Since 1994, the South African government’s national housing programme has completed an estimated 3.4m housing units and handed these over to the lowest-income families in the nation. An estimated 2m of these houses are formally registered on the deeds registry, and subsidy housing stock now accounts for just under one-third of all formally registered residential properties in SA. For the households who were fortunate enough to receive a subsidised house, it is probably the most valuable asset they will ever own.
In the context of Covid-19, this asset could provide valuable support to low-income households, improving their resilience and broadening their options for responding to the crisis. It could also be the key to unlocking productivity growth and private investment in an economy after Covid-19 – something we will very clearly need.
Except, in many cases, this value is inaccessible. Too many housing assets are dead capital, to use the terminology of Hernando De Soto Polar, the Peruvian economist. In lower-income neighbourhoods across SA, ownership as reflected in the deeds registry is a far cry from reality. Most often the de facto ‘owner’ of a property does not match the person officially listed as the owner on the title deed. This may be the result of off-register or informal transactions facilitated by community based organisations such as street committees rather than conveyancers, or housing assets remaining in deceased estates that are never wound up.
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8 October 2020