Given financial constraints, inner-city projects b

© The Sunday Independent

As the architects of the Elangeni Social Housing Project, we would like to respond to the article "Rented social housing caught in inner-city trap", by Alan Lipman (The Sunday Independent, March 20). The article contains a few factual errors, no doubt stemming from the fact that Lipman visited the project some time ago, such as the fact that the project is located in Troyeville. The project is in fact located in Albert Street in the southeastern sector of the city. We hope that Lipman is not confusing this project with the Troyeville Housing Co-operative, a Cope Housing Project undertaken by our esteemed colleague, Chris Shabangu.

The article also contains a number of very specific architectural criticisms that could be debated in depth, such as the difference between the treatment of a west facing rather than a north facing façade. However, we do not wish to pursue a debate on this level.

We feel it is more constructive to ourselves and the sector in which we work to pursue the larger issues that Lipman raises. We choose to respond to these issues in the hope of raising broader debate rather than ‘defending’ ourselves. We view the design of social housing to be intrinsically interwoven with issues of governance, social sustainability and management. And, it is within this context where the challenges of designing an inner city environment lie.

The first issue that Lipman raises is to do with the size of the units, describing them as mean handed. Financial limitations on social housing projects are severe. At the time of construction the government institutional housing subsidy accounted for about 20 percent of the project costs. We worked on the project for more than 18 months before we were able to make the feasibility of the project viable. The challenge was to build as high a quality product as possible, (noting that through the life of the building it may accommodate up to 10 different families), that used space as efficiently as possible (eliminating cross circulation and passages) and that could be as flexible as possible to change and upgrading in the future.

It’s worth noting the varied backgrounds of families and family structures that inhabit Elangeni, and whilst bigger is probably always better, we should not fall into the trap of culturally pigeonholing people in the ‘extended family’ scenario as Lipman implies we did. It is further worth noting, that should you venture into the sprawling mass of townhouses currently being developed in the ‘market’ sector for prices ranging from R 450 000 - R 600 000, unit sizes are not much bigger, finishes are marginally better whilst the major differences would be in the bathroom and kitchen fittings provided.

The second issue is the inevitable comparison with British and European social housing. Many drab environments beset by social and environmental problems have become the icons of failed public housing. Fifty years after the building of hundreds of thousands of housing units, many have become subject to demolition and upgrading in a wave of urban regeneration projects sweeping these cities. They are simply not suitable in the current housing market, being too small or wrongly located. The economies of these countries are vastly different from what they were in the reconstruction phase of post war Europe. In the 1950's and 1960's social housing provided decent accommodation for families, many of whom had been forced to share sub minimum accommodation with other family members. For some, it was the first time of having an indoor bathroom! For all the shortcomings of this social housing, it provided housing for thousands of families, and built a strong social housing sector that has now been able to make the transition into a new phase of housing development. Look at these examples, we could either try not to repeat their mistakes or we could try to make the best of the project we could knowing that in the future it might be redundant or require change.

The third issue that Lipman raises is the inner paved parking courtyard. Again, the balance between the number of units, number of parking bays and outdoor space is challenging. However, the fact of car ownership is inevitable. We live in a city that does not have a workable urban transport. The fact is that a car is a prized asset of many tenants and we have to provide adequate safe and secure parking facilities in our projects. We try to balance these with play areas and a few scrawny trees.

To sum up, as architects we feel that we have made a difference with a few small steps forward - such as the provision of live work units for the first time, the provision of a playground. We are not looking at taking giant leaps. The fact that this project was the first new build
inner city housing project to attract a commercial bank loan from ABSA Bank was a giant leap in faith in social housing and the ability of the Johannesburg Housing Company to conduct it. We have a lot to learn We visit Elangeni often, and it has been heartening to see how it functions as a community. We also take the lessons learnt and hope to apply them to projects such as Brickfields. The same tune with infinite variation.