Looking At Housing Differently
Determining the exact size of the housing backlog or future demand is difficult; society is dynamic and constantly changing. The more government is pressured, the more mass housing focuses on the housing unit and the numbers delivered (the product) rather than on decision-making flexibility and high-quality long-lasting environments built for change (the process).
Here is our proposition: why not consider housing as a form of infrastructure?
Conventional understanding of infrastructure references public buildings and amenities, transport structures, roads, service lines for water, sanitation, and electricity, yet the definition can be broadened. Health and educational facilities are generally referred to as “infrastructure”, while residential/housing is not. Yet, housing constitutes about 80 per cent of built environment investment. Infrastructure implies accessibility and use by all, irrespective of income level or social status. Imagine a scenario where people are told to use one or another road depending on income level. It sounds ridiculous, yet that is how we approach housing.
Housing as infrastructure
Infrastructure needs to be high-quality, robust and long-lasting. These principles should also apply to residential infrastructure, which could become a tool to create jobs, encourage private investment, and promote spatial inclusivity. Subsidies would be used to deliver beautiful, long-lasting, robust and high-quality base buildings where local-level activities may play out – creating dynamic, ever-changing neighbourhoods without disrupting their character, stability or architectural identity. Government only supports what is shared; there are no subsidies for individuals – everything funded by government is to be used by everyone.
Within this residential infrastructure, unit sizes and equipment are adjusted to suit variations in affordability. These structures are not empty skeletons; they are finished buildings where individuals, social housing institutions, government agencies, and the private sector carve out space, design and sell or rent to develop a living, evolving stock of dwellings. This separation of tasks is exactly the way other infrastructure systems work. Government reserves space for fully funded homes for those unable to co-fund. These structures also accommodate other functions – educational, healthcare, commercial, and so on. Different agents lease parts of these structures while owning the infill.
Housing as infrastructure implies that the delivery of housing is considered a process that is a crucial driver for economic development and poverty reduction through job creation – not as a mere provision of rigid, “complete” houses that deplete state resources.
Housing and government’s plans
By 2030, Africa will have 760 million urban residents, increasing to 1.2 billion by 2050, according to the African Economic Outlook 2016. In South Africa, the state has committed substantial funding to public infrastructure.
The National Infrastructure Plan 2050 aims to implement the vision set out in the National Development Plan with a focus on network sectors. We argue that housing should be part of those plans, and the budgets amended accordingly.
A national infrastructure plan needs to be centrally driven while aligning with local project management systems. If this operates efficiently, it will allow for the creation of conditions for embracing smaller-scale, dispersed projects and project packages that are more accessible to emerging construction enterprises. Some construction companies can specialise in producing simple, energy-efficient, long-lasting base buildings, other certified companies can specialise in filling them in response to evolving demand, using the latest technology, logistics and teamwork strategies.
Systems to enable delivery
We need governance and regulatory frameworks that allow for experimentation and testing of alternative forms of delivery through pilot projects balanced with a parallel activity of delivery actions that can be scaled up to have real impact. These new systems will allow for efficient construction of residential infrastructure with the in-built capacity for change and variation of occupancies.
Affordable housing becomes an integral part of all city developments in well-located, mixed-income, mixed-function, mixed-community settings. Delivery of housing will be quick and efficient with minimal bureaucracy and delay.
We may finally achieve our dream of living together in the city, in safe, harmonious and dignified neighbourhoods.