City takes lead on land but Province is left behind

Nothing stands in Premier Helen Zille’s way except her own political will

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Aerial photos of properties in Cape Town
Clockwise from top left: (1) an unused Provincial building on Greatmore Street in Woodstock; (2) Alfred Street Complex at the entrance to the V&A Waterfront was available for development at the same time as Tafelberg; (3) Hope Street and (4) Top Yard are two of three provincial government parking lots between Buitenkant and Hope Street that are underutilised. Photos: DigitalGlobe

This year, under the leadership of Councillor Brett Herron, the City of Cape Town has taken some steps towards disrupting the legacy of spatial apartheid by releasing public land for affordable housing on small well-located sites. This profoundly challenges Premier Helen Zille to demonstrate a similar commitment with Provincial land. It will not be easy: the Department of Transport and Public Works, which sits on the land, chooses regeneration over transformation. Zille has been poorly advised on what is possible; and, she is far too antagonistic to show the leadership required.

In July, Herron announced that the City would release eleven sites for affordable housing. Three have been allocated directly to social housing partners and two will be developed directly by the City as transitional housing for evictees, despite having told the High Court in the Bromwell Street matter in September that this was impossible.

Last Friday, the City published a prospectus and requested proposals from the private sector to develop the remaining five sites. Many rightly criticise the City for governing by press relations or have taken the position that they’ll believe it when they see it, but there is good news here.

Reading the prospectus, the most profound thing for me was the City’s new slogan: “Where people live matters”. A year ago, it was tenants and activists who were shouting this in the streets. Today, the City has not only listened, but is adopting this message. It signals a change of heart.

The City’s prospectus is not only a technical document, but a political statement. It foregrounds redress, locating the housing projects in relation to the history of forced removals and resistance to the Group Areas Act in Woodstock and Salt River. It recognises the vulnerability and displacement that poor and working class people are still facing today. In prioritising transformation and desegregation over profit, and allowing black people to access well-located land, it is written in the spirit of the Constitution.

The mechanism is relatively simple. Developers get access to land in return for a minimum commitment to public housing, and bigger commitments score higher. They must either partner with social housing institutes (which are regulated non-profits) or develop their own mechanism to target people earning between R3,500 and R15,000 per month, ensuring that these homes are built first and maintained in perpetuity. This recognises the social value of land over money.

But, we should not be naive. Only last year, the City sold off Site B in the CBD at an auction for R86 million to GrowthPoint with no strings attached, except for a clause requiring a public sculpture.

There is also much more to be done. The City can require private developers like FWJK, who want extra rights to build the tallest skyscraper in Cape Town, to include truly affordable housing. The City can refuse to renew the leases of the golf courses in Green Point and Mowbray, who pay almost nothing for our public land and serve an elite interest, and these could house thousands. They can open up public participation immediately on where to spend the R100m that has been ring-fenced for affordable housing from the sale of the land in Clifton in the inner city.

But the point for now is that it’s possible to provide small parcels of well-located public land for a nominal amount and build a range of affordable housing, including social housing.

Zille left behind

The Province has taken a very different approach to land disposal. The Department of Transport and Public Works is the custodian of all public land, but well-located land is actually held in a portfolio by an unit called the Regeneration Programme. Run by consultants and ex-developers, it has pursued a mandate to develop, lease or sell public land at market value to the private sector with the idea being that this will act as a catalyst to regenerate an area.

The problem with this is that government really has no binding obligations to use public land for economic growth. This kind of regeneration is really a gift of the best land to those who need it least and who will stand to make substantial profit. It’s a good example of a failed trickle-down economic ideology that is straight out of the neoliberal playbook from the 1990s.

Meanwhile, there is a significant legal obligation to use public land for service delivery, such as affordable housing. Land is at the heart of transformation envisaged by our Constitution. The fact that Helen Zille has given our best land over to this unit demonstrates her lack of commitment to this vision.

Tafelberg is a case in point. Back in 2015, instead of structuring the request for proposals to favour transformation, the Province scored proposals based on only one criteria: the highest offer. They failed to reasonably consider whether the land was in fact surplus at all. Even at the eleventh hour, officials from the Department of Human Settlements were petitioning Helen Zille and the Cabinet to give them the land to develop social housing.

Helen Zille and her cabinet used every spurious excuse they could to justify the sale. She still asserts that the size of the land is too small to feasibly develop affordable housing. This is where the City has shot Province in the foot and her last argument falls.

She would have us wait another two years until the Conradie project in Thornton is finished before moving forward with any plans at all on other sites. Meanwhile her government is sitting on small parcels of land that could be developed today.

It is outrageous that the Premier has coddled this rogue unit that has squandered public money and acted in defiance of the law and the public interest, preventing what is so desperately needed in the inner city and surrounds – decent affordable housing.

The Premier continues to sell us her “home-truths” from inside government on how nothing is possible, when we know that it is possible and that nothing stands in her way except her own political will.

CORRECTION: The main photo of the article had to be changed because it incorrectly stated that the quarry in Bo Kaap was owned by the provincial government.

Jared Rossouw is co-director of Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Government Housing

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Dear Editor

It has long been known that the DA has an intimate relationship with the property development sector. These entities have sweetheart deals with City and Province to fast track planning and push agendas counter to public interest. The "red carpet for red tape" programme is one example. Another is the role of the WC Developers forum as far as implementation of SPLUMA is concerned.

These align closely to concerns that the DA is heavily funded by property developers. Under the current funding dispensation of political parties this amounts to little more than corruption in all but name. Is this why the DA is so loath to disclose its funding?

There are numerous rumors of executives at the highest level of governance meeting with developers, sometimes on the night before important planning decisions have been made. These have been reported to the mainstream press but the sweetheart relationship of local media and political parties stymied publication.

At a practical level there is no reason province could not build a 5 or 6 story parking garage at one of their parking sites and give the rest over to social housing. There are many other options it could pursue, had it some impetus or imagination. The ruling party is also to blame for its continued locking up of land such as Wingfield and Youngsfield. But this just plays into the hands of party political positioning.

We need to rise above these petty issues. I always say that local governance ought to be free of the encumberances of political factions and the polarisation this creates. Devolve power and the right local political structures will emerge to manage these issues in a far more co-operative manner than is presently the case. The top down governance methods of both the DA and the ANC undermine local democracy, not support it. Until we address these fundamental flaws, political funding, positioning and local devolution - fundamental change in local governance is unlikely.

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