Cramming people into places

Little pieces of paper fight for space on a community wall symbolising the struggle to find accommodation in contemporary Yeoville. All spaces are offered, the rooftops of buildings, balconies and even basement storage space.

The high number of people seeking to live in Yeoville and no new residential buildings has triggered overcrowding causing people to divide and sub-divide spaces, forcing people to learn to share small spaces with strangers.

If you enter Yeoville and pass the large market building, you will notice a community wall on your right, opposite the biggest supermarket in the suburb. Scraps of paper flutter in the breeze like the hopes of people desperate to rent the smallest of spaces.The scraps of paper contain messages such as: “a balcony for rent”, “a cupboard for rent” or “a space to let for R1000”. They offer some hope of a place to stay, rather than the alternative of living on the street.Finding a place to live in overcrowded Yeoville is not an easy task. At the end of the month the wall is crowded with people running their fingers across the notice board. There are just not enough buildings to accommodate all the people looking for living space. For some, renting a balcony is the first step to possibly renting an entire unit.

CURTAIN PARTITION: Angeline Majola rushes to feed her crying baby as her neighbours behind the curtain complain about the noise. Photo: Anazi Zote

Further up the hill, on Page Street, is a block of flats called Pageleigh. The big, blue metal gate at the entrance, intended to protect residents from intruders, offers scant security as it is often left open. At the top of two dark flights of stairs is flat number 204. A white security gate is fitted to the doorframe, but the wooden door doesn’t close properly. Curtained cubicles stretch across what is supposed to be a living room. Sheets dissect the large room into smaller spaces. A cubicle goes for R1000 to R1800 a month, depending on the number of people staying in it. Each of the four cubicles is occupied by a couple and each bedroom has a family living in it. It is a spacious three-bedroom flat, ideal for a family of six, but 17 people are living there.Population demographics have changed dramatically since pre-1994. According to a Wits case study, Yeoville and the new South Africa, the total population of Yeoville in 1991 was 8209, of which 6517 people were white and 1237 black. Only 177 Asian and 278 coloured people lived there at the time. By 2011, the population had grown to approximately 19000 people, of which 96.5% were black and only 1.6% white.

Transition to democracy caused overcrowding in Yeoville

CONFINED SPACE: A Zimbabwean couple who recently moved to Pageleigh pay R1800 for their small cubicle.  They make R3000 a month between them. Photo: Anazi Zote

The large growth in population and lack of new residential buildings means the suburb is incapable of accommodating the number of people increasingly coming to live there. Architect Heather Dodds says 20 years ago, only one family would live in a flat, but now a number of people who don’t even know each other are sharing a unit. She says a contributing factor to overcrowding is the mismatch between the person renting the flat and the people sub-letting it.

“This puts a lot of pressure on the physical nature of the building and also increases social pressure. It is not socially conducive to share a place with people you don’t know.”

Although it is not ideal, some people have no choice. One of the Pageleigh flat residents is Junior Nkomo, a chef in Sandton. Originally from Zimbabwe, Nkomo lives in a lounge cubicle slightly larger than a double bed with his girlfriend. He rents the space for R1800. Nkomo came to South Africa a number of years ago in the hope of finding a better life. Both his parents died while he was still at school. While working as a chef, he met his girlfriend, who is now nine months’ pregnant with a baby girl.Pageleigh is the only place he has stayed in Johannesburg. He does not wish to move because it is located in a quiet part of Yeoville. He has lived in different units in the block, but feels settled in flat 204 because he likes his landlord, Fredrick Tshamala. However, now that the couple is about to have a baby, he hopes to move to a bigger space.

“If everything goes well then I will move upstairs in the attic and rent a room for R1000 … because it is bedrooms that are on a roof. As soon as someone shifts from up there then we will move when the baby arrives.”

