Jo’burg inner-city evictions only a part solution to housing crisis

Posted On Monday, 01 August 2005 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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THE recent eviction of 700 people who had been living in a Johannesburg inner-city office block has stirred up a public outcry.

Stuart WilsonAs municipal employees dumped the Bree Street Chambers residents’ belongings onto the pavement this month, a lawyer insisted the city had a legal responsibility to provide alternative housing for people they evict.

Johannesburg officials say the removals are an unfortunate result of a strategy to halt urban decay and attract investment to the inner city. This includes removing people from derelict buildings that present serious health or safety threats.

Stuart Wilson of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, who is representing the people evicted, believes Johannesburg’s inner city regeneration strategy is based on the mistaken assumption that people can be moved from the inner city to developments on the periphery of the city.

He says research indicates these people move into slum conditions elsewhere after they are evicted in order to stay in the city.

“Ultimately, inner-city slum conditions need to be seen as manifestations, first, of the formal housing market’s failure to accommodate low-wage and informal workers within a reasonable distance from their jobs, and secondly, of historically created landlessness in SA,” Wilson says.

He believes the city is violating international law; section 26 of the constitution, which protects peoples’ right to housing; and the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act.

The act requires a court to consider the rights and needs of tenants who have been resident in a dwelling for longer than six months. The court has to consider whether land is “available or can reasonably be made available” for their relocation.

Evictions in Johannesburg’s inner city are ordered by courts in terms of safety and health by-law violations. The Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act makes provision for people to be removed if there is “real and imminent danger of substantial injury or damage to persons or property if the unlawful occupiers are not evicted from the land immediately”.

Across the world, the upgrading of cities or suburbs results in the displacement of the poor.

Johannesburg’s inner city regeneration strategy, launched in 2002, aims to transform it into a world-class city. The strategy includes renovating decaying buildings, upgrading infrastructure, promoting investment, improving public areas and developing certain economic sectors.

The total cost of the programmes and projects planned for completion by 2007 is R2,8bn.

Work has already been done to improve roads, traffic lights, drainage and utilities.

The city is also restoring places of public, historic or cultural interest. The construction of the Constitutional Court and the restoration of the Newtown Cultural Precinct have received local and international recognition.

Money has been poured into Hillbrow’s infrastructure and the inner-city “fashion district” aimed at providing a marketplace for clothing and related goods.

So far 75 derelict buildings in the inner city and surrounds have been renovated under the Johannesburg Property Company’s Better Building Programme.

Programme manager Geoff Mendelowitz concedes that while it will create more residential units, many will be outside the financial range of the urban poor.

A report released in February by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions found that the cheapest, unsubsidised rental accommodation available in the inner city — a single room with cooking facilities and a bathroom — costs about R850 a month excluding water and electricity.

Statistics SA estimated in 2001 that there were 78000 people in Johannesburg’s CBD with monthly incomes of less than R3200.

Mendelowitz concedes that investors who are buying inner-city buildings as investments are unlikely to rent them out at rock-bottom prices, which means government will have to provide low-cost housing.

Wilson says most of his clients earn less than R1500 a month.

“These people are domestic workers, petrol pump attendants, cleaners, sweatshop workers, security guards and informal traders,” he says.

The city has established a pilot transitional housing project, which entails the refurbishment of the old Europa Hotel in Hillbrow to serve as an emergency shelter for 120 people.

Mendelowitz says there are a number of initiatives under way to provide low-cost homes in the city. “There is a pilot project under way that will provide about 60 rooms, but we are going to need the co-operation of business and other organisations if we hope to get the money to buy these buildings,” he says.

Roopa Singh of the Inner City Task Group, which enforces bylaws in Johannesburg’s CBD, says they are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to evictions.

“Bree Street Chambers was a deathtrap,” she says.

Singh says evictions are a long-term process that involve warning owners about by-law violations. If owners do not make the necessary improvements, an application is made to the high court for an eviction notice, which is then carried out by the sheriff of the court.

“The task force has noticed that owners are now making an effort to correct problems on their premises. Owners are also approaching us for guidelines on how to improve conditions in their buildings,” she says.

Singh believes that sufficient notice is given to occupants to vacate buildings and find alternate accommodation once the city has attained a high court order for an eviction.

“Many get absorbed into surrounding buildings, others go to relatives and friends, while others find accommodation in clean and safe buildings,” she says.

Singh says about 20 buildings have been handed over to the Better Building Programme for renovation.

“Illegal conversions (of office blocks) pose a problem in terms of safety, and the task force continues to uncover illegal conversions during their investigations,” she says.

Last modified on Saturday, 17 May 2014 13:00

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