Cape Town: the crisis and the cure for housing affordability

About the Affordable Cities blog series and #BetterUrbanHousing
People living in cities across the world are facing the effects of the housing affordability and cost-of-living crisis. OECD Champion Mayors recently endorsed the new “OECD Brussels Blueprint for Affordable cities and Housing for All” at the Brussels Urban Summit where they shared innovative solutions to tackle these challenges and drive more inclusive economic growth. They continue to drive efforts that shape a more affordable, equitable and resilient urban future.

The legacy of South Africa’s unjust past is etched on every town and city across the country. Spatial inequality born out of decades of Apartheid land policies has played a significant role in consigning millions of South Africans to a life of poverty.

Along with this, rapid urbanisation as people seek a better future for their families in the country’s metropolitan areas, has created a housing crisis in every major South African city. Sprawling informal settlements are expanding every year.

Cape Town’s crisis

In Cape Town, the housing crisis is as severe as anywhere in the country. Many thousands of people move into the metro every year in search of economic opportunities, along with the promise of better schools, hospitals and basic services. Meeting this housing challenge head-on is one of my key priorities as Mayor, and we have committed to a much faster release of well-located City-owned land for the purpose of affordable housing. We have also stepped up our call to the national government to release large tracts of under-utilised land that they still own in the metro.

Releasing the land

But when it comes to the actual housing structures, we know that the state does not have the capacity to deliver anywhere near the scale needed. This is why we have turned the entire model on its head. Instead of being a provider of free housing, our view is that the state must be an enabler of housing delivery.

This involves unlocking the potential of three groups of housing developers:

1. Individual micro-developers.

2. Social-housing companies.

3. Private-sector housing delivery.

Through an aggressive land-release programme, and by removing administrative hurdles rather than imposing them, our partnership with these three groups of developers has the potential to make big inroads in the City’s housing shortage.

In January of last year, near the start of my term of office, I formed a Priority Programme on Affordable Housing to focus on four main areas: 1. cutting administrative red tape; 2. helping micro-developers deliver more rental units; 3. eradicating the historical backlog of title deed hand-overs; and 4. accelerating the release of City-owned land for social housing.

We still have a long way to go, but in less than 18 months of this administration, we have made encouraging progress in each of these 4 areas.

Geordin Hill-Lewis, Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa
Cutting red tape

We are bringing amendments to the Municipal Planning By-law in order to streamline the process, and we are also reforming the online systems for development applications and rates certifications to fast-track property approvals. This is part of a wider drive to trim away cumbersome administrative processes across the metro to make the City of Cape Town a far more efficient and responsive government.

In our townships and informal settlements we recognise the power of micro-developers to help transform the housing landscape. They are already delivering more housing units than the entire rest of the property market, and we are rolling out plans to support them. This includes planning support officers in townships, along with off-the-shelf pre-approved building plans for rental units.

Adding the infrastructure

The resulting densification of these townships brings its own challenges in infrastructure capacity, and we are addressing this with the biggest investment in water and sanitation infrastructure in Cape Town’s history. We are expanding and replacing sewer pipes, pump stations and water pipes, and we’re upgrading wastewater treatment plants, at a scale never attempted before. The vast majority of this investment is in Cape Town’s “Cape Flats” areas, where the bulk of our metro’s townships and poor neighbourhoods are.

Housing the homeless

Homelessness in the city has an impact on housing requirements. Cape Town has seen a similar spike in homelessness as many other cities across the world since Covid-19 lockdowns forced many more people onto the streets. We are aware that increased housing capacity is not the one-size-fits-all solution to this complex social issue, given the many reasons why people end up on the streets. We’re also constrained by the fact that welfare budgets are mainly in the hands of national and provincial governments.

But we do still have a duty – and a plan – to help vulnerable Capetonians off the streets. We have dramatically ramped up our budgets for our various City-run “Safe Space” transitional shelters. Importantly, this intervention doesn’t end with a bed and meals. As part of this programme, we offer residents at these shelters a wide range of services, from assistance in obtaining documents like IDs and birth certificates to temporary work placements and enrolment in skills programmes. Because the ultimate goal is to enable them to reintegrate into society, reconnect with family and live a life of dignity.

In a country with as many complex challenges as South Africa, the delivery of affordable and well-located housing on a large scale and serviced by proper-functioning infrastructure, is right at the top of our priority list.

I believe that the City of Cape Town’s new approach, in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders, has the best possible chance to meet this challenge.

About the OECD Champion Mayors Initiative
Created in 2016, the OECD Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative is a global coalition of mayors who meet on a regular basis to share their experience in the pursuit of inclusive growth in cities. Since its inception, over 100 different mayors from around the world have joined the Initiative, contributing their voice to the global debate, and making major strides in their cities toward youth empowerment, sustainable climate policy and support for SMEs. The Champion Mayors will meet at the Brussels Urban Summit on 13 June to drive change on improving housing affordability and cost of living for residents in their cities.

Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa at | Website | + posts

Geordin Hill-Lewis was sworn in as Executive Mayor of the Cape Town on 18 November 2021. Not one to let challenges prevent him from succeeding at a young age, Mayor Hill-Lewis is the youngest Executive Mayor Cape Town has had, and was the youngest Member of Parliament when elected in 2011. Geordin began his political activism while studying at university. He has served on the oversight committees for Public Service and Administration, as well as Trade and Industry, and most recently served as the Shadow Minister for Finance.  His reason for political activism has been to eradicate extreme poverty in South Africa, and achieve a society where the circumstances of one’s birth do not define life chances. He firmly believes that providing quality basic services is the primary mandate of local government, and is critical to empowering each Capetonian to live a life of dignity. In his spare time Mayor Hill-Lewis enjoys watching sport, reading, spending time with his family and exploring the outdoors.