The problem with housing

2011-04-13 00:00

PROBLEMS associated with low-income housing provide a steady stream of news stories — defective RDP housing, households facing eviction, protests over backlogs, and then most recently, the loss of R200 million to the province due to poor delivery performance. Admittedly, much of the R200 million was returned to the province to help with rectifying or rebuilding defective houses. But, while the national bill for fixing defects stands at an estimated R58 billion, the premier went on record at a provincial summit last month to say that KwaZulu-Natal has the largest backlog for new housing in the country.

The current level of investment in subsidised housing — which the Minister of Human­ Settlements has gone on record to say is financially unsustainable — provides for 50 000 units per year. Simply put, it would take more than 20 years to clear the existing provincial backlog for new houses, and the need to repair or replace the housing stock built over the past 15 years will make the waiting game even longer.

In Msunduzi, the backlog for low-income housing stands at 16 000 units. It has been four years since there was a city-wide public forum to test the municipality’s figures, commitment and capacity to deliver its mandate. The imbizo, or so-called public consultation process, is fragmented into clusters of wards, making it impossible to engage in the problem at a city-wide level. The Turnaround Strategy for the city noted that the housing delivery unit had management problems in fulfilling its mandate, yet the municipality wishfully plans to eliminate informal settlements by 2016 without evident consideration of operational­ and financial constraints and simply a lack of available land.

It is a sobering thought when housing becomes a political football every five years, come election time. Over the past six months, there has been a flurry of activity by branch officials of the ruling party, senior provincial and municipal politicians and wannabee ward councillors, trying to fix blocked and non-performing projects that go back as far as 10 years. Where will they be this time next year?

What were the real reasons for the poor delivery performance by the KZN Department of Human Settlements? First of all, in its defence, it will say that housing is a local government mandate. This belies the fact that the province is propping up housing delivery for most local municipalities who lack inhouse capacity. Secondly, MEC Maggie Govender has most recently decried the backlogs in providing infrastructure, which has to be constructed before houses can be built, which is blamed on poor performance by the Department of Public Works.

This explanation lacks credibility. It is true that a housing subsidy — which used to be split between infrastructure and housing costs — is now 100% allocated to a bigger, better standard of house. But the MEC used to preside over both Housing and Public Works and the lack of alignment in service delivery between two separate­ departments of provincial government has dogged the housing delivery industry for years before her tenure.

Many other reasons for slow delivery have been cited: conditions attached to environmental-impact assessments caused the previous minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, to protest that the nation’s housing needs could not be held to ransom by environmentalists chasing butterflies.

The Department of Human Settlements has expressed concern at industry practices of banking projects and fronting. Both are symptoms of the profit motive clashing head-on with the fact that housing delivery is over-regulated and places far too much of a burden on emerging contractors who do not have the requisite skills and capacity to manage highly complex functions that can only be performed by multidisciplinary teams of professionals. Low-income housing is a low-profit, high-risk industry, and hence unattractive to emerging companies trying to keep their heads above water, as well as established consulting and contracting firms who can make millions out of prestigious, and often questionable, developments.

Many implementing agents are now — and not for the first time — being threatened with legal action for building defective houses. One industry stalwart spoke at a provincial summit last month about the problems of building anything in the late nineties and early part of this decade, when the value of a housing subsidy was only escalated by 6,6% over a period of seven­ years. The introduction of minimum standards for RDP housing in 1999 did not improve matters, it simply forced some speculators out of the market — including some of the largest construction companies in the country — and resulted in a decline in numbers of houses built.

It is equally unfair of the Department of Human Settlements to solely blame contractors for the poor-quality housing that was built. Where were the department’s inspectors, without whose signature on a certificate the contractor would not be paid? The department has acknowledged some responsibility and mumbled about possible disciplinary action against rogue inspectors, but that does not equate to a national rectification bill of R58 billion.

There are some simple solutions and some more difficult ones to this myriad of obstacles and addressing the nation’s housing needs. In terms of procurement, the province should cease its reliance on turnkey contracting, which imposes undue risk on an emerging industry, and take direct responsibility for managing the delivery process. This will leave contractors to focus on what they should aspire to — simply building. A few engineers and quantity surveyors, which as the MEC indicated are being recruited inhouse, is woefully inadequate to perform.

The challenges of relaxing regulations would then fall away. Former minister in the RDP office, Jay Naidoo, commented at the end of his term that the government had failed to recognise it was not equipped to deliver when all it knew was how to regulate. We face the same dilemma today.

Most importantly, there needs to be a coherence in addressing needs and, aligning the resources to release land, provide infrastructure and build houses and communities with access to jobs and amenities. There is insufficient land to meet the needs of our rapidly urbanising towns and cities, in spite of the government establishing the Housing Development Agency over two years ago. In this city, communities have been told for over a decade not to build permanent structures as they are going to be relocated. When and to where?

We continue to condemn poor communities, who can ill afford the costs of commuting to town to work or seek work, to peripheral townships like France. Is that a solution for 20 000 households that have no work, no house and no future? The time is ripe for a housing summit in the city to bring a sense of transparency and rationality, but let us do it after the elections, when all the hype has blown over.


• Cameron Brisbane is executive director of the Built Environment Support Group and has 25 years of experience in housing delivery and policy work.

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