Boost for inner-city social housing

Woodstock Hospital is occupied by members of Reclaim the City.

The City has secured heritage approval for its biggest inner-city social housing development so far – around 700 units – at the old Woodstock Hospital, which is being occupied by members of Reclaim the City, a housing social movement.

In a statement, mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the heritage approval was a critical milestone towards the design and submission of building plans for the site.

“This is our single biggest social-housing proposal in the inner city, and it’s important that it proceeds, and now with heritage approval, we can proceed to planning and building-plan submission.”

And while housing activist group Ndifuna Ukwazi welcomed the City’s efforts to release land in the inner city for affordable housing, it said progress was long overdue, and it slammed claims that the delays in building inner-city housing were due to building hijackings.

The site was renamed the Cissie Gool House by the Reclaim the City members who occupied it in 2017.

Acting mayoral committee member for human settlements, James Vos, said both the Woodstock Hospital property – and the provincially-owned Helen Bowden Nurses Home – were subject to orchestrated building hi-jackings by Ndifuna Ukwazi’s Reclaim the City campaign in early 2017, following government’s announcement of plans to develop social housing there.

In October 2018, the Western Cape High Court granted an order interdicting and restraining Reclaim the City from “inciting persons to enter or be upon the property for the purpose of unlawfully occupying or invading,” he said.

Mr Vos said the property had favourable zoning and rights for social-housing development, adding that the main obstacle was now the ongoing unlawful occupation of the property.

“The City is determined to proceed with the planning and development of social housing, as well as taking engagements forward with unlawful occupants to unlock social-housing development in the shortest possible time. There are now pending eviction proceedings following the Western Cape High Court granting the City an order to survey the number and individual circumstances of occupants,” he said.

In response to the City’s statement, Ndifuna Ukwazi said that while they recognised the City’s efforts to accelerate the process of releasing land in the inner city, it had been a frustratingly long wait since the City promised to develop the land in 2017.

“Some of these sites were actually identified as early as 2008 but still do not have a single affordable home on them. How long will people still have to wait before actual construction happens? All levels of government must recognise the context in which people are forced to occupy land in the face of dire need, failed land reform, lack of affordable housing provision and lack of faith in governments’ will and ability to work together to develop affordable housing as illustrated in the case of the Tafelberg site, which remains undeveloped,” said Ndifuna Ukwazi spokesperson, Yusrah Bardien.

“It is dishonest that the City claims that the occupation is the biggest obstacle when it has failed to produce any inner-city affordable housing since the dawn of democracy. If anything, the recent progress should be partially attributed to activist pressure. It is only since activists increased the pressure that we have seen any progress. Several city projects with absolutely nothing to do with Cissie Gool House are on the verge of cancellation because of government failure, and they would do well to focus on this.”

Reclaim the City leader, Bevil Lucas, said they had tried to engage with the City since 2017 but without success.

“A number of invites have been sent to the City and its officials, including the current mayor. This has not been taken up. Recently we held a co-design exhibition at the Institute of Architecture in the city as a means to show what the ideas and thinking is, taking place within the occupation. These initiatives are all part of our commitment to engage with the City. New commitments to engage with us are very welcome. We only hope it can be realised sooner rather than later,” he said.

Another Reclaim the City leader, Karen Hendricks, said the City had a tendency of shifting blame for what she said was its failure to build truly affordable well-located housing in the inner city.

“Woodstock and Salt River are two inner-city suburbs closest to the CBD geographically, and historically have been diverse areas. Yet now they are plagued by rampant gentrification. It is a skeleton of its former character. Twenty-nine years into democracy cannot mean that a well-kept city like Cape Town still prioritises buildings over the people who have always lived here.”

She said Reclaim the City campaigned for affordable well-located housing and fought to resist the displacement of poor people from the inner city.

“We have turned this abandoned building into a home for poor and working-class families who would otherwise have been rendered homeless,” she said of the occupation.

Mr Hill-Lewis said heritage approval for social housing at Woodstock Hospital was “welcome progress towards our goal of faster affordable housing land release in well-located parts of the city”.

He added: “Landing well-located affordable housing is a complex undertaking that finds itself between several fires: inadequate national subsidies; the unlawful occupation of project sites; and the obstacle of Cape Town’s largest, best-located properties being under national government ownership.”

Mr Hill-Lewis said that in the first year of the mayoral priority programme for affordable housing land release, several sites had received critical City council land-release approvals, including: 200 units for Newmarket Street, Cape Town; 215 units for the Salt River Market; 600 units for Pickwick Street, Salt River; 180 units for the Fruit and Veg store site in the CBD; and 160 units for Earl Street, Woodstock.

The City had further enabled 130 social-housing units in the inner-city feeder suburb of Pinelands for phase one of the provincial government’s Conradie Park development, with support also being provided to the province’s Founder’s Garden precinct in the CBD, he said.