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Backyard rooms offer a solution to SA’s housing crisis

One of my most important childhood memories involves the families which we lived with in my grandmother’s yard. Like most homes in Soweto, it was commonplace for a yard to have the main dwelling where the family lived, and a couple of smaller back rooms that would be rented out to individuals or small families.

In my grandmother’s yard, we had three such backrooms and they became home for many people over my lifetime. Some of whom had children who became my friends, others were transient workers from neighbouring provinces while others stayed there for almost three generations.

This way of life was a defining part of how I understood community, how I understood the varying forms of housing and how neighbourhoods grew and developed beyond the original standalone homes on a plot that they were designed to be.

In recent times there has been a lot of buzz around the idea of “backyard housing”. After years of resistance and being ignored as a serious market player, some have finally realised that backyard housing might offer a roadmap to solving South Africa’s housing crisis, and it’s been staring us right in the face this entire time.

Backyarding has been seen as only a means of survival, but what if it is actually the natural evolution of urban development? And what if it could provide housing and build livelihoods all at the same time?

Former secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon once argued: “Housing makes a considerable contribution to the national economic development in a variety of ways, including increases in capital stock, fixed investment and savings”. This thoughtfully encapsulates how housing is not merely a commodity for consumption, but can be a strategic tool in a country’s economic development objectives.

As an architect, my peers and I could be tempted into thinking we can design ourselves out of the housing problem facing many urban areas in South Africa today. It is a widely held belief that if we just spent more money and built more neighbourhoods, we could fill the gap.

With every major housing scheme comes the usual bottlenecks of bureaucracy, funding, land and community disputes. Having understood that, my biggest concern with this model is that it centralises housing delivery into an inefficient model that cannot effectively react to the nuances of the housing market and removes the economic potential that comes with it.

Backyard housing thrives

This is where backyard housing has thrived. As a product of the townships in the 1980s, it has grown into a housing market that accounts for 35% of all rentals in South Africa, the equivalent of 1.25-million households.

According to a 2011 Urban LandMark report, Small-scale Private Rentals in South Africa, the small-scale housing market, like backyard housing, is one of the most “successful, efficient and pervasive accommodation delivery systems in South Africa”.

Backyard housing is able to deliver truly affordable housing to the gap market (people earning between R3 500 and R15 000 per month), while being an income generator to landowners or micro-developers, as they are known.

These small-scale private investments help build communities, provide housing, provide income and densify urban areas, all with little to no financial input from the government.

Municipalities gain a lot in this scenario, because they will have more taxable property while reducing the housing they will have to provide.

It builds prosperity for citizens – usually the formerly disadvantaged – and for governments, allowing them to invest in other amenities that improve quality of life. These smaller projects, mean more localised labour, that is more likely to spend and re-invest in the community.

Sub-urbanisation and the ideal of a detached single family home on a plot has been a pervasive part of our public consciousness and what we deem to be “development” in South Africa. So much so, that it has guided the government’s approach to housing since 1994 with the Housing White Paper of 1994 and subsequently the National Subsidy Schemes which have produced the disastrous urban environments that are RDP neighbourhoods and the unsustainable urban sprawl that followed.

This approach to urban development, and by extension housing, has been found to be unsustainable, both socially and financially. As any good urban planner would tell you, sustainable urban environments need density to finance the infrastructure that underpin them, such as public transport or sewer lines, and to create the conditions for economic activity that don’t rely on having a car (a major polluter). Dense neighbourhoods tend to be more walkable, have greater access to amenities and ,most crucially, encourage the existence of small businesses.

Density is a word that scares many people. They see it as a threat to their leafy lawns and safety in the suburbs, and imagine the rumbling streets of a CBD.

But as Chuck Mahron of Strong Towns, an NPO that advocates for stronger and more sustainable towns and cities, has described, when we picture density, it shouldn’t just be high-rise apartment blocks. A dense neighbourhood can be made up of townhouses, row houses, 2-story walk ups, duplexes/triplexes, and most importantly multiple dwellings on individual properties, which essentially describes what backyard housing is.

Backyard housing is an intelligent way of densifying the existing fabric of the city. Smart densification allows for small landowners to self-finance neighbourhood upgrading by incrementally filling in the gaps in the urban fabric.

So why haven’t we embraced backyard housing as a model?

Stigma 

Stigma is one of the biggest deterrents to the more formal adoption of backyard housing. It is sometimes harder for people to accept that ideas developed in townships can have value. Its association with townships (black people), also falls outside of what is pictured through western ideals as development. To many South Africans, even township residents, townships are a place to escape from, not a place with development potential.

Most imagine yards filled with shacks or poorly built structures, but the backyard housing space has long evolved beyond that.

Yes, shacks in people’s backyards is a reality in many townships, but the formalising of backyard rentals has been happening for many years, as the market responds to the higher standards expected by tenants who have moved into the lower middle-class, and as competition increases in the market.

Micro-developers have become serious entrepreneurs who develop studio, one-bedroom and even two-bedroom apartments that could compare with ones offered in more “formal” parts of the sector.

The recognition of this market by government and financial institutions will go a long way in destigmatising the market.

Access to capital 

A predictable barrier, however, is finance. South Africa’s conservative financial institutions have been reluctant to support these kinds of investments within their conventional lending tools, and they have yet to start developing microfinance packages that could be used to support this market.

It is easier for a larger developer to access billions of rands in funding, than it is for a landowner to access R100 000 to develop a couple of rental units. That is a reality of the South African economy. There is huge separation between the formal economy and the informal one, even one that is trying to formalise.

Fortunately, there are start-ups that have identified this market and are creating financing tools for developers to access. IsiDuli is one such start-up which received the backing of AlphaCode, a Rand Merchant Holding Investment initiative to finance promising fintech start-ups in SA.

Zoning and land use restrictions 

How and what people build is strictly regulated by municipalities and local governments. This regulation is encoded in zoning and land use ordinances.

Single use zoning, which has dominated development patterns for the past 60 years, is largely responsible for inflexible approaches to building. An easing of restrictions and zoning codes to allow for backyard housing to flourish could light an even bigger fire under the industry.

The involvement of local governments can also help guide this development pattern into sustainable contributors to neighbourhoods. Cities and neighbourhoods evolve, but zoning codes as they’re currently designed strongly restrict that growth and development in the name of preserving the status quo.

Zoning codes can be an effective tool in helping shape neighbourhoods rather than restricting their growth.

Sometimes in order to solve a big problem, we need to resist the urge to masterplan everything to it’s almost complete state. Good, sustainable and resilient cities are not built like that. They are incremental. Built on small bets made by small investors who form part of those communities.

It’s not lost on me the urgency of the housing crisis and the need for urban development in this country, but I believe that building slowly and effectively benefits everyone. Building fast and at scale, benefits a few.

Soweto is a great example of the argument I have laid out. Soweto is already in its next stage of development, where what used to be single story backyard units are turning into double story apartment blocks, with no main dwelling. It highlights the many steps of evolution. The market has grown so fast and has created considerable wealth for the residents of Soweto. 

Backyard housing won’t solve all our housing issues, but it is too powerful a tool for us to ignore, even if we tried.

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