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Johannesburg fire: there was a plan to fix derelict buildings and provide good accommodation - how to move forward

Clothes hung to dry in side a burnt building with shacks.
The aftermath of a 2021 fire disaster in an abandoned building in central Johannesburg. Photo by Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Thousands of Johannesburg inner-city residents occupy buildings in conditions like those that led to the fire at 80 Albert Street that killed at least 77 people. They are living in derelict multi-storey buildings, former office blocks, sectional title buildings, tenements, warehouses and factories.

The residents are mostly informal, unsalaried or poorly paid workers. Some are unemployed or on welfare grants. They can’t afford even the lowest priced formal rental or social housing in the inner city. Even if they could, they would be excluded by high demand and low supply.

The accommodation they can access frequently lacks running water and sanitation, security, ventilation, lighting and formal electricity.

Rooms are subdivided with wood or cardboard. Electricity cabling, candles, paraffin lamps and generators contribute to the ever-present pollution and risk of fire. Homes and families’ lives are carved in the shadows of failing or non-existent infrastructure.

We are academics in the fields of urban planning, architecture and housing. We’ve applied our expertise to questions of urbanisation, poverty, housing design and management, housing rights and the inner city over many years.

Various complex factors have led to the occupation of abandoned inner city buildings under precarious conditions. The city’s approach to this reality evolved into a sophisticated and nuanced housing plan adopted in 2017. It was only partially implemented. While the city needs to refocus on this plan, immediate safety interventions are needed in occupied buildings. Many of them lend themselves to retrofitting or conversion. Existing management structures that involve residents offer lessons.

Johannesburg’s intervention plans

Constitutional jurisprudence protects what it calls “unlawful occupiers” from evictions that would lead to homelessness and requires the state to provide alternative accommodation.

Key to this jurisprudence, the 2011 Blue Moonlight case put an end to the city’s policy of handing precariously occupied buildings to the private sector for profitable development.

The city has recognised that expansion of low-income housing is a critical part of the solution. In 2014 Mayor Parks Tau’s ANC administration commissioned a strategy and housing plan which was approved by Herman Mashaba’s (DA-led) mayoral committee in 2017. The plan is concerned with the needs of the poor, though addressing all income groups. It takes an inclusive, contextual, practical approach that promotes choice.

The plan includes providing emergency services to critical buildings, and temporary emergency accommodation. It sets out strategies to increase supply of temporary and permanent housing by private providers, city entities and social housing institutions. This includes mechanisms for very low-income accommodation, including subsidised rental rooms.

The plan was well received but never adequately funded or carried out. The projected budget for temporary emergency accommodation and alternative rental units for those evicted for 2017/2018 to 2021/22 was R561 million (US$29 million). Only just over one third was allocated.

In 2021, the city developed a draft policy for temporary emergency accommodation. It also reviewed the availability of such accommodation. Its housing department estimated it would need to provide 10,000 additional rooms or rental units to evicted communities. At the time under 2,000 units were already built, but mostly occupied or allocated. The city had projects to develop under 5,000 more units. Even if all current and future projects were fully funded and complete, which could take several years, they would cover less than half the existing need.

The approved plan acknowledged that criminals exploited residents by collecting rent in some buildings such as 80 Albert Street. The municipal-owned Johannesburg Property Company, which manages the city’s vast property portfolio, seemingly owner of several occupied buildings, has not released its inventory of properties.

Much of the housing plan’s analysis, approach and proposals remain relevant today. It has not been publicly available on the internet. We placed it on the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies website to inform ongoing responses to the inner-city housing emergency.

A way forward

As government departments seek to make funds available, solutions must build on existing knowledge and plans, local insight, expertise, experience and ongoing dialogue. We recommend a multi-pronged and coordinated strategy.

Supply of emergency and temporary accommodation alone cannot solve the crisis. Similarly, militarised police solutions are unconstitutional and incapable of addressing housing and safety in the inner city.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered innovative ideas for retrofitting interventions in informal settings, including safe access to water. The roll-out of water tank to areas with insuffucient water supply showed a capacity to respond to crises. With this hindsight, relevant government departments should focus their budgets on providing basic safety for occupied buildings in the immediate term.

Immediate responses should not involve removing occupants but enhancing safety through fire hydrants and extinguishers, emergency exits and clearing blocked access routes. Climate funds should be used to retrofit occupied buildings with solar panels, rainwater harvesting and other “green” measures.

Temporary containers can be placed alongside buildings for secure storage of items. In time, alternative partitioning materials must be introduced. Where one-way fire doors and fire wells exist, emergency LED lighting and mechanical door closers can be fitted.

Several buildings and communities are ready for these incremental improvements. Occupying communities are organised. The Inner City Federation already represents committees of over 70 buildings. They are mobilising to improve basic living conditions and to get rid of criminal syndicates. The Inner-City Resource Centre also has experience in community-based projects and engaging residents and the state. Collective tenure solutions such as community land trusts can be considered.

Any accommodation with shared facilities requires high levels of management. Successful models include co-management with residents. These are already in place in several buildings. Where temporary shelters have become de facto permanent, urban management must adjust and not be abandoned, as at 80 Albert Street.

Opportunities for social housing and emergency shelter lie in the building register of the Johannesburg Property Company and other public entities. As activists and researchers have pointed out, underused or vacant publicly owned land and buildings offer potential.

Private sector and social housing companies already respond in various ways with well managed low-income rental models. However, qualification criteria and rents may just be out of reach for those in need. Faith-based organisations and non-profits have much to offer.

The challenges are global and responses in other contexts offer useful insights. Metropoles such as São Paulo have extensive high-rise housing stock, partly unused and informally occupied. In 2018, a building in São Paulo occupied by 171 families collapsed after a fire, killing seven people. In response, a multi-sector task force produced a report calling for measures to increase safety in occupied buildings. In some buildings, housing movements trained residents in disaster readiness – preventing another potentially catastrophic fire.

After London’s Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people, rules were amended governing surveys and plans, material flammability, fire safety equipment, signage and lights.

Architects have proposed innovative and just solutions to crises in other large metropoles. In Johannesburg, the current downturn in the building industry means new graduates are a potential workforce requiring practical experience. With state support, architects experienced in documentation, renovation, reuse of commercial and retail space, and participation could mentor them.

We call for regular and institutionalised discussion forums in which academics, community leaders, NGOs and the private sector exchange insights with politicians and officials.

Heather Dodd, a partner in Dodd + Savage Architects, contributed to this article.

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