By Anthea Houston, CEO Communicare NPC

Marcus Evans’ fifth annual Affordable Housing Africa Conference provided the ideal opportunity for policymakers and practitioners to reflect on our approaches to providing affordable housing on the continent.

Just how adequate are our efforts in providing affordable housing across the continent when there is a gross under-supply of mortgages and housing products into this market?

Anthea Houston is chief executive offer of Communicare NPC, an independent social enterprise active as a social landlord in Cape Town for more than 89 years. Communicare owns and manages 3 375 residential rental units in the social and affordable housing market.

Anthea Houston is chief executive offer of Communicare NPC, an independent social enterprise active as a social landlord in Cape Town for more than 89 years. Communicare owns and manages 3 375 residential rental units in the social and affordable housing market. Credit: Communicare

In the main, our housing programmes continue to respond to the growing demand of rapidly urbanising populations, burgeoning informal settlements with the delivery of traditional single-storey houses on single plots along with free-hold title.

Unfortunately, this response has long ago outlived its useful life. With serviced land costly and scarce, we must use every inch of it far more strategically to provide more environmentally, financially and socially sustainable housing. Our efforts to replace this model with African solutions that are effective, given our context, needs to accelerate.

Africa remains one of the least dense continents but our population is set to double from 1.2 billion people in 2016 to 2.4 billion in 2050. According to the United Nations (World Population Prospects 2017) this boom will take place in the sub-Sahara and 80% of the continent’s population will be urbanised by 2050. While Africa currently faces growing youth unemployment, it is estimated that 60% of the African population will be under the age of 25 years old by 2050.

This ‘future Africa’ provides us as practitioners and policymakers with the opportunity to generate unique African solutions that respond to our continent’s peculiar challenges.

As providers of housing, we must remain focused on ‘future Africa’ and challenge ourselves by asking: do our housing solutions fit the size of the problem? Are we thinking far enough into the future? Are we thinking big enough?

For example, are we embracing higher densities and a variety of tenure models to develop housing more sustainably? In Africa we often argue that people will not live in higher densities. However, when we do so we ignore the phenomenally high densities found in well-located informal settlements where millions of African people already live.

By locating in such dense settlements, people demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice cultural or personal preferences in favour of residing in a location in close proximity to economic opportunity.  Nevertheless we forget about ‘future Africa’ and continue to develop low density housing products despite the challenge of accessing sufficient serviced land.

Land and housing prices are rising in our property markets – partly as a product of growing inequality and also as a product of low levels of regulation. The spending power of the continent’s upper classes, its institutional investors and of purchasers from developed economies create an environment in which those in the affordable housing market cannot begin to compete.

Some African states have been reluctant to intervene to protect the interests of those in need of housing. The free-marketeers argue that state interference in the land and property markets will result in the destruction of value. The state, therefore retreats, fearing that property developers and investors will be scared off.

This argument against state interference only holds if we value the principle that ‘only the fittest of fit survive’ above the value we place on human dignity and social justice for everyone.  If we value human dignity and social justice then we must first recognise land as a social asset. Land as the unrivalled ability as a finite natural resource to unlock socio-economic opportunities for the good of all in society – or left unregulated for its private holders. When we argue against regulation and state interference we overlook this social value of land which is sacrificed to the tyranny of the free market.

When we argue against regulation and state interference we also overlook the massive state investment in infrastructure development on the continent and the reality that the state already intervenes by developing infrastructure and granting planning permissions. Public sector investment in infrastructure (such as roads and bulk services) increases land and property values and provides a catalyst for private developers to create more value. In Africa, this value often does not do enough to relieve the burden on the state to provide, for example, affordable housing. Sometimes, it even increases the state’s burden (such as when gentrification occurs).

As we think of ‘future Africa’ we must do so recognising the social value of land and ensure that the urban visions being crafted by African municipalities are shared by other role players. Our African municipalities and regional governments must take care that development on our continent is not being driven by short-term driving forces, annual budget cycles, man-made crises or special interest groups but by the macro plans and spatial frameworks we develop.

We should use our land use processes strategically, to direct the quality, scale and density of housing developments. The African state must consider and use appropriate tools to ensure that the social value of land is preserved. These include the planning and regulatory instruments at the state’s disposal such as development and zoning levies, incentive zoning, land leasing, land banking, land taxes, land price freezing, pre-emptive rights and the designation of special zones of social interest.

Presently such tools and frameworks are under-utilised in Africa but some have been used successfully in Asia, Europe, Australia and North America using such tools to direct urban development, restructure urban areas, control market-led development and create revenue for various social projects. It’s time for us to consider how we adapt these for the African context so that we can develop effective responses to Africa’s housing crisis.

Future Africa is calling. Let’s keep her in focus and explore new approaches to tackling our housing challenges.