Rented social housing caught in inner-city trap

© The Sunday Independent

In an earlier column (July 2003), I offered an introductory glance at co-operative housing in the Johannesburg area - our
crowded, ever-rushed industrial and economic capital.

That touched on collaboration among householders with the aim of securing desperately needed homes. It also illustrated two instances of these self-help housing efforts.

We turn now to an alternative practice, one which also impinges on tenure - rented social housing, privately financed, designed, erected and administered. Tenants are invited to participate in management indirectly, usually through residents' committees, which are often mediated by supervisory managers. Such enterprises are, in modish jargon, "market-driven".

While they may rely more or less on local or foreign financial support and, of course, government housing subsidies - their existence turns on ensuring competitive, low range rentals. Customarily, the accommodation is not for sale.

A recent instance of the many crisis reports about housing indicates that the Johannesburg inner-city district has about 38 000 buildings, of which 90 percent are presumed to be residential. But fewer than 20 percent of those have been refurbished since 1996, when social housing developments are said to have begun. And, as the reports persistently stress, far, far fewer are newly built.

As has long been the case, urgent attention is called for. We will focus on one such response: the newly completed Elangeni complex in Troyeville, on the eastern edge of the city The locality is stricken: it is a particularly rough, tough, "east-end", inner-city area.

The city block on which Elangeni stands is bounded by Frederick, Troye, Albert and Delvers streets. The building - a series of linked apartments - was developed by the active, constantly alert Johannesburg Housing Company. It was designed by Savage & Dodd.

The latter have, their publicity documents explain, "specialised in developing expertise in urban housing, social housing and urban regeneration projects... our specific experience is in... social housing".

Elangeni, they claim, marks a significant step on their route to ever more appropriate urban developments of its type.

They are, indeed, already completing another, an improved version for the R210 million project at Brickfields, Newtown. That too will provide social housing for renting.

Elangeni can be described simply. It comprises a continuous perimeter block of two bedroomed flats and single-bedroomed lofts in its four storeys: The main entry zone excepted, the block continues around the entire site. That leaves an uncovered courtyard in the centre; it opens off a guarded gateway and nearby tiny play area on Albert Street.

The lengthy access galleries customarily necessitated by this linear layout have been forestalled by staircases and small abutting drying yards on each floor. These divide the apartment blocks into clusters of three flats per storey in order to demarcate what the architects refer to as the "social neighbourhoods", which they intend for the occupants of apartments located off each stairway - a dubious item of optimistic social engineering, of unexamined architectural determinism.

Heather Dodd of the architectural partnership, who showed me around the complex, reported that there were 168 living units in all; just more than a dozen of these were the distinctive "live-work units" that face onto Troye Street. This double-height accommodation comprises street-level shops with flatlets above.

These innovative retail spaces are supplemented by the spacious, single-storey, subdivisible shop at the corner of Albert and Troye streets.

Attention now turns to a handful of observations about the project. These, some - not I - might consider to be pernickety, even downright ungracious. They are mainly beyond the immediate control of the site developers and members of their design team. They are, I suspect, inherent in the circumstances of "sub-economic", inner-city housing - its conception and provision - in Johannesburg. They should not, must not, detract from the notable developmental and design achievement that is Elangeni.

First, the core of the enterprise the expressly compact apartments: though thoroughly, even imaginatively designed, their compactness, their ubiquitous spatial tightness, is far from reassuring. It looks and is mean-handed. It limits the way in which the spaces can be furnished and used. It seems particularly to frustrate the needs of residents who, by custom, regularly offer hospitality to kin and fellow community members from far-off, usually rural areas.

All this is too, too reminiscent of working-class social housing in post-Industrial Revolution Europe, where the long-lived, gross limitations of short-sighted economic planning remains ever evident.

And this is not helped by the fact that the north- and west-facing apartments - the majority - are wholly unprotected from the powerful highveld sun.

Then the core of the built project: the central courtyard. This is, I fear, a travesty of its overseas examples. There, these lung-like spaces are usually handsomely planted and, frequently, provided witih communal amenities, such as meeting rooms and, on occasion, small plunge-pools. Here, in traffic-beset Troyeville, there is yet more parking.

One looks onto a tarmac-bedecked arena that is broken by dreary, serried parking bays and a sprinkling of apologetic, desultory trees. Once more, fume-belching vehicles appear to have won out over human beings.

Lastly, there is the inescapable four-storey block as experienced from the encompassing roadways and the courtyard. This, despite the architects' consistent efforts to temper its bastion-like appearance, is ever-defensive, indeed hostile - an accurate representation, perhaps, of the fraught social relations of the neighbourhood?

The mitigatory design devices employed here - for example, variously coloured face-brick panels, the admirably detailed metal stairways do not convincingly counter this proto-forbidding prospect.