The displacement phenomenon: Woodstock and Salt River

Cape Town – "I’m going to die here," says Lameez Johnson.

She is adamant that she will not leave Salt River. At 21-years-old, she is the latest generation of her family to live here. Her great-grandparents moved to the neighbourhood in the 1960s.

Escaping the Group Areas Act, Woodstock/Salt River was an oasis in an oppressive apartheid city: a well-located neighbourhood for black and coloured working-class families.

Blikkiesdorp settlement
Willy Heyn and his family were evicted from Gympie Street and moved to Blikkiesdorp, a municipal built Temporary Relocation Area in Delft, in 2009. (Photo: Daneel Knoetze/GroundUp)

For Lameez, there is no place like it. Three generations of her family went to the same school, and were watched over by a neighbourhood of aunties and uncles who knew everyone by name.

This year, Lameez’s grandmother received a notice to vacate the house that she has rented for more than 20 years, GroundUp reported.

Up the road, crossing the boundary separating Salt River from Woodstock, some of Lameez’s friends and family face eviction from Bromwell Street.

Forty-three people, including 19 children, have until September 26 to move out. What is happening on Bromwell Street is not unique, or new. It is emblematic of a wave of evictions led by private developers and landlords in the Woodstock/Salt River area for more than a decade.

In 2004, two elderly women who had lived in a row house on Carrie Street for 50 years, were evicted.

Crucially, the developer decided to evict residents after rent control statutes fell away in 2003.

Difficult to evict

Rent control legislation, implemented since the 1920s, regulated rent increases and made it difficult to evict tenants.

Applying mostly to buildings built and occupied before 1949, it largely protected white tenants but also benefited residents in Woodstock and Salt River.

In 2003, residents of Salt River and Woodstock called for rent control to be maintained. The national housing minister at the time was supposed to assess the impact that ending controls would have on vulnerable groups in South Africa. This did not happen. Arguably, the end of these protections began the wave of market-led evictions.

It was the Gympie Street residents’ struggle to stay in their homes which became the first real symbol of displacement from the area. After a prolonged legal battle between 2006 and 2009, the families were evicted and shoved to the desolate relocation camp of Blikkiesdorp.

Then there were the five families evicted from St James Street in 2009, when they could not afford the high rents. In the same year, immigrant families were left on the streets on Victoria Road. In Cornwall Street in 2012, seven families were evicted from their homes, including elderly people and children. In the same year, people living in eight shacks were evicted on the same street.

Month on month, families are individually evicted in less-publicised cases.

Many of these happen after a tenant receives a notice to vacate. Having long-standing verbal lease arrangements, and despite renting for decades, they are vulnerable to exploitation by new landlords and developers.

Unable to find affordable accommodation in the area, families are forced to move to distant townships.

We don’t know exactly how many people have been displaced from Woodstock and Salt River. Just by looking at the number of high-profile evictions, it runs into the hundreds. If individual evictions were considered, these numbers would rise. Yet this phenomenon has not been acknowledged by the City of Cape Town, nor does it feel compelled to intervene.

As Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson put it: "The city is not involved in private matters between private landlords and tenants, and the market forces which drive these arrangements."

It is telling that the city considers these "forces" untouchable. Cape Town has a burgeoning property market that is entrenching inequality. Its property prices are increasing at some of the highest rates in the world.

Woodstock and Salt River are at the centre of the city’s affordability crisis. According to the 2011 census, just more than 50% of Salt River’s households earned R6 400 per month or less. In Woodstock this figure was 42% of households.


Meanwhile, the average rent for a two-bedroom property in Salt River today is R6 301. In Woodstock it is R5 964. These rents are unaffordable for a significant proportion of the city’s population.

Unaffordability is at the crux of the displacement. Without regulations for affordable rental rates, obligations on new developments to contribute to affordable units, or the building of new social housing or governmental rental stock, residents have no feasible housing options in the area.

Property developments in Woodstock and Salt River have been buoyed by government decisions, contrary to the city’s claim of not being involved in market forces. In 2004, parts of Woodstock and Salt River were included in the Cape Town Urban Development Zone (UDZ). The UDZ programme by National Treasury encouraged commercial and residential development in inner-city areas across the country.

Tax incentives are offered to refurbish or construct commercial and residential properties, including incentives for low-cost housing units. Yet the incentive has not been used to build low-cost units in the Cape Town UDZ. Instead, it has encouraged commercial and residential (market-rate) developments. The Old Biscuit Mill, purchased in 2005, lay the ground for others to follow suit.

The new developments influenced property prices. Prior to 2004, property sales on Bromwell Street did not exceed R135 000. Last year, a Bromwell Street property sold for R5.9m.

Developers are encouraged to buy properties on Bromwell because, like many properties near Albert and Victoria Road, they are zoned as mixed-use after the city’s zoning overhaul in 2013. This provides broad development rights for things like medium-density flats, businesses and industry on properties that were affordable rental homes.

The city missed an opportunity to ensure redevelopment was inclusive: to set conditions on development and to provide land-use incentives to ensure affordable housing.

Against the backdrop of a cut-throat Cape Town property market and continued economic inequality, an area that was an exception to the racist and classist apartheid city is subject to a modern phenomenon of systematic displacement.

As the wave of displacement reaches its crescendo with Bromwell, this demands an intervention.

Sarita Pillay is a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi

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