Calls mount for unused military and state land to be released for housing

Housing Development Agency slammed for inaction

By Steve Kretzmann

31 March 2023

The City of Cape Town estimates that more than half of all new homes that will be built in the city between 2020 and 2040 will be in informal settlements. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

The housing crisis in Cape Town could be considerably reduced if underutilised land, currently occupied by the military, was released for social housing. This is according to a collective of civil society organisations who have called on the President to take action. Their calls echo those made by the City of Cape Town for at least a decade.

About 668 hectares of well-located, underutilised land exists at the Wingfield and the Ysterplaat airbases, adjacent to Century City, and at Youngsfield, between Wynberg and Ottery.

In a joint press release this week, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Development Action Group, Community Organisation Resource Centre and the Legal Resources Centre said that they had approached the Presidency in December 2020 to release the land for mixed development and incremental (self-build) housing.

The organisations say 67,000 homes could be built on the military land. This would reduce Cape Town’s housing backlog by about 20%.

They say “weak intergovernmental collaboration and a lack of urgency are entrenching the housing crisis.”

Failure to develop social housing at Wingfield, Youngsfield and Ysterplaat is “perhaps the most shocking failure” of intergovernmental collaboration, say the organisations.

They also raise questions “about the effectiveness and purpose” of the Housing Development Agency (HDA), which falls under the Department of Human Settlements (DHS), and they slam the HDA for failing to do anything with state land that has already been released to it by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI).

“The HDA does not seem to have made progress on land that has actually been released to it,” they say.

Releasing land would help dismantle apartheid legacy

The organisations say social housing development on the military sites would considerably contribute to dismantling apartheid development barriers still existing in the city. Continued spatial apartheid has working class and poor residents confined to the margins of the city, distanced from work opportunities, and subject to high crime rates and social distress.

Wingfield, Ysterplaat and Youngsfield are all within 10km of central Cape Town and are close to existing economic and industrial nodes, schools, and social, recreational amd health facilities. The sites are also close to bus and train connections and are in areas expecting additional public transport infrastructure, including a MyCiti route linking Wynberg to Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha.

Ysterplaat and Wingfield are situated in an urban development corridor identified by the City and Western Cape Government.

Lack of inter-government cooperation

The December 2020 civil society submission to the Presidency was also addressed to then-DHS Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, then-DPWI Minister Patricia de Lille, and then-Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, among other relevant government authorities.

Wingfield, Youngsfield and Ysterplaat are under the custodianship of the DPWI, and releasing the land for housing would require inter-departmental cooperation.

The Graaff Family Trust are also involved as they donated the land to the state during World War II, and need to be consulted should Ysterplaat not be used for military purposes. There is a clause in the Wingfield agreement that the land would revert to the trust.

In response to questions, Graaffs Trust managing director Brett Moore said if the land was no longer used for military purposes it could be repurchased by the trust.

“We understand that both sites are ideally situated for mixed urban development, inclusive of social housing, and if we were in a position to exercise our pre-emptive rights, we would like to work with the appropriate sphere of Government to support such an initiative,” stated Moore.

“We would want to be involved to ensure that development was done responsibly and that the main goal of providing much needed social housing is achieved and that there is proper delivery thereof.”

When Patricia de Lille was Cape Town mayor, she pushed for the release of Wingfield, Youngsfield and Ysterplaat for housing, as had previous administrations. In February 2014 she told the city council that she had written to then President Jacob Zuma requesting the military release the land.

Current mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, has also called on national government to release underutilised land at Wingfield.

Ndifuna Ukwazi researcher Nick Budlender said the DPWI picked up on the submission to the Presidency and had been in conversation with the organisations since 2021, but there had been no response from DHS.

Budlender said the organisations had been “keeping an eye on government meetings” and committee meetings in Parliament, but the only thing they’d noticed was feedback from the DPWI to the Select Committee on Transport, Public Service and Administration, Public Works and Infrastructure on 8 June 2022.

The decision to release a press statement came after the DPWI “got in touch” in January this year “to explain that they are getting little interest and involvement from DHS or HDA”. There had also been no response to further approaches to the DHS and HDA.

Land release frustrated by Housing Development Agency

Annexed to the organisations’ press statement was the most recent update from the DPWI – a letter from De Lille dated 10 February. In the letter, she stated the Department of Defence indicated releasing the land for housing would “compromise the mandate of the South African National Defence Force and the safety and security of the Republic of South Africa”.

She instructed her department to look for alternative land outside the Cape Town metro for the Department of Defence, and Saldanha was identified.

She said she had some “good news” for civil society, which was that 32ha at Wingfield could be released for human settlement, and that the DPWI was in the process of releasing 22 parcels of land in Bloubergstrand, Grabouw, Stellenbosch, Theewaterskloof, and Saldanha.

But while the DPWI might release the land, the HDA was responsible for developing it, and seems to be doing very little to relieve a growing national housing crisis.

Parliament’s select committee meeting of 8 June 2022 discussed the progress on 14,105ha of state land transferred by DPWI for housing development in 2019.

DPWI deputy minister Noxolo Kiviet told the committee that 920ha of this land could not be released as it was in use by other departments (including the Wingfield, Youngsfield and Ysterplaat land used by the Department of Defence and Military Veterans).

But 2,257ha had been released to the HDA.

Kiviet said some land had been held in abeyance for further determination but they were still awaiting documentation from the HDA in order to release 10,350ha.

According to Kiviet’s presentation, 2,654ha in the Western Cape had been identified, but only 458ha had been released, with 1,206ha was still “under analysis” by the HDA.

For the same reason, in KwaZulu-Natal 8,594ha had been identified but only two hectares had been released in the intervening three years.

Growing housing crisis

While the military holds onto well-located land and the HDA fails to act with urgency, the City of Cape Town has a housing backlog of about 400,000 homes.

The City five-year Integrated Human Settlements Sector Plan assumes that housing demand will continue to outstrip supply, with the post-Covid decrease in household employment and income putting further pressure on the state to supply housing.

The City document estimates more than half (53%) of all new homes built between 2020 and 2040 will be informal, and land invasions are “likely to increase, in line with socio-economic trends”.

According the HDA website, the only project in Cape Town it has been involved in was the controversial N2 Gateway Project, which it inherited in 2009.

Acting Mayco Member for Human Settlements James Vos said the City would continue to ask national government to release its “large, well-located tracts of land for City housing development”.

Vos said there were several “mega-properties” owned by the national government which could “potentially yield over 100,000 units”. This included Wingfield and the “completely under-utilised sprawling parliamentary village of Acacia Park, where MPs occasionally reside”.

He said 800 units were in the construction phase in the central business district and 2,500 along the Voortrekker corridor. Five inner-city land parcels were about to be released for housing developments. In total, these could accommodate 1,300 homes.

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said he welcomed civil society’s efforts in advocating for the release of state land for housing, and it was unfortunate that little progress had been made with successive public works ministers.

“We call on new Minister [of Public Works and Infrastructure, Sihle] Zikalala to play the critical coordination role needed to unlock this land for release for more affordable housing,” said Hill-Lewis.

Neither the HDA nor the Western Cape government responded to our questions.