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Transforming 'Bad Buildings' into Vibrant Communities: Could land trusts be a viable solution?

The tragic fire that consumed a Johannesburg on August 30th, 2023, not only highlighted the urgent need for disaster preparedness but also shed light on the deteriorating state of many buildings within the city. In this article, I delve into the exploitative tenant-landlord relationship, the historical factors that contributed to the proliferation of 'bad buildings,' and propose a visionary approach that utilizes Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to revitalize these areas while safeguarding the rights of low-income residents.

Understanding Johannesburg's Decline:

The roots of Johannesburg's decline can be traced back to various historical factors. In the 1960s, economic decline began with the suburbanization of retail and commercial activities. Subsequently, the demographic shifts following the end of apartheid in the 1980s initiated 'white flight' from the inner city. By the 1990s, increasing crime rates and poor urban management practices accelerated the decay of the inner city, giving rise to numerous 'bad buildings.'

The city of Johannesburg in the 1960s | Image Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The Response to the Housing Crisis:

In the context of Johannesburg's housing crisis, it's crucial to understand the underlying reasons behind the occupation of abandoned spaces and buildings. The city has experienced a decline over the past thirty years, resulting in the emergence of these derelict buildings, often illegally occupied. However, it's essential to recognize that these actions are frequently driven by responses to South Africa's housing and displacement crises.

These abandoned structures, often referred to as "Myamandawo" or 'dark places,' have earned a notorious reputation, being seen as centers of vice and blamed for various crimes and social problems. However, for thousands of vulnerable immigrants, these spaces serve as a refuge. Specifically, the "abandoned" buildings in areas like Ellis Park, Marshall Town, Faraday, Nugget, and Jeppe Streets have become home to people from a diverse range of countries, including Zimbabwe, Malawi, the DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria, and others.

Within this population are asylum seekers, refugees, individuals with expired passports, and undocumented immigrants. Many of them struggle with unemployment and live hand to mouth, relying on sporadic work opportunities or street vending to make ends meet. Some among them face additional challenges, such as blindness or disabilities, which make it difficult to secure stable employment or afford formal housing arrangements.

Why can the not be evicted you may ask? well

South Africa's Constitution, specifically Section 26, and the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE Act), play a pivotal role in safeguarding the rights of unlawful occupants. These laws ensure that eviction processes are conducted in a humane and lawful manner and that Temporary Emergency Accommodation (TEA) is provided to those facing homelessness due to eviction.

While addressing housing challenges, it is crucial to avoid displacement and social exclusion. The question arises: how can we use 'bad buildings' to contribute to more sustainable neighbourhoods while preserving the rights of low-income residents?

What is the solution that can best benefit the building owners and the tenants?

The CLT Solution:

Arise South Africa suggests viewing 'bad buildings' as opportunities rather than liabilities. We advocate for the use of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to transform these areas into thriving communities.

A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a nonprofit organization that acquires and holds land for the benefit of a specific community. CLTs are designed to promote long-term community interests, such as affordable housing, sustainable development, and community stability.

Here are the key features and functions of a CLT:

1. Land Ownership: A CLT typically acquires and holds land on behalf of the community. This land can include residential properties, commercial spaces, agricultural land, or vacant lots.

2. Affordable Housing: One of the primary purposes of many CLTs is to provide affordable housing options for community members. They achieve this by leasing land to homeowners or tenants at affordable rates. Homeowners can own the structures (houses) on the land while leasing the land itself from the CLT.

3. Stewardship: CLTs are responsible for managing and stewarding the land they own. They ensure that the land is used in ways that benefit the community and align with the organization's mission. This often involves maintaining affordability and preventing land speculation.

4.Community Governance: CLTs involve the community in their decision-making processes. Typically, there is community representation on the CLT's board or committees to ensure that community interests are upheld.

5. Long Term: CLTs are designed to be long-lasting entities, with a focus on preserving land and housing affordability for generations. Many CLTs use legal mechanisms to ensure that land remains in community ownership even if individual homeowners decide to sell their homes.

6. Preventing Gentrification: CLTs can be a tool to combat gentrification by stabilising property prices and ensuring that existing residents can continue to afford to live in their communities.

CLTs have gained popularity as a community-driven approach to addressing issues of affordable housing, community development, and land use. They provide a means for communities to collectively manage and benefit from the land within their areas while maintaining affordability and community control over the long term.

While most CLT experiences are from North America, there's a successful example in Voi, Kenya. There, the CLT model emphasized community participation, banned absentee ownership, and retained individual ownership rights. The community formed a "settlement society" to manage the CLT, and a charitable trust held the land title.

Despite challenges, Voi's CLT serves as a model for addressing urban land access issues in impoverished communities in Kenya. The long-term sustainability of such CLTs in South Africa might require legislation to define the CLT's legal structure and its role in redevelopment.

In South Africa, it may be necessary to adopt legislation outlining CLT features and governance authority over housing. Alternatively, the City could tie the creation of CLTs to expropriation of land or financial support for housing projects. Using eminent domain to acquire "bad buildings" and facilitating CLTs can help address urban blight and provide low-income housing.

While concerns about compensation exist, these can be resolved separately from property ownership. Gaining ownership of these properties will enable the City to promote the creation of CLTs by donating the land to the CLT in trust while allowing existing public interest housing authorities to take control.

Arise South Africa's Involvement:

Arise South Africa, our political party, was on the ground yesterday at the scene of the fire to assess the situation and speak to community members. We engaged in discussions to chart a way forward, recognising the urgency of addressing not only immediate disaster response but also the broader issue of affordable housing and community development.

A Vision for a Sustainable and Inclusive Future:

The adoption of CLTs offers a visionary approach to address Johannesburg's housing crisis while fostering inclusive, sustainable communities. By securing land value and preventing unchecked market forces, CLTs ensure that redevelopment benefits all residents, especially those most in need. This approach reflects a commitment to the principles of social equity and offers a path towards a better future for all in South Africa's urban centers. Johannesburg has the opportunity to transform 'bad buildings' into vibrant, inclusive neighbourhoods, setting an example for equitable urban revitalisation across the nation. Arise South Africa remains committed to working alongside the community and stakeholders to make this vision a reality.

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