Court just wants city to care for the poor a bit better

13 04 2011

THE government provides some subsidised housing for the poor and should be commended for this.

THE government provides some subsidised housing for the poor and should be commended for this. However, the housing subsidy scheme and roll-out of subsidised “RDP” houses is not a solution for everyone. Some — single men without dependants; people without identity documents, child-headed households, noncitizens and permanent residents — do not qualify.

For those who qualify, the supply is inadequate and the process is lengthy and dogged with corruption. Even then, all the “lucky” recipients get is a house on the urban periphery, far from where they need to be to make a living. In the interim, they seek shelter in informal settlements, backyard shacks or dilapidated buildings. This in itself is the consequence of unstoppable migration from impoverished areas to cities such as Johannesburg.
On March 30, in City of Johannesburg v Blue Moonlight Properties, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that about 100 people living in derelict buildings in Johannesburg could not be evicted without the provision of temporary shelter from the city. It directed that the city adjust its housing programme to cater for the needs of poor people who are evicted by private property owners, and who have nowhere else to go because they cannot afford private rental housing.

The case concerns the inner city of Johannesburg, which is undergoing a process of “regeneration”. Those people who have accessed substandard accommodation in so-called “bad buildings” are being rapidly evicted with nothing available to them afterwards.

The city has bemoaned the judgment. It complains it cannot provide accommodation to everyone who is evicted throughout the city. This, however, is not what the judgment says. According to the court, the city is required only to stop evictions resulting in desperately poor people becoming homeless. A tenant who boycotts his rent will still be evicted without consequence for the municipality.

Municipalities worldwide have taken responsibility for devising and implementing public housing programmes. It is the City of Johannesburg’s failure to accept this responsibility that is at the core of its problem. The only way to solve it is to adopt a housing programme that will cater comprehensively for the poor. That is all the judgment requires.

The city says it doesn’t have the money. But it is important to note that the city actively, albeit indirectly, subsidises the eviction of desperately poor people. Many derelict properties in the inner city are bought cheaply at auction by shell companies backed by lone speculators. They know full well that there are people living in the buildings they buy, but are not interested. They simply want to refurbish the buildings for middle-class or corporate tenants — and make a quick buck.

This is completely in line with the city’s model of inner-city regeneration. The city even writes off service debts and gives tax breaks to allow them to do it. Forget the poor — it is property speculators who benefit most from the city’s largesse. With ratepayers’ money. All the appeal court has done is to suggest that the city use some of that money to accommodate the homeless, rather than fund a bargain basement giveaway to the rich.

It is hard to fault the appeal court’s reasoning. It cannot be fair for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society to be made homeless simply to serve the economic convenience of a privileged few. Nor is it in anybody’s long-term interests. The constitution’s entrenchment of socioeconomic rights — including the right to housing — embodies our common interest in ensuring that everyone has the basic elements of a decent existence. That is precisely why the courts are entitled to require the city to provide housing to people who need it.

As much as the city may want to ignore this reality, we live in the most unequal society in the world with staggering rates of poverty and 40% unemployment. The appeal court’s judgment — and the law it applied — is an attempt to ensure that poor people are not deprived of their existing access to shelter while they wait for their formal housing needs to be addressed. In doing so, it strikes a balance between the need for property rights to be respected and protected and the need to ensure social justice.

It is time that the city acknowledged its responsibilities towards the poor and acted on them. It would find the courts much less hostile if it did.




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