Johannesburg Social Housing Company’s student housing project aims to bridge the affordability gap but grapples with inner-city infrastructure and service delivery limitations

On the corner of Simmonds and Wolmarans streets, in the heart of the Johannesburg CBD, a cross-border bus station runs over with hundreds of packers and porters shouting offers to carry your luggage and show you the right bus, for the best price.

The chaotic business of trying to earn a living is nothing new to this part of town, but is a definite safety concern for Chris Mazibuko, the housing supervisor of the student accommodation building situated opposite this bus station.

“Some of these… street vendors, they harass my female students. You see those ones who are wrapping baggage, they start touching them. Luckily, we do have BadBoyz Security, they do respond on time, but they won’t see what is happening [all the time],” said Mazibuko.

This is Simmonds Street that runs in front of the entrance to Dakalo Student Court (on the left. The street is a busy hum drum of informal commerce, that students have to wade through to and from their residence. Photo: Morongoa Masebe.

Johannesburg Social Housing Company’s (JOSHCOs) Student Accommodation Portfolio Manager, Andile Nkosi, told Wits Vuvuzela that Dakalo Student Court, opened doors in 2021, following a unanimous municipal council decision to contribute local government resources towards the student housing crisis.

Local municipalities in South Africa are governed by municipal councils that are voted in every five years. Councils make all the decisions regarding service delivery, policies and programmes run by the municipality.

JOSHCO took the decision to council, and in 2021 they “got blessing from the council” said Nkosi. JOSHCO is an entity of the City of Johannesburg (COJ) metropolitan municipality, mandated with providing quality, low-cost and centrally located rental housing to households with incomes between R3500 and R15000. Finding quality and affordable housing around business districts can have a positive effect on the economic trajectory of a city.

Similarly, finding reasonably priced and high-quality accommodation within proximity to an institution of higher learning can significantly bolster the academic performance of students who face challenges affording housing expenses.

A Student Housing Landscape report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), revealed that during the #Feesmustfall movement, government funding directed toward the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) surged significantly, skyrocketing from R8.96 billion to R14.6 billion. While this marked a pivotal moment, offering more students an enhanced opportunity for learning, it also brought forth an unforeseen challenge.

The exponential increase in financial aid created a dual effect on the educational landscape. On one hand, it widened the access for students to pursue their education, but on the other, it led to a strain on purpose-built student accommodations (PBSA), both on and off campus. These accommodations found themselves struggling to accommodate the burgeoning number of students seeking residency.

The sharp rise in government funding, while a crucial support mechanism for students, inadvertently increased the pressure on existing infrastructure designed to house them. The accommodation facilities meant for students faced an unexpected surge in demand, rendering them inadequate in capacity to cope with the overwhelming influx of students.

The report underlines a pressing need for innovative strategies to address the escalating housing demand that accompanies amplified access to institutions of higher learning.

JOSHCO enters the market as local governments attempt to address this problem.

Student resident existing JOSHCO’s Dakalo Student Court onto the busy Simmonds Street. Photo: Morongoa Masebe.

The report categorises PBSA in three ways: upper end student accommodation market, ranges between R5000 and R8000 (but can go as high as R14 000). They offer ensuite lofts or bachelor that have kitchenettes and space for a washing machine.

The second category is the mid-student market which ranges from R3000 to R4500 and can offer bachelor units or shared units with their own kitchenette, and communal bathrooms and laundry areas.

The third category is the ‘affordable’ student market, which can go as low as R500 a room. These offer a room, sometimes furnished with a desk, a wardrobe and a bed, along with communal bathrooms, a kitchen and a laundry area, that can be shared by several rooms.

Private accommodation developers have displayed a preference for creating student accommodations that cater to the mid-to-upper-end market, with a primary emphasis on proximity to universities. However, there is a consensus as reported by IFC among private and public developers that the greatest demand is within the affordable market. This means that the biggest factor contributing to the student housing crisis is that most students who desperately need accommodation, cannot afford it.

The ‘affordable’ market is made up of students primarily funded by the NSFAS. Unable to meet the high rental rates, many students have had to find cheaper alternatives. Cheaper alternatives in and around the city, come in the form of backyard dwellings, and other unregistered accommodations that do not offer security or safety.

This is where JOSHCO comes in, providing a relevant service to a market that otherwise would not be able to afford the advantage of staying within the Braamfontein education node. According to Nkosi, “99 per cent” of the students they currently house, are on NSFAS.

Nkosi said that “we saw a need, seeing young people, more especially from rural areas, being vulnerable in Johannesburg, not finding places, or getting expensive places which are not up to standard”. 

JOSHCOs student accommodation provides single units for R4100, double-sharing units for R3700 and four-sharing units for R3500 All rooms are furnished with a bed, cupboard, study table, and a fridge, kitchen cupboard, stove, kettle and microwave. The accommodation also provides Wi-Fi, and a shuttle service for students to and from their respective institutions of higher learning. 

“We are accredited by Wits and UJ, so what happens is that for instance if UJ or Wits, there are students who want accommodation, they will refer them to us, as an accredited facility” said Nkosi.

The IFC estimated the housing shortfall around the two major universities and the two TVET Colleges in the COJ area (Wits, UJ, Central Johannesburg College and Southwest Gauteng Tvet College) at 47 687. 

For now, the effective demand is determined by calculating the total enrolment of students in the various institutions and subtracting it from the available PBSA supply, both public and private. Public PBSA refers to student housing on and around campuses offered by the institutions themselves. The figure did not consider smaller institutions that cannot be categorised as universities or TVET colleges but offer higher learning services (Rosebank College and Damelin in Braamfontein are prime examples).