But he is running out of time because the baby is due in a few days and the occupants of the upstairs room are not planning on moving yet. It is not an ideal place to raise children but many like him are bound to these circumstances because of financial constraints. Tshamala, the landlord, also comes from Zimbabwe and has been living in Pageleigh on and off since 2002. He has moved back and forth between Yeoville and Soweto since he split with his wife in 2010. The couple has a nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Tshamala says he had to return to Yeoville because of financial constraints as living there is more affordable than elsewhere.

“I came back here temporarily. I was just here for a few months then I was back on my feet again, I went to stay somewhere else, in Weltevreden Park. And then I was forced to come back because of the circumstances.”

Tshamala works as a property salesman on the East Rand and plans to move out next month as things are starting to look up for him again. He hopes never to return to live in Yeoville, unless he is visiting friends or family, because it is not a safe place to raise kids.

“If I have to tell you the honest truth I don’t particularly like this place because I don’t see it as an ideal place for bringing up kids.”

He explains that he has to sub-let the flat because the rental is about R12 000 per month and he cannot afford that by himself. He has other responsibilities, such as looking after his children, paying rent, transport, buying food and school necessities.

“So the whole idea about advertising to bring in people is to help make ends meet. Like I said, I’ve got kids, you understand, and the rentals in this place in a month can go up to twelve grand or so … in this place it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Tshamala thinks the high rent is a result of owners taking advantage of foreigners. He says he has noticed that in places such as Hillbrow and Berea, which are also mostly occupied by foreigners, there is a similar problem with rent.

The upkeep of residential buildings in Yeoville

Raising families in such confined spaces also poses health and psychological risks for children. A study conducted by Wits University psychology student Calvin Gwandure reveals that the influence of limited living space and privacy has an effect on a child’s wellbeing. The study had 240 participants, of which 120 were an experimental group from communities facing living space challenges and 120 a comparison group. Children in the experimental group were found to have higher levels of psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, sexual risk behaviours and perceptions of social support.Staying in confined spaces also creates a higher risk of infections and diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, staying in a densely populated place can create serious risks for diseases such as tuberculosis, meningitis, typhus, cholera and scabies. Outbreaks are more frequent and more severe when population density is high. Some owners are aware of the health risks in overcrowding and poor building maintenance. Thabo Kwakwa, who has recently bought flats in Melody Court, hopes to limit overcrowding by stipulating new clauses in lease agreements to combat the problem. He says renovations will start once he gets complete ownership of the block of flats. Part of the renovation will be to create strict security measures to monitor the people who live in the building and those who come to visit.

“The thing is I haven’t been that strict about this … until I renovate the place that is where we will speak strictly about space. ‘Now you have signed a new contract this is what is now happening’.”

Dodd says owners can have more control over their flats by making them smaller. Another system of monitoring people is putting in “biometric access control” using fingerprints to ensure that people who live in the complex are the only ones who have access to it, thus preventing the possibility of overcrowding. When residences are not well-maintained, safety is an issue and so is overcrowding, according to Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF) which provides funding for low-income housing. TUHF is a financial institution which funds property entrepreneurs to develop well-maintained, low-cost housing. Liaison officer Pressage Nyoni says the organisation is aided by the government but is not dependent on it as there are other financial investors.

NOTICE BOARD: Since living space is limited in Yeoville, people line up at the community notice wall looking for a place to stay. Photo: Anazi Zote

“We are just like the lady who sells apples on the side of the street. We go to the market, we buy money and sell it. We get money from the wholesale financers and we sell it, whether it is from the government or you.”

Nyoni says the ideal world would be a mixed residential area of housing that people on different income levels can afford. A situation like this, he says, would create employment and vibrancy, not decline.

“You would actually have crèches run by people who reside in this particular [middle-class] level. You would have people who work as domestics [low income] who reside in this particular area. You’d have people who have got a high-income level, employing and creating a vibrancy. It’s the best thing that could happen.”

Nyoni says high-income homeowners would still get value for their property, as long as the low-income houses were well maintained.

