“Beware of politicians bearing housing stats”: unpicking new build numbers

Some houses. Image: Getty.

Well, it’s very exciting that the government has decided we need to build more houses, because before yesterday I don’t think anyone had suggested that as a solution to the housing crisis. One consequence is that we’re almost certainly going to see more politicians arguing about how many houses have actually been built.

It’s an argument that’s been raging in London for years, as various mayors and mayoral candidates try to puff up/slap down the figures. Even without the national conversation it’s definitely something that will happen at the next metro mayoral elections, too. (Something to look forward to, Tees Valley!)

So here’s a quick, and absolutely not boring, guide to unpicking housing statistics. Yay!

Purely because it’s handy and we already have a lot of figures to hand, I’m going to use a current attack line from the London Conservatives. (Be aware that housebuilding stats-twisting comes in all party shapes and colours.) Presenting Assembly Member Gareth Bacon talking about how much affordable homebuilding Boris Johnson had overseen while mayor:

“Boris Johnson averaged 10,436 affordable starts per year in his 8 years in office. As of yesterday Sadiq Khan had started 8,935 in 2016/17 and 2,221 in 2017/18.”

There’s an immediate problem here, with Bacon comparing Johnson’s average over eight years with Khan’s early years total. Housebuilding, particularly housebuilding subsidised by the state, goes in cycles that are dictated by funding. At the start of the cycle you don’t get much happening because the money is only just starting to come in. At the end of the cycle you tend to get a load of new homes.

To show just how wildly year-on-year construction can swing, in 2011-12 there were 4,511 affordable homes started in London using funding from City Hall. That’s less than the 4,654 homes started in 2017-18 that the Tories are now saying isn’t good enough. But you can’t cherry pick figures like that because it’s an unfair reflection of a particular stage of the cycle.

Aren’t we at the end of a cycle now, though? Yes, but the cycles have got a bit out of sync lately. Here’s what the funding from central government for affordable homebuilding in all of England has been over the last decade:

  • 2008-2011: £8.4bn National Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2011-2015: £4.5bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2015-18: £1.7bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2016-2021: £4.7bn Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme

(The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the amounts went down after 2011. This is how we ended up with the ludicrous policy that homes can be rented out at up to 80 per cent of market rate and still be called ‘affordable’: to make up the funding shortfall, housing associations and other builders had to charge more rent.)

London now has its own £3.15bn fund to spend, through the Homes for Londoners fund. That covers 2016-21, although the money didn’t come in until 2016 was well underway.

This could look like there’s lots of different funds sloshing money into housebuilding; but if you look at the figures, 12,473 homes were started in London between 2015-17 under the 2015-18 funding cycle, and then the money seems to dry up, because just 448 were started (so far) under that same funding scheme in 2017-18.

Funding for homes in 2017-18 has switched to the Homes for Londoners coffers. But the thing is, you don’t get new funding on day one and break ground on 50,000 new homes the following week. It takes time – for developers to apply for funding under different rules, those applications to be assessed, plans to be drawn up, permissions to be sought, blah blah blah.


Funding is complicated, is what I’m saying here.

And if you want to know just how crackers housebuilding stats get, City Hall tells me they expect to report 12,500 affordable home starts by the end of this financial year. Which would mean another 8,000 starts in the next month.

In short, look very carefully at anyone comparing figures on housebuilding because it is almost always more complicated that it seems. You can’t compare an entire term in office to a partial term because there are cyclical swings that take years to pan out. And you definitely can’t compare years that were flush with funding to years of austerity. Things to bear in mind when the opposition comes for Andy Street in 2021, or when Labour trumpets its London achievements in 2020.

But the main point to remember when talking about housebuilding numbers is: it’s a distraction. The really important thing is not pure numbers. It’s what kind of homes are being built. In the same way that loads of luxury flats in hip urban centres are no good to your average family, churning out a load of one bedroom flats for rent at 80 per cent of the market rate is different to funding fewer large family homes at social rent.

In London (again, because we have the stats), between 2008 and 2011, there were 29,401 homes started at social rent. With new rules in 2011 introducing the ‘affordable rent’ of up to 80 per cent of market rent, that drops right off and just 5,977 homes at social rent levels have been built in the years since. Some 27,207 ‘affordable rent’ homes were begun since 2011 – but the people living in them will have a markedly different experience.

Sadiq Khan is introducing three new types of tenure aimed at making housing more affordable. When an election comes round, that’s the kind of measure we should be looking at, whether we’re talking London, Manchester, Cambridge or nationally. As with Greeks and gifts, beware of politicians bearing housing stats.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.