Of course, not all enrolled students need accommodation. Some may stay at home, or with other relatives who reside near the institutions. So, although the figure is not one hundred percent accurate, it can still give us a general idea that the problem is evolving into the tens of thousands every year, while student housing is only growing in a few hundred beds at a time. It may in effect, be considered a housing backlog.

JOSHCO’s student accommodation project does not stand independent and unaffected by the challenges that JOSHCO has faced in providing housing in the Johannesburg inner city.

Their integrated annual report and the section 79 oversight committee report for 2022, show that not only does the entity have a “housing backlog of 396 532 units” as a result of low revenue collection and high operating costs, JOSHCO recorded a budget deficit of R133.7 million. 

Section 79 committees are elected for each government department, by the municipal council, to submit recommendations and reports on the department’s functions and services.

Mpumelelo Phakhathi, a researcher in the section 79 oversight committee for housing, said that the factors recorded in the oversight report, amongst others, may well have a bearing on JOSHCO’s capacity to reach its student housing target.

JOSHCO has committed itself “to develop a student accommodation precinct that offers a safer sound security and technologically enabled environment”, with a target of 10 000 beds in five years.

Information provided about JOSHCO’s projects and development (P&D) office claims that they remain on target. However, the numbers are not on their side. A five-year plan that was piloted in the 2021/2022 financial year, concludes in 2025/2026. Their currently completed student accommodation houses 183 beds, meaning that JOSHCO must provide 9816 beds in the next three years or risk missing its target.

JOSHCOs target by Morongoa Masebe

The entity’s P&D office told Wits Vuvuzela that their pilot student accommodation cost R50.6 million to develop and that they have budgeted R3 billion, in pursuit of the targeted 10 000 beds.

However, the fact that JOSHCO has outsourced the management and maintenance of Dakalo House to Kwatloe Pro Power, a student facilities management company and that most of the building’s rental revenue is paid directly by Nsfas, creates mitigating factors against JOSHCOS student housing projects falling into the same pitfalls as their other projects.

The housing supervisor, Chris Mazibuko, is employed by Kwatloe Pro Power.

Although JOSHCO is yet to provide the safety and quantity that their plan potentials, Lungile Tebogo, who has been a tenant of Dakalo Student Court expressed to Wits Vuvuzela that the building is the cleanest and best maintained he has lived in around Johannesburg.

He moved to JOSHCO’s student accommodation after his room in a previous accommodation was flooded by a burst pipe.

When Wits Vuvuzela visited Dakalo Student Court, the security gate was open, the face recognition system was off, and you could barely see the next person’s face in the foyer in front of the stationery lifts. All due to a power cut.

Frequent unscheduled power cuts over two weeks, on the block where JOSHCO student accommodation sits, tarnish Tebogo’s praises of management. These power cuts, according to Tebogo are not part of the loadshedding schedule and can happen for up to 11 hours at a time.

“This is student housing, if this is what happens, what happens to our academic activities? That means a halt to them. Everything must come to a stop now”.

Mazibuko said that they have had to switch off the generator to save on the cost of diesel. This has affected water pressure and has also led to food wastage.

While bigger infrastructural failures like power cuts and loadshedding are beyond JOSHCOs control, they greatly compromise their idea of a “technologically enabled student precinct” in the Johannesburg CBD. The security and technological connectivity they promise fall apart when the reality of unmaintained inner-city infrastructure hits.

The Johannesburg CBD is considered the academic node with the largest total number of PBSA beds, standing at 31 958. Followed by Pretoria and then by Cape Town. 5279 of these are public and 26 679 are private.

In Gauteng, five corporate developers share the supply of PBSA beds, namely South Point, Respublica, Feenstra Group, CitiQ and Gateway Student Accommodation.

These private suppliers have thus far been catering mainly to the higher-end and mid- student accommodation market.

Students who cannot afford housing, are not only finding alternative accommodation in backyard dwellings and unregistered accommodations which increases the chances of rental abuse and unmaintained, unconducive living conditions, but they also tend to have the added disadvantage of walking or commuting further to and from school.

JOSHCOs student housing objectives, as set out in the City of Johannesburg’s five-year Integrated Development Plan (IDP), on paper, take into consideration the need for student accommodation to provide safety to students.

They provide security guards who constantly monitor the security gate that lets people in and out, and they enjoy the presence of a Badboyz security guard on their street. They also have facial recognition software for registered tenants.

This does not somehow take them away from the bustling of the city around them. Perhaps one day the completed student precinct will create a bubble that keeps students separate from the vibration of a city that harbours the up and down movements of men and women desperate for opportunities.

The area is over-populated with self-employed porters, baggage handlers packers and street vendors who scramble and fight over customers throughout the day. The intersection has become notoriously chaotic. Not itself uncharacteristic of the Johannesburg CBD, but the chaos creates the potential for the safety of students to be compromised. 

When some of the vendors “have lots of money they’ll start drinking around the building, and causing scenes,” said Mazibuko. Not to mention that the buses that move in and out the bus station opposite the building, make it a noisy place to study.

JOSHCO, as a social housing provider extending its services to a student market that cannot afford the current supply, is a story of success. However, the recent spate of burning buildings in the inner city brought much needed attention to the fact that any attempts to regenerate the inner city need to be amplified and scaled up as soon as possible.