Building a community: The old Woodstock Hospital in Cape Town has been turned into a has been ‘occupied’ by housing activist group Reclaim the City. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
Building a community: The old Woodstock Hospital in Cape Town has been turned into a has been ‘occupied’ by housing activist group Reclaim the City. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

There is a narrative out there about ‘occupiers,’" says Karen Hendricks from her bedroom in the nursing quarters of the old Woodstock Hospital. "People think they’ll be shot or robbed. They think it’ll be so dirty in here. But every public toilet has a roster. Our people do their duty. We cleaned up this building. The building inspector even said to me [that] not even in wealthy communities do you find this level of co-ordination."

Hendricks is a chapter leader for Reclaim the City (RTC), a community movement of poor and working-class people that advocates for affordable housing in Cape Town. Along with her son and 76-year-old father, she is one of about 900 people occupying the old hospital and surrounding precinct. The "occupiers", as they’re called, have renamed it Cissie Gool House, in honour of the late anti-apartheid civil rights leader from District Six.

RTC took control of the site back in 2017, when the City of Cape Town sold Tafelberg, a chunk of public land in Sea Point, to private developers instead of developing it for social housing. What began as a symbolic occupation has since become a community: a communal garden feeds the children and elderly, and there is a crèche for single-parent households, as well as security patrols, youth monitors and a team in charge of maintenance.

Hendricks herself joined the occupation when she was evicted from her family’s rental home in Woodstock. "Many of the occupiers were evicted from around here," she says. "My family have lived in Woodstock for four generations. We survived the Group Areas Act. But since 2010 the city has been putting up rents because of gentrification and they don’t want to build any affordable housing near the city centre. Some of the other occupiers come from further out because they’re tired of living so far from jobs and schools."

The community that’s grown as a result is poor, she says — but that "doesn’t mean we can’t show people how to build a new housing model".

The old Woodstock Hospital in Cape Town has been turned into a has been ‘occupied’ by housing activist group Reclaim the City. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
The old Woodstock Hospital in Cape Town has been turned into a has been ‘occupied’ by housing activist group Reclaim the City. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

Cape Town’s housing backlog stands at about 365,000 units, and accommodation in the city centre is unaffordable for most. The city is the most expensive residential property market in Africa. According to the "2019 Africa Wealth Report", the average price per square metre in Cape Town is more than double that of Sandton. A Property24 trends report shows that the average listing price of a two-bedroom apartment in the city is R4.1m, compared with R1.3m in Joburg.

Prices at the upper end of the market have been flat for a while, due to emigration and decreased interest from foreign buyers, but Pam Golding Property Group CEO Andrew Golding says the market is cyclical, and Cape Town will remain "a perennial favourite with investors and buyers because of its favourable climate and natural beauty. The city is well run and has a host of attractions and amenities."

There has also been a shift, Golding says, from freehold to sectional-title properties as more people opt to live in smaller, more secure apartments. They are choosing to live closer to work to avoid traffic congestion and rising transport costs. This has driven up the cost of accommodation in central Cape Town, and is fuelling the construction of luxury residential towers across the city centre and Atlantic seaboard. Golding says there is more than R13.5bn worth of property development in the pipeline for the CBD alone.

Cape Town’s tallest residential building, 16 on Bree, is nearing completion. Nearby, construction has started on The Rubik, a 27-storey luxury tower block, with a 24-hour concierge service. Harbour Arch, a mixed-use precinct with six residential towers, has broken ground. And apartments in The Onyx, a redevelopment of the old Nedbank building, are on sale. You won’t pay less than R1.9m for a studio apartment in these buildings; penthouses go for as much as R20m.

Ndifuna Ukwazi is a nonprofit group that advocates affordable housing in Cape Town. In 2018, it published a series of research papers on inclusionary housing, looking at access to residential developments by race and class. It found that only 4.6% of households can afford the average two-bedroom apartment. According to the organisation, 75% of households in Cape Town earn less than R18,000 a month (the figure rises to 92% for black households), and most people cannot afford to pay more than R1,500 a month in rent or R140,000 to own. This puts rents in the city centre "out of reach [for] most middle-class South Africans, let alone the poor or working class".

