A home of her own

Housing is a major issue on the social agenda, but policy and planning are often gender-blind and fail to acknowledge that men and women have different housing needs. This often forces women to live in unsafe places or stay in abusive relationships.

Women’s participation in housing policy and design is necessary to break these patterns, say organisations working in the field.

For many women, crime and domestic violence make home the most dangerous place to be, and many dream of a place of their own, seeing this as an opportunity for independence and freedom. “Being safe is living in a place where you will not be hurt or be troubled by anything,” said one woman living in informal inner-city housing. 

Women often wait for years on Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing lists, dreaming of the day they will be given the keys to their own safe space. Yet these dreams are often dashed, particularly when women have applied jointly with partners for housing. Men have historically been considered the breadwinners of the family and housing policy appears to be structured around that perception.

The title deed for a house only makes provision for one name. “You cannot make a deed out to a household and because men are considered the representative of the household, the deed is made out in their names,” says Sibongile Ndashe, an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town.

This means that if the relationship becomes violent the woman depends on her partner for accommodation and cannot leave. “If he sells the house, her rights aren’t protected because her name isn’t on the deed,” says Ndashe. As RDP housing is only available to first-time home owners, the woman’s name will already be on the database and she will not be eligible for another house.

Fear and Survival Strategies Among Homeless Women Living in Inner- City Johannesburg, a research project conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), recommends that housing policy be modified to address the reality that more women are heading households, as well as take into account issues of domestic violence and abuse that stem from women depending on men for housing.

Lisa Vetten of the CSVR says this underscores the extent to which domestic violence contributes to homelessness. Women often leave their houses to escape violence, but the extent of homelessness among women is disguised because they usually move with their children between shelters, and the homes of family and friends, unlike men, who tend to sleep rough.

These women often move to shelters but cannot live there indefinitely. “The thing with the shelter is that they only allow you to stay for three months. After that they don’t care where you go and in most cases women just return to abusive relationships and get killed,” says Kiki Matlhaku, a woman who was formerly homeless.

Women who need to leave shelters often end up in transitional housing which aims to provide the homeless with temporary shelter until they are given to permanent homes in social housing schemes. But many transitional shelters have deteriorated because of poor management, and have become extremely violent places. The Phuthaditjaba transitional housing scheme in Vrededorp, Johannesburg, has become known as a “dumping site for homeless people”, according to one resident. Many women are forced into relationships with men for protection, but this dependency often fuels further abuse.

“I wish there was a way of finding a safe place to live in. What I was wishing for was to find my own place for my daughter and me because I don’t want to live with a man any more,” said one woman interviewed for the CSVR research.  

It is often difficult for women to make the move from one model of housing to another, says Sarah Charlton of the school of architecture and planning at Wits University. This is due in part to the fact that housing is part of a complex picture and being given a house does not help a woman with the other things she needs when leaving a shelter. 

RDP settlements are generally built on the fringes of cities, far from jobs, schools and clinics. This means women are removed from their support structures and unable to find money for transport and basic necessities such as food. Charlton says this is where the lines blur between housing and a social welfare. “It is difficult to get one programme of government to interlock with another so that it all adds up to a comprehensive whole,” she says.

Rooms with a view

As property prices surge to record levels, many poor people can no longer even dream of renting a house, never mind buying one. The result is that the poor are becoming increasingly marginalised. For many low-income families, social housing is the only chance of securing decent accommodation. A number of social housing schemes have been developed in the past decade, with varying degrees of success.

Social housing provides low and medium-income households (earning between R1 500 and R3 500 a month) with low-cost, quality houses. It aims to achieve urban integration and renewal, particularly in inner cities, and assists with socio-economic development of low-income groups by ensuring that housing is located near markets, transport and job opportunities.

The Tswelopele Housing Cooperative in the Johannesburg central business district (CBD) has changed the lives of many residents, who have secure housing, often for the first time in their lives. In 2001 the building, which used to house the Johannesburg department of health, was converted into 55 flats accommodating about 250 residents, as part of the Johannesburg city council’s Better Building programme.

Esther Dipale, a mother of three, previously lived in a downtown flat for 15 years, but moved out because the building was run by a slum lord who let it deteriorate until it was unsafe and uninhabitable. Dipale says when she heard about the building being converted into flats, she immediately submitted an application. “The building is in the inner city and it is very convenient. I can use only one taxi to go to Sandton or anywhere now. There is no space for RDP houses in the inner city and they have to build out of town.”

Cooperative housing differs from normal rental schemes in that it is managed by the residents and based on the principle of self-help and collective decision-making.

Dipale says the housing project is ideal, as everything is well organised and the views of the residents are taken into consideration. “If someone wants to have a party, they go to the board first to discuss it. Then they are given a time limit and everyone in the building is informed.”

She says the R935 rent she pays each month for her two-bedroom apartment is reasonable. “We have a committee and people can discuss and make decisions together. We also have tight, 24-hour security.”

The project was an initiative of the Cope Housing Association, which finances it through institutional subsidies from the Department of Housing.

The Department of Housing’s subsidy scheme is an initiative to make housing available to a larger number of people. Applicants must be South African citizens or permanent residents older than 21 years. Those who already own a house or have previously owned a house cannot apply for a subsidy.

In 2003 there were about 60 social housing institutions (SHI) in South Africa. These institutions develop and manage social housing and promote the creation of quality living environments. SHIs are eligible for institutional subsidies of up to R23 100 per beneficiary from the Department of Housing . — Cheri-Ann James

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