“If the City of Johannesburg enforces the bylaws properly there is no harm in having low-income houses next to high-income houses. For people to think that the presence of a poor person reduces the value of the property is a myth. What is important is the upkeep of the area. If people behave in ways that are respectful to each other, there will be no animosity between them.”

Maintenance of buildings affected by red-lining in apartheid

Enforcing laws on property ownership, eviction and rental is difficult, particularly in Yeoville, because of its past of red-lining. The definition of red-lining, according to Princeton University, is the practice of denying, or increasing the costs of, services. These services may include banking, insurance, mortgages or access to healthcare. Red-lining occurred in racially discriminated areas and was at its peak in the transition towards democracy. This may have caused buildings in the inner city to deteriorate quickly, especially as they were mostly occupied by black people. The Constitution states that everyone has the right to access adequate housing.

An owner has to follow legal procedures to evict or remove people from their homes. No one can be evicted without a court order or without considering all relevant circumstances in terms of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act (PIE). This was enacted to balance the owner’s property rights and the occupant’s right to access housing. A court may refuse an eviction application based on the tenant’s rights to housing. If the eviction is not considered just or equitable then it will not proceed. Nyoni says TUHF is responsible when it comes to lending money to property entrepreneurs. It attracts people who are positive and responsible and is convinced that property owners will maintain their buildings, even once TUHF is no longer a joint owner.

“In fact we are the only financial institution that is loaning money and conditioning the loan agreement to upkeep … you know just being responsible. If you don’t do that you are in contravention of the loan agreement, we can attach and foreclose on you,” Nyoni says.

SHOWCASE ROOM: A 5x4m room consisting of a fridge, ironing board, television, bed and the stock for a mini tuckshop is used creatively to create consultation space for clients who want dresses designed. Photo: Anazi Zote

He says inspections are done to ensure that owners maintain their end of the deal to keep up the building. He is also aware of potential hijackers who want to make sure the building is derelict and ill-managed so they can stay there for free. He also assures owners of the safety of their building once rejuvenation takes place.

“We inspect properties from time to time. We do work it out. It could be rental boycotts, it could be hand-holding required, you know, we are quite a responsible institution.”

It is difficult to control and manage the issue of overcrowding in small spaces. Although, Kwakwa, plans to renovate Melody Court and enforce new lease agreements, there is no guarantee he will succeed, but he is willing to take that risk.

“To start a business is risky, that will be my risk path. I just say: ‘Lemme just try to play the lotto here’ and I’ll see what will come up.”

Kwakwa thinks he will be able to micromanage his building once renovations are done. He says there needs to be a limit on the number of people who occupy each space. It must be an agreement between the lessee and lessor.

“Sharing space is not a problem. The problem is overcrowding. Say for instance I agree to you having not more than six people, you must not exceed that amount. If you can’t afford to pay that money alone then you can share.”

Hijacking of buildings causes overcrowding

The maintenance of accommodation in Yeoville seems to be deteriorating as a result of overcrowding and, according to Kwakwa, previous owners have ignored security stipulations which has led to overcrowding in buildings and deterioration.This discourages owners from keeping their buildings and they sell them because they see no value in their property. Another issue which discourages owners is hijacking. Kwakwa says he receives countless threats from hijackers, who sub-let their units in Melody Court, but that is not going to stop him from pursuing his plans for renovating the block of flats.

“People have been calling me, saying they want to kill me left, right and centre. The hijackers, they want the building. As long as they get to stay there for free, for them it’s fine. I hope by the grace of God I will win [over] those people. I’m not going to fight them. I’m a human being. For me turning back is a casket. There’s no turning back. I’m a father with children … I’m doing it for my children.”

Residents of a Yeoville apartment speak about their experiences of overcrowding. By: Anazi Zote

FEATURED IMAGE: Angeline Majola rushes to feed her crying baby as her neighbours behind the curtain complain about the noise. Photo: Anazi Zote

RELATED ARTICLES: