Yet another fire in Yeoville Bellevue has destroyed the upper floor of a small block of flats. Whether the ground floor flats are habitable, whether the building is safe to live in after the fire – these have not yet been determined. But you can be sure that despite the fire people will continue to live there – because they have little other choice.
What the immediate cause of the fire was is not known. It could have been the outcome of a fight between a couple living in the building, one of whom accidentally or deliberately set their room alight. It is also possible that the flat was fire-bombed to target a Community Police Forum member living in the building because of his work in trying to combat illegal alcohol distribution and hijacking of buildings.
What’s more important is the underlying reasons why such fires take place with alarming regularity. These are the overcrowding, the poverty, the rack-renting, the exploitation of tenants, the neglect of buildings by property owners, the hijacking of buildings, the refusal by tenants to pay rent, the failure by tenants and landlords to pay for services which results in electricity being disconnected, the illegal connection of electricity to buildings that have been disconnected, domestic conflict – often fueled by alcohol – which results in accidental or deliberate fires, and the failure of the authorities to enforce a variety of by-laws which would protect people and property. In other words, a wide variety of socio-economic problems to which there is no immediate solution in sight.
Everyone knows there is a housing crisis in Yeoville Bellevue and yet nothing has been done since the mid to late 1990s, when the problem first began to manifest itself. In 1990, StatsSA said that there were around 18 000 people living in the area. The figure now is probably well over 40 000. And every time a building is destroyed, the problem gets worse. Every time a guest house is built or a residential property is allowed to be used illegally for business purposes, the problem gets worse.
There is no empty space to build RDP housing. There are few empty spaces on which substantial social or affordable housing can be built. Even the private sector is not building. Only one new block of flats has been built in the area in the last 20 years.
The housing problem must be resolved. Otherwise we are dooming the area to a slow decline as potential home-owners and investors are turned away by the lack of economic certainty. More than that, we are condemning the people of the area to live in less than adequate conditions in spite of the fact that the new Constitution promises a better life for all.
There are many people thinking about the issue – Wits University have done a lot of work with the community over the last two years on this issue. But we need solutions and we need the resources to implement those solutions.