an important element in shifting the housing focus beyond just site-and-service, and towards in-situ upgrading and self-build.

Questions arise around the details of how these HSCs would be set up, how they would operate, their responsibilities, and the specific scope of the organisational, technical and administrative assistance to be provided. Additionally, possibilities around their funding; role and long-term sustainability; and their institutional location within or relationships with municipalities remain unclear. Would they function in a similar way to Thusong Centres as “one-stop housing support shops” and do they need to be physical structures, or could some of their services be provided digitally (e.g. via an app) or via individuals? Practically, if a beneficiary receives a serviced site, what plans, building support, financing, local contractors and building materials could they access via HSCs?

This paper will seek to address these questions in the following sections. The first section will examine lessons learnt by the state and NGOs regarding HSCs in past EPHP projects. This will be followed by examples of current and proposed models for support centres, both locally and in other global South locations (Brazil and India), providing forms of socio-technical, regulatory and capacity-build assistance similar to what is envisaged for HSCs. The third section will address desired outcomes and principles to inform policy and practice of HSC-supported self-build; how lessons learnt from EPHP HSCs and other current and proposed models for support centres can inform a HSC model; and interrogate the role of HSCs, their responsibilities, how they would be set up and operate, opportunities for partnerships with other stakeholders and role-players, and issues around funding and long-term sustainability. This section will also contemplate variety of housing support needs in different human settlements contexts. The fourth section will deal with the requirements for the implementation of HSCs; issues around access to land and spatial transformation; whether HSCs need to be physical structures; and the changes (including mindsets) needed to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment, as well as state praxis, for self-build. The paper will end with a reflection on the required way forward in supporting self-build.

This paper has been informed by desktop research, expert interviews, and focus groups (strategic conversations/workshops) as well as other direct engagements (see page 56 for a list of the research participants).


  • Research Article