Is South Africa the only country in the world that gives free houses to poor people?
The country’s president Jacob Zuma made the claim recently. He argued that South Africans need to “wake up” and stop waiting for government hand-outs – unlike immigrants who “are not expecting any government to do anything so they get here, see opportunities and exploit them”.
Referring to free housing, he added: “If I am wrong, come and tell me which country did as we did.”
Africa Check took up the challenge.
4-million housing opportunities
South Africa has made great strides in providing housing and serviced stands (land that is connected to electricity, water and sewerage supply) to the poor. The government’s programme has been described by the Institute for Race Relation’s CEO, Dr Frans Cronje, as “one of its most successful policy initiatives of the past twenty years”.
According to the Department of Human Settlements, the government has provided nearly four-million “housing opportunities” – 903,543 serviced stands and 2,835,275 houses or social housing units, since 1994. (Note: SERI, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, pointed out in a 2013 report that conflicting figures for the numbers of houses and serviced sites emerge from various government sources.)
However, not all houses were free. The government’s policy has varied over the years, but currently only those earning less than R3,500 per month – with some exceptions such as the elderly and disabled – are given houses completely free of charge.
There is still a massive backlog, but the extent of it is difficult to quantify. Over the past year, Africa Check has submitted numerous requests to the Department of Human Settlements. None of them have been answered.
Kate Tissington, a senior research and advocacy officer at SERI, estimates that 2.3-million households are in need of housing.
Zimbabwe’s Operation ‘Live Well’
Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, would not comment on the president’s claim. “I don’t rely on media reports on what he said. I am trying to find what he actually said,” he told us.
We sent him an audio recording of the president making the claim. Maharaj has yet to respond.
What other countries offer free housing to the poor? Professor Marie Huchzermeyer, a housing specialist at the School of Architecture and Planning of the University of the Witwatersrand, said countries like Zimbabwe, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela all have housing programmes. But do they provide free houses?
According to a report by Amnesty International (AI), the Zimbabwean government promised to build 15,825 houses (they also found mention of 7,478 houses) and provide 200,000 serviced stands, after demolishing 92,460 “illegal” backyard homes shortly after the country’s March 2005 elections.
The Zimbabwean government hastily announced a housing programme called Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle (Live Well) following an international outcry over the breach of both national and international human rights law. AI detailed that NGOs and the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe, Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, believed that such a programme “seemed highly implausible given Zimbabwe’s extremely poor economic situation”.
There are few reliable figures about the scale of Operation Live Well. AI found that only 3,325 houses (mostly uninhabitable) and 1,891 stands without water and sanitation services had been provided a year after the demolitions.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, Ignatius Chombo, did not respond to queries from Africa Check.
‘My House, My Life’
A continent away, both Brazil and Chile have enviable housing programmes. Brazil has delivered close on 1,823,217 units since the inception of its Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme in 2009, according to figures provided by the head of cultural programmes at the Brazilian Embassy in Pretoria, Antonio Franca.
Chile has reduced the number of people that are homeless or living in slums from 1.2-million in 1990 (20% of the population then) to 180,000 in 2007.
However, closer inspection reveals that in Brazil recipients are required to pay a minimum contribution per month and in the case of Chile, save for an upfront contribution of US$430.
Lucky house draw
Venezuela’s housing programme, Gran Misión Vivienda (Great Housing Mission), was introduced in 2011 and was intended to provide free housing to families with incomes below the country’s minimum wage of 4,251 bolívares (around USD$676) . According to the Gran Misión Vivienda website, 630,330 units have been built to date.
Yet Alan Gilbert – a retired geography professor at University College London, who has researched housing subsidies in developing countries – is sceptical. One of the reasons is that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro said last year that the government cannot continue giving away houses for free and that everyone should pay what they can towards the cost of their housing.
“In Venezuela the policy fluctuates by the day and what actually happens on the ground is less than transparent,” Gilbert said.
He alerted us to neighbouring country Colombia as an example of a country with free housing programmes. Colombia introduced a “radical housing policy” in 2012 with the aim of delivering 100,000 housing units totally free.
They have nearly reached their target with 90,972 units completed, according to the official website that impressively maps all housing projects. In an official lucky draw resembling a television show, potential beneficiaries pick a lot to determine who next will receive housing.
How sound is South Africa’s housing system?
Yet we could be losing sight of a more important question: Is South Africa’s housing policy and system sound?
Huchzermeyer does not think so. She said comparing countries “fuels the wrong kind of aspirations – at a time when one should be questioning whether the South African housing system is at all appropriate”.
Given that the South African housing programme gave rise to rows and rows of “one-size-fits all” houses at the edge of towns and cities, far from workplaces, study institutions and medical facilities, she suggests the government needs to develop more programmes to support households to build and improve their own houses, among others.
SERI’s Kate Tissington also said that assistance should be given to people who have been allocated serviced sites to enable them to build their own homes. In addition, low-income public rental housing options should be made available and the existing programme to upgrade informal settlements be extended.
And should government want to phase out full housing subsidies to young people – as Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu recently declared – it must be widely debated first.
“The reality is that, in South Africa’s context, talk of ending ‘free’ housing is concerning. Instead the emphasis should be on the need for affordable access to housing and, in certain instances, affordable does mean free”.
She added: “Government routinely underspends its budgets and does not deliver housing in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, which draws on the skills of communities and individuals. There is a lot of wastage and corruption in the system. This should be tackled first and foremost.”
Conclusion: The claim is false
Although nowhere near the scale of South Africa’s housing programme, at least one other country provides free housing to poor people in a transparent manner: Colombia.
President Zuma is therefore wrong to claim that South Africa is the only country in the world to do so. It is not unusual for governments to invest in housing for the poor and South Africa is by no means the only country that has ever supported poor people’s access to housing. Consider the massive public housing programmes in eastern and western Europe and housing assistance in the US, for example.
Instead of comparing free housing programmes around the world, perhaps Zuma should focus on improving his own country’s programmes and weeding out the corruption, wastage and underspending associated with it.
Do you know of another country that provides free housing to the poor? Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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