An ambitious solution

By Staff Writer

SA’s housing backlog rises almost as fast as government is building them. According to the department of housing, the backlog of 2,15m homes is just short of the 2,54m houses built since 1995.

Government’s targets of eliminating the backlog and eradicating squatter camps from the urban landscape look overambitious.

One of the biggest obstacles is land availability and the department is finalising plans to create a Housing Development Agency to buy and hold suitable land for development.

Yet even before it is formally launched, the obstacles facing the agency are formidable: a lack of skills, its funding, a sceptical private sector and lethargic and inefficient municipalities.

The Housing Development Agency Bill has just been through parliament’s portfolio committee on housing and is due to be finalised in May.

“The availability of land is at the core of the agency’s work,” says Joseph Leshabane, the housing department’s chief of operations. The agency’s prime task is to help municipalities acquire and develop land for housing before releasing it to the market.

The bill allows the agency to acquire state-owned land, held mostly by the department of public works and parastatals. The agency can also acquire land in private ownership and expropriate it using new expropriation legislation.

Zoliswa Kota-Fredericks, chair of the portfolio committee on housing, says the committee sees the agency as “galvanising expertise” and bringing in private-sector disciplines to housing delivery.

Leshabane is confident the agency will attract skills such as project management and town planning, which will also be made available to municipalities. Though the bill provides for the minister to recommend municipalities to use the agency, they are not compelled to do so. This might leave the agency snubbed by larger municipalities, while working with smaller councils which may not be able to afford its services.

Leshabane says the agency will drive the department’s approach to mixed income housing developments.

But in its submission to the committee, the SA Property Owners Association (Sapoa) expressed scepticism. It says the agency will target high-value land but will not have the skills to develop it. Sapoa argues that “the department will be seen as competing with private-sector developers. This may lead to a slowdown in private-sector housing developments as smaller developers withdraw from the market”.

The agency will usurp the functions of Thubelisha Homes, the state body tasked with helping provinces upgrade informal settlements and providing emergency housing. Critics fear if it takes on too many functions core land acquisition programmes will suffer.

But its biggest challenge will lie in confronting inefficiencies in other government departments. Housing delivery continues to be hampered by government nondelivery; following last week’s cabinet meeting, a team of officials was to be dispatched to the Eastern Cape, to deal with a drastic slowdown in housing delivery in the province. Housing delivery there fell from 37000 units in 2004/2005 to 11750 in 2007/2008.

Leshabane says funding will be requested directly from national treasury, while the agency will also receive a fee from provinces and municipalities as it helps with the acquisition and, where required, the development of land.

Leshabane says some funds will come from provinces, who already use their budgets to buy land.

The biggest test for the agency will be working with municipalities, who are confronted with a raft of laws that will affect how they deliver homes. But Kota-Fredericks says municipalities have been consulted on the process and will benefit from the work of the agency. - Thebe Mabanga

 

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