The recent fire that claimed the lives of more than 70 people in Johannesburg underscores the city’s severe housing crisis and the proliferation of hazardous makeshift settlements. Unless the authorities provide low-income residents with safe, affordable housing, similar tragedies are bound to recur.
JOHANNESBURG – In late August, a devastating fire in a dilapidated apartment building in Johannesburg claimed the lives of 77 people. The fire, one of the deadliest in South Africa’s history, was a stark reminder of the substandard living conditions faced by the city’s most vulnerable residents and underscored the country’s urban housing crisis.
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Built in the 1950s, the five-story building at 80 Albert Street originally served as a “pass office,” a checkpoint for regulating the movement of Black people during apartheid. It was later turned into a shelter for abused women and children, before municipal authorities ultimately abandoned it. Subsequently, it morphed into a makeshift settlement housing migrants and people living in poverty. Its occupants endured precarious living conditions, frequent police raids, and no access to basic services, a common predicament among the city’s impoverished residents.
Sadly, this was not the first time that people have died in Johannesburg due to substandard housing conditions. In 2017, a fire in the downtown Cape York building took the lives of seven people. The following year, three children were killed in the inner-city suburb of Doornfontein when a wall collapsed on them. And in 2021, a fire near Johannesburg’s central business district resulted in nine fatalities.
In responding to the fire at 80 Albert Street, officials have downplayed Johannesburg’s broader housing crisis. Rather than address the underlying problems, such as poverty and regulatory negligence, they tried to shift the blame to “illegal immigrants” and anti-eviction NGOs (without which the crisis would be even more dire). This response exemplifies the long-standing failure of municipal authorities to protect the city’s poorest and most vulnerable inhabitants, rendering tragedies all but inevitable.
South Africa’s severe housing crisis can be partly attributed to rapid urbanization. In 2022, more than 65% of the country’s population resided in urban areas. The population of Johannesburg, South Africa’s most densely populated city, has surged by nearly 30% since 2011. Amid a shortfall of 3.7 million housing unitslow-income households – which constitute the majority of the populace – struggle to find decent, safe shelter in the country’s urban centers.
No one willingly resides in a dangerous building; it is a desperate measure taken by people with low or no income and no other viable choices. According to the latest State of South African Cities Reportas of 2016, nearly half of Johannesburg’s residents were living on less than R2,000 ($105) per month. As the housing shortage has escalated and costs have surged, many more people have been forced into hazardous makeshift structures.
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To mitigate the housing crisis, Johannesburg adopted an inclusionary housing policy in 2019. Among other things, the policy aims to “create more of a mix of income groups in private housing developments” by requiring developers to allocate at least 30% of all new residential developments with 20 units or more to affordable housing. For example, the government provides subsidies to first-time homeowners earning between R3,501 and R22,000 a month, as well as rental subsidies, which are capped at R2,100 a month. But the most acute demand for rental housing in Johannesburg comes from low-income households earning less than R3,200 a month.
While this policy is a welcome development, the disparity between incomes and housing costs has undermined its potential. The city’s Spatial Development Framework 2040 defines affordable housing as a dwelling where total costs – including taxes, utilities, and insurance (in cases where the property is owned) – do not exceed 30% of a household’s gross income. So, by the city’s own standards, the policy falls short of its goals.
Another factor driving residents into substandard housing is the lack of access to economic opportunities. A 2016 study on “spatial mismatch” in South African cities highlighted the enduring impact of apartheid-era policies that perpetuate extreme racial and class segregation, forcing Black working-class people to live in peripheral and poorly serviced areas. A 2020 report by the Gauteng province, which encompasses Johannesburg, found that 60% of households spend more than 10% of their disposable income on public transport, up from 55% of households in 2014.
But the legacy of apartheid is not the only obstacle to spatial justice. Instead of ensuring accommodation for low-income residents, Johannesburg officials facilitated the privatization of urban planning by approving the construction of gated neighborhoods for the rich, such as Steyn City. As the sociologist Federica Duca notessuch developments impede integration and accessibility, creating “sites of social reproduction of spatial and social separation.” Since the 1990s, the number of gated communities in Gauteng – particularly in Johannesburg – has increased sharplyeffectively transforming public areas into semi-private spaces.
This has to change. Johannesburg must provide low-income residents with safe, affordable housing that enables them to access economic opportunities and essential amenities. All permanent and transitional housing must be urgently improved to ensure that occupants can receive basic services. Municipal authorities must also take a tougher stance toward negligent building owners, including by expropriating abandoned and poorly maintained buildings and converting them into public rental housing aimed specifically at low-income households.
Most importantly, policymakers must change their attitude toward the city’s underprivileged communities. As long as city authorities continue to neglect low-income residents or treat them with outright contempt, tragedies like the fire at 80 Albert Street are bound to recur.