After the dawn of democracy in SA, state departments rolled out the ambitious RDP housing programme which gave houses to millions of less affluent South Africans. The authoritative belief was that black South Africans had not owned property before and that every one in the country should be able to exercise the right to own a home.

But 26 years later, location is trumping ownership. People want to live near where they work, especially people who spend a third of their income on transport to and from their workplace.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), an independent policy research and advocacy organisation established in 1995, has studied urbanisation and employment growth strategies for years. This week it released a new report called “Building Better Cities: A new approach to housing and urban development”.

Business Day spoke to Ann Bernstein, executive director of the CDE, about how the government and businesses can deliver decent housing.

Q: When did the CDE decide it needed to look at SA’s housing crisis?

A: The CDE has been looking at urbanisation and its relationship with employment and economic growth issues for a long time. In 2016, we released a report which explained that for SA to grow, we needed to create a more inclusive economy and create mass employment. One part of this concerned making our cities work better for their inhabitants and a large factor of that is ensuring that citizens have well located housing which allows them to access connections around the city.

Q: Is RDP housing a failed system?

A: The RDP model involves sprawling cities — which is bad for poor people. In democratic SA, it was about creating a home for all. We did very well at that and built between 3.5-million and 4-million homes. But, while it has provided poor people lucky enough to receive a title deed with a transferable asset, many of these settlements are just too far away from economic activity for poor people to spend money to even look for a job.

Land is expensive and if we keep building RDP housing, we will create a collection of poor people in the wrong places.

We need to shift our thinking from ownership to effective living. In this way, densification really matters, not just to get away from apartheid realities.

Q: Your report proposes the use of a concept called “massive small”. What does this refer to and is it already being used in SA?

In contrast to providing sprawling housing developments for the poor far from jobs and opportunities, this approach helps to move SA cities away from segregation and exclusion. We have found that small housing projects, driven by small to medium-sized private developers, achieve market-driven urban densification within existing residential suburbs, close to economic opportunities.

There are entrepreneurial people who have recognised the demand for decent housing. I met a taxi driver from Alexandra who turned out to be an expert on backyard housing and an entrepreneur. He lived in a basic formal house but then had three rental units in his garage. It is these people who need support from city metros in terms of less red tape when it comes to developing housing and help from banks and other finance providers.

The regulations for developing housing are too stringent. Small, individual entrepreneurs are regulated as if they were Murray & Roberts.

Q: Can a housing plan like this help to turn around suburbs which have been engulfed by crime and have become derelict in many places?

Places including Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville are very liveable. There are nice parts and not great parts but you have to compare them to alternatives. They are near work opportunities and there are communities within them.

Right now our cities aren’t at all dense compared with others around the world. So we need to focus on creating density and supporting infrastructure. And we need to remember that these housing entrepreneurs are responding to a rising demand.

Q: Is the state serious about fixing the housing problem and how can this report be used to change housing policy in SA?

We have sent the report to all of the people who matter: cities, provinces and national government. Already in Cape Town, a metro there has adopted a new housing policy with ideas along these lines.

Q: How does one measure the success of the massive small approach?

The proposed approach relies on private, demand-driven housing supply by many types of entrepreneurs. However, to deliver the large number of housing units that will correspond to demand, the strategy will require actions at several levels.

It will be necessary to develop several indicators that will monitor progress in implementation and provide information to new entrepreneurs on various segments of the new housing market.

There needs to be an increase in the financial sector’s ability to deliver the amount of finance required for construction finance and mortgages.

Article published by the Business Day