Block by block, Jo’burg reclaims its downtown

In a shell of a building, occupied by squatters for six years with no water or electricity, Johannesburg property developer Renney Plit sees nothing but opportunity.

Behind the piles of rubbish, much of it human waste, he sees new housing for South Africa’s burgeoning middle class.

It’s not just a dream. He’s already transformed a similarly squalid complex nearby into a block of flats with a supermarket and playground.

“If you look at this particular area, the local community, even the local population wouldn’t have come near it,” said Plit, who runs Affordable Housing Company, which buys up empty buildings and converts them into flats.

“It was full of chop shops, chopping up stolen cars. There were squatters living in the park across the road from this building and there was sewage running down the streets, garbage, etc.

“Of course if you look at it today, it’s totally transformed and that’s what we focus on.”

Downtown Johannesburg, once a bastion of apartheid South Africa, become a case study in urban decay in the 1990s as a shocking crime wave terrorised the city, leaving squatters to take over buildings that fell into squalor.

Most businesses and residents moved to safer neighbourhoods, leaving the city centre a place dominated by slumlords exploiting the poor.

But over the past decade, the city has made a concerted effort to reverse the decline. The Johannesburg Development Agency took charge of public spaces, and an Urban Development Zone offered tax breaks to develop certain neighbourhoods.

Plit’s company now owns 62 buildings that house 3 801 apartments and 379 shops, part of a broader trend of turning old buildings downtown into affordable housing.

“Some of the interesting things that have happened include the widespread conversion of dilapidated and vacant office buildings into affordable residential buildings with small, well-managed rental apartments,” said Sharon Lewis, the Johannesburg Development Agency’s chief of strategy.

Downtown revival
One of the most impressive examples is in Doornfontein, a gritty neighbourhood near the city centre, where a 26-storey building that once housed a bank has been transformed into 924 apartments. The high-rise had been vacant for 16 years.

The homes at 120 End Street aren’t luxurious, but they all have a phone line, internet access and satellite television. The building is clean, and access is controlled by a biometric reader.

Rents run from R1 650 to R4 500 a month, targetting the country’s growing middle class that often battles to find decent housing.

“By converting mainly derelict buildings into modern and well-designed rental apartments, we offer a quality lifestyle at an affordable price to the emerging middle class,” Plit said.

But the transformation takes time. At his new project, a former furniture factory, it took six years to evict the 2 500 squatters. The clean-up alone will take weeks.

“Here they [tennants] had to pay up to R650 per head, and they got absolutely nothing,” said Koos van der Schyff, Affordable Housing’s area manager.

In a year, the company plans to offer rooms to single workers. They’ll cost an extra R100 a month, but the apartments will include toilets, telephones and Internet access.

A dozen other companies are also pioneering the city’s redevelopment, seeking to meet a growing demand for middle-class housing without the long commutes from the city’s far-flung townships.

According to the JDA, whose work is complemented by community initiatives, the private sector has invested about R18 for every rand invested by government.

The city has no statistics on the redevelopment of buildings. But landscape architect Gerald Garner, who has written a book on the city’s regeneration, estimates that up to one third of the city’s buildings have been renovated over the past decade.

While posh lofts and trendy urban oases have drawn attention to downtown’s revival, Garner said what’s remarkable in Johannesburg is the effort to make the city liveable for a broader population.

“If we talk about regeneration, we are not talking about loft and First World accommodation but we talk about a successful city that meets the needs of the population,” Garner said.

“Often, when you speak about regeneration, or gentrification, the poorest people have to move away,” he said. “You cannot do that in Johannesburg.” – AFP

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