Seven reasons why Reclaim The City Is occupying Helen Bowden and Woodstock Hospital

Clear plans needed for social housing in Cape Town

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Photo of Reclaim the City protester
Protesters have been occupying Woodstock Hospital and Helen Bowden Nurses Home for over a week. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Just over a week ago, Reclaim the City supporters, with the support of housing activists from across Cape Town, occupied two inner-city sites owned by The Western Cape Provincial Government – the Woodstock Hospital and the Helen Bowden Nurses Home near the V&A Waterfront. The occupation was in response to the sale of the Tafelberg site in Sea Point, a decision which we maintain was unlawful. In spite of the City’s housing and affordability crisis — Cape Town is ranked third globally in annual property price increases — both the buildings on both sites have been vacant for a number of years.

The decision to move from legal advocacy to civil disobedience through the occupation of public land and buildings is a contentious one. We believe it is justified because of deepening segregation, the Province’s failed track record to deliver affordable housing and its decision to sell Tafelberg. Here are seven reasons why we’re occupying the provincial properties.

1. Province has consistently broken promises of affordable housing development in the inner-city

In recent years, poor and working class Cape Town residents have received countless promises on inner city housing. These have come from politicians from all parties and levels of government. But from 1994 to date, not a single unit of affordable housing has been built in the inner-city or immediately surrounding suburbs. The administrations currently occupying the two tiers of government largely responsible for housing — the municipal and provincial governments — have been in power for 11 and eight years respectively. Not only have they failed to build inner-city housing, but they have made active attempts to erode the limited centrally located stock constructed during Apartheid.

The Tafelberg site is a telling case of broken promises. Domestic workers in Sea Point have spent more than twenty years engaging officials who have in turn promised to assist in building affordable housing in the area, including at the Tafelberg site. They have repeatedly been let down (see here and here).

2. Province has treated public participation with contempt

Government calls for comments during public participation processes on imminent decisions are posted in our city’s daily newspapers almost weekly. The law demands it. Yet, these processes rarely yield more than a handful of submissions. In Reclaim the City’s Tafelberg campaign, countless letters and requests for clarity or meetings were dodged and ignored by Province.

We submitted four files, containing 937 written objections and a petition of 4,290 signatures. The receiving officials at the Western Cape Department of Public Works confirmed that it was a response unlike anything that their offices had ever seen. Hundreds of people and many organisations have tried to engage with the province and propose viable alternatives. The diversity and sophistication of many of the submissions can be viewed here.

When Province issued a favourable financial model for social housing on the Tafelberg site, again the response was well-articulated — the outcome of an immense amount of collaboration and work. By ignoring this model and unanimously deciding to sell Tafelberg, the provincial Cabinet showed no appreciation for these efforts.

3. There are no plans or timelines for affordable housing commitments at Helen Bowden and Woodstock Hospital

Province’s statement, which accompanied its decision to sell Tafelberg, alluded to affordable housing on the two sites. Yet, there are no details. Vital questions are: How many affordable housing units will be built? Who will they be “affordable” to? How long will it take? Who will manage these units? What shapes and sizes will these come in? Given the Province and City’s poor track record on delivering inner-city housing, aggravated by the immediate need spurred by rising rental prices on the private market, it would be foolish to welcome the announcement without seeking answers to these questions.

The statement also doesn’t provide clarity on how these sites will be “released” – noting that they may be either “disposed or used”. In a 2014 letter to Ndifuna Ukwazi and the Social Justice Coalition, MEC Grant noted that four provincial properties up for disposal (including Tafelberg and Helen Bowden) would not be sold outright but rather leased, “…so that future generations…will again have an opportunity to decide how to utilise this most valuable, finite and irreplaceable resource.” Yet an outright sale is precisely what happened in the case of Tafelberg. This about turn and the sale of Tafelberg proves that loose commitments from Province on the future of any site cannot be trusted. That is why the occupiers have demanded plans and timelines.

4. The new proposal is not actually new

Province announced development of the two sites as if this is a sudden and significant leap forward. Yet, the Woodstock Hospital site was identified as being well suited for affordable housing as far back as 2002, just as at Tafelberg, where a 2012 feasibility study concluded that social housing on the site was feasible.

The redevelopment of the Somerset Hospital Precinct (including the Helen Bowden Nurses Home) was proposed in 1982, 2003 and again in 2014. The two latter proposals both included a portion of affordable housing.

There is legitimate concern that sites earmarked for social housing are being eroded by private development and other uses such as government offices, as was the case with Tafelberg. When this happens, housing advocates are told to rather focus on other sites further up the pipeline that in turn do not materialize. The can is constantly kicked further down the road.

5. The City has been losing affordable housing

Not only has there been a failure to provide new sites for affordable housing, which is what a growing City should be doing, Province is playing musical chairs with existing parcels of land.

Historically, both sites included residential units which housed nurses employed at the adjacent hospitals. In other words these sites provided centrally located affordable housing stock which were subsequently lost. Woodstock Hospital had 78 units and Helen Bowden Nurses Home about 100 units. That’s over 170 more affordable housing units than exist in the inner city and surrounds today.

6. Tafelberg feasibility: Madikizela’s inexplicable change of mind

Last week, Human Settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela claimed that the Tafelberg site is “not ideally suited to affordable housing”. This contradicts a 2013 letter his department sent to the Department of Transport and Public Works claiming that the site was “well suited for residential use, and social housing in particular”.

The letter stated:

“Cape Town is one of the most segregated cities in the World. With this in mind, land cost is so significant in the Province that we could not afford to purchase market-related land which offered even slightly similar opportunities to this one. Were these portions of land to be disposed of, the opportunity cost for integration within the borders of the City could potentially be last forever”.

A flimsy three page report by the Department of Transport and Public Works got the costs wrong by Province’s own admission, used the wrong zoning scheme and had experts in the social housing sector baffled by what was clearly a weak proposal. It would appear that the Department has no interest in affordable housing. As with Tafelberg the Department is the gatekeeper of the other two sites.

7. No strategic inner city public land management plan

In 2014, Ndifuna Ukwazi objected to the sale of Tafelberg, Helen Bowden, and two other inner city sites on the grounds that the Province doesn’t have a strategic plan for how it plans to use its inner city land assets to advance service delivery. To the best of our knowledge no such plan exists. If this is true, it is irresponsible to dispose of prime sites before determining how all assets can be used strategically.

Through the sale of Tafelberg, Province has revealed that the struggle to reverse spatial apartheid is one that must move us to new forms of resistance, including the courts and civil disobedience. Yet, the prospect for meaningful engagement with Premier Helen Zille’s administration is not dead and buried. The Reclaim the City occupiers’ demands are clear. So too, are the obligations of Province.

The authors are with Ndifuna Ukwazi and active in the Reclaim the City campaign.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Housing

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