How is Joburg really doing?

© Johannesburg News Agency
By Neil Fraser

How is Joburg really doing?

Before looking at the question, a short diversion: I was privileged to attend a very special lunch on Wednesday, 27 September, when the Johannesburg Housing Company (JHC) staff, management, board and some friends celebrated yet another milestone in the life of this extraordinary company.

It is extraordinary because in just a sliver over its 10 year life it has undoubtedly become the number one housing institution in the country. How many other housing organisations can boast, in this short space of time, to have:

  • invested R250 million;
  • developed 2 700 homes in 21 buildings;
  • provided accommodation for about 8 000 men, women and children;
  • added 8 percent to inner city residential stock;
  • never had arrears or vacancy levels above 5 percent (at present it has a bad debt rate of only 0,03 percent and a 1,54 percent vacancy rate);
  • provided as much value for money through management excellence and a slavish attention to maintenance;
  • developed a relationship with its tenants more akin to family than to consumers; and
  • enjoyed an open attitude with mutually supportive and enthusiastic staff.

On this last point, the luncheon also provided an opportunity for generous recognition of the company's longest serving employee, Salome Makaane, who has completed a decade of service. It was a great human touch - many corporations would not have wanted to diminish so important an occasion with internal issues. But by doing so, JHC elevated both accomplishments.

The milestone it was celebrating was the prestigious 2006 UN Habitat Award it received "for innovative and sustainable housing solutions". JHC is the first South African company to be so honoured. Only two such awards are given worldwide annually to projects that provide "practical and innovative solutions to current housing needs and problems". The other award winner was the Aga Khan Planning and Building Service's Building and Construction Improvement Programme, which is based in Pakistan.

For me of course, it is the commitment to and the vital part it has played in the regeneration of the inner city that is also so praiseworthy. It boasts real triple bottom line achievement.

The visionary chief executive, Taffy Adler, who must be credited with a major part of the success of the company, and the chairman, Murphy Morobe, are off to Italy and then Russia for two UN awards ceremonies. Great stuff and well done the JHC "family".

Okay, so how are we doing?

I am asked that question frequently, and it was put to me again earlier this week by would-be investors in the city. While I've become relatively practiced at pointing out what has happened to the inner city over the period that I have been associated with it (since 1992) and, more particularly, over the past five years, I must admit to later having been brought up quite cold when I posed the question again to myself - but how are we doing, now?
Sure, there is a lot on the go or about to be on the go - the Gautrain Station; the work associated with the 2010 Fifa World Cup; the inner city transportation system; proposed work in Newtown (stuck because of the South African Heritage Resources Agency); the Provincial Government Precinct (delayed extensively because of poor decisions by the same organisation); and so on. But that's all old news, it's been in the pipeline for ages.

What's new and really going to affect our inner city? I don't know. What's the plan, what's the vision, what's the strategy? Have we lost our way, has the City council lost the plot or is this the result of a lapse caused by a critical change of direction by the executive mayor? This critical change of direction is evidenced by the apparent removal of the inner city from his list of priorities and underpinned by the Inner City Region merger with another region (do we yet know who the new regional director of the merged regions is?) and the de-deployment of a responsible inner city politician. I expressed my concern when these changes were announced; and now, many months down the track, I am even more concerned. The 2010 Fifa World Cup is something that is going to happen, just as is Gautrain, but we cannot have the entire bureaucracy focusing on just these two issues, we need a constant and focused leadership for the inner city to continue to redevelop. Are we still following the five-tiered inner city strategy - which was badly in need of an overhaul? If not, what's in its place? Inner city leadership is vital or it will again be everyone doing their own thing to whatever level they can get away with.

Take the issue of heritage (yes, I know you are saying, "What, again?"). Well, it has been clearly demonstrated that in a city that is only 120 years old, legislation restraining what one can do about 60+-year-old buildings must have a massive influence on any proposed project. We saw it with the Provincial Government Precinct, we are feeling the effects of it through the Newtown "hold" on all development and, I hear, a R1-billion proposed development of banking group Absa is also facing major delays for the same reason.
Yet the City hasn't shown that it is taking the issue seriously. It has a minute department (staffed by a couple of knowledgeable and passionate people) but there is no appropriate budget or overriding attempt by the City to pre-determine (with the heritage authorities) which buildings are "untouchable" - for whatever reason - and which buildings can be safely sacrificed in order to bring about the transformation that is so critical to our regeneration efforts. Let's spend our money ensuring that we don't keep making the same mistakes and thus hindering the city's lifeblood - investment.

Investment is all about certainty - certainty that your investment is not going to be hampered by regulation, certainty that your development is not going to be mired in bureaucratic bumblings, certainty that the City is there to help you rather than hinder you, certainty that an atmosphere prevails for your investment to flourish.

As an aside and talking about hindering, I was one of those people who had to go to the Metro building a few weeks ago and eventually had to give up and skip a meeting thanks to being turned away until I had registered, which is fair enough I guess, although I have been acceptable for the past 14 years. But the registration system that has been introduced is the most incredibly inefficient one. There are two computers to register hundreds of people. Fifteen minutes in the queue and I was going nowhere, so I gave up. Now, imagine if I was a new investor.

Criteria for judging success
I also think we need some new and more meaningful criteria to judge how we are doing. American cities are acknowledging that criteria such as job growth and population growth are not as meaningful as we are led to believe. They point out that adding jobs and people doesn't necessarily make your city successful. A city with low levels of educational attainment and a significant low-income population, such as ours, cannot be quantified as thriving even though it is growing - it's all about urban vitality.
The "new" criteria are all about talent, innovation, connectivity and distinctiveness. And having more appropriate criteria will drive our strategies more effectively - distinctiveness will change the way we think about heritage, for instance.

How are we doing? Not much better than last year, if that. It is time for a rethink.

Regards, Neil