It’s a sunny midweek afternoon and the streets of downtown Johannesburg are buzzing with people, hooting taxis and hawkers on the pavements. On the corner of Klein and Koch street in Hillbrow, Health-e News meets Nelson Khethani, an old man in his early 70s. Originally from Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape, Khethani now lives in a dilapidated building in the inner city.
The apartment block is home to over 400 people. While they live rent-free residents pay a steep price to call this four-storey building “home”. They have no water, no electricity, no sanitation services, and no privacy.
A woman wearing a pink nightgown does her washing in one of the common bathrooms shared by both men and women. Behind her is an open courtyard where she hangs the wet clothing in the sun to dry. Underneath the hanging clothes, the courtyard floor is littered with filth and sewage seeping through the broken pipes which, residents say, has been running unattended for years.
“There is no future here, how can you raise children in such an environment where they are exposed to drugs, guns and prostitution. I have even witnessed gun fights where someone was shot and killed right above my room on the second floor. This is not a place for people but for animals,” says Khethani, who invited Health-e News on a tour around the building.
For him, security is the biggest problem facing the occupiers of the building.
“Since 2010, we have written a number of letters to the city officials asking them to provide security so that we can feel safe but all of that landed on deaf ears, anyone and everyone can walk in here and do as they please,” he says.
Housing crisis in the spotlight
The demand for accommodation in major cities like Johannesburg has led to the rapid growth of informal settlements – even within existing buildings – characterised by poor housing conditions.
Khethani is among a group that was evicted from the infamous San Jose apartments in Hillbrow by the City of Johannesburg in 2008. After a court battle the city was forced to provide residents with alternative accommodation. He has been living in this building, known as MBV 1, since then.
He says residents used to pay R170 for rent per month. But over time, as the building deteriorated, they stopped paying rent. “We couldn’t see where our money was going.”
Living in these neglected buildings pose major hazards to residents and surrounding communities. There are demonstrated threats of fires and related injuries, as well consequences associated with interpersonal violence.
The United Nations definition of overcrowding is when there’s more than two people in a room excluding bathrooms but including kitchens and living rooms.
“Rapid urbanisation, unmatched by an associated supply of housing, has resulted in overcrowding in the cities of many developing countries, including in Johannesburg,” says Dr Vusumuzi Nkosi is a senior scientist in the environment & health research unit at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).
At MBV 1, Health-e News was told of extreme levels of overcrowding where five or more people occupy a single room. These are rife conditions for the spread of infectious diseases, and mental illness.
“Household overcrowding has been associated with a range of ill-health outcomes, including acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases,” Nkosi explains.
Nkosi is part of a team that conducted research into overcrowding and health in two impoverished suburbs of Braamfischerville and Riverlea in Johannesburg, which have a number of low cost housing developments.
Over the 11-year study period between 2006 and 2016 they found the levels of overcrowding remained unchanged. Around 57.6% of dwellings were overcrowded. As part of the research, Nkosi and his colleagues visited the same houses every year to collect data relating to the socio-economic factors, health status and living conditions of the participants.
“We noticed that crowded dwellings were associated with elevated levels of acute respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as fever and chills,” Nkosi says.
Buildings to be restored
Anthea Leitch, the MMC for Human Settlements in the City of Johannesburg, says the building needs to be emptied out so that it can be restored and transformed into rental flats.
“As you might know, whenever the city attempts to evict residents, they must be put into temporary accommodation elsewhere. Ironically, this very building was meant to function as exactly that kind of temporary accommodation,” says Leitch.
“But organisations such as SERI have made it clear that they will insist on their “clients” (illegal occupants of buildings) being left undisturbed in hijacked buildings regardless of how unsafe these buildings may be.”
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is a non-profit organisation that provides legal services to the poor and vulnerable to prevent evictions which lead to homelessness.
Budget constraints and vandalism
Leitch says the City of Johannesburg has over 20 000 low-income rental units in the form of flats, hostels, row houses (both detached and semi detached houses built in rows).
She says the residents at MBV1 signed leases with an obligation to pay rent. But the residents have consistently refused to pay rent, therefore the city has been subsidising their living expenses since 2008.
“The presence of criminal elements such as theft, vandalism, and sub-letting has severely impacted the living conditions within the building. Despite these challenges, the city has remained committed to maintaining the building to make it habitable for all residents.”
“It’s imperative that no one is subjected to subpar living conditions or feels unsafe within the confines of their own homes. Collaboration between residents and the city is vital to enhance living standards and establish a secure and inviting environment for all,” she says. – Health-e News