A lack of affordable housing is not unique to Cape Town. In the UK, property prices have risen at twice the rate of wages for four decades, and the average price of housing in San Francisco doubled in just five years. What makes Cape Town’s housing activists angry, though, is that the spatial injustice in SA is linked to apartheid-era planning and forced removals. Market factors have only exacerbated this historic legacy.

"The city has a constitutional obligation to reverse the legacy of apartheid," Hendricks says, but she believes there is no political will to do so.

According to RTC, not a single unit of affordable housing has been built within the city centre since 1994, even though the city holds large tracts of land in well-located central areas that could be used for exactly this purpose. Instead, it says, the city leases some of this land to golf courses and parking lots. RTC is resisting the renewal of a 10-year lease of 45ha of prime public land to Rondebosch Golf Club for a nominal fee of R1,058 a year.

At a packed community meeting in Salt River, Hendricks tells the crowd: "Our people die on the [housing] waiting lists."

Activist Thapelo Mohapi replies: "Land in Cape Town is disposed [of] in a way that only benefits the rich. These elites pay less for this land per month than we spend on transport."

Malusi Booi, mayoral committee member for human settlements, says housing is "very agenda-driven, highly politicised and legislatively heavy". A "politicised fog", he says, hangs over development.

According to Booi, Cape Town has a number of unique challenges, including a high rate of urbanisation, a shortage of available land and a "not in my backyard" mindset, where people resist new developments in their neighbourhoods. The council has, until now, focused on housing provision on the periphery of the city, where land is cheaper and large "breaking new ground" projects can be built to scale.

Activists argue that this entrenches poverty by keeping the poor away from opportunities, but it nevertheless improves the lives of those who were previously living in slums. Breaking new ground projects allow people "who were prohibited from owning assets under the apartheid regime" to buy property, says Booi, adding that these developments are built close to public transport nodes.

"The city can only spend on housing what is allocated by the national government. The funding that it gets is spent. Due to financial and economic problems in SA, grant funding is decreasing but building costs per unit or site are increasing," he says.

Booi believes a more diverse approach to housing is needed, and that partnerships with the private sector will have the biggest impact. "We need large-scale, integrated, mixed-use developments."

Cities in various countries — Brazil, Ireland and the Netherlands, for example — have adopted inclusionary housing policies that either enforce the provision of affordable housing in new residential developments of a certain size, or offer incentives for it. Joburg approved such a policy in February 2019. Cape Town expects to publish its own for public comment within two years. That will be too late to capitalise on any of the R13.5bn luxury developments in the pipeline, but is nonetheless important for the development of the city.

Property developers may be open to the idea. In 2017, luxury developer Blok tried to pilot a voluntary model called 80:20, where 80% of units were to be sold at market prices, with 20% comprising cross-subsidised affordable units. The project would have built affordable one-and two-bedroom apartments on the floors typically reserved for parking, but a change in bylaws meant Blok would have had to reapply for planning approval, and it decided against pursuing the affordable housing component.

Blok CEO Jacques van Embden says the model was "designed to achieve integration". He still believes the model is scalable to most sites, but it will require the city to relax zoning restrictions around additional bulk or parking.

There are glimmers of hope. Conradie Park, a partnership between the provincial government, the City of Cape Town and the private sector, is under construction near Pinelands, close to the city centre. Just under 50% of its residential units have been reserved for low-income housing.

Booi says people shouldn’t think the city is doing nothing, just because there is no construction on site. It’s busy with rezoning applications and feasibility studies, and planning for a number of gap-market and social housing initiatives in central Cape Town in Salt River, Woodstock and the CBD. But "transforming the spatial patterns of Cape Town will not happen overnight".

For those living in abandoned buildings or far-flung townships, 26 years is not "overnight". At the RTC community meeting, an angry woman shouts that she’s tired of excuses. "How can you tell us you won’t build housing on Rondebosch Golf Club because of the floodline? Langa is on a floodline; Khayelitsha is on a floodline. All the places [where] you dump our people are on a floodline. In June, there will be water running into our homes," she says.

Back at Woodstock Hospital, Hendricks offers an innovative solution. "If the city decides to renew the lease to the golf course," she says, "it must also lease this land to Cissie Gool House. And we want the same discounted rate — R1,058 a year."

*The writer’s spouse is employed by Ndifuna Ukwazi