Journal of Housing and the Built Environment

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 653–666 | Cite as

Transforming South Africa’s low-income housing projects through backyard dwellings: intersections with households and the state in Alexandra, Johannesburg

  • Yasmin Shapurjee
  • Sarah Charlton
Policy and Practice


South Africa’s ‘housing programme’ transfers a fully-funded serviced site and house to qualifying beneficiaries with aims of progressively addressing poverty through homeownership. Despite delivering close to 3 million houses since 1994, informal housing persists, featuring even in some of these new neighbourhoods. This paper focuses on the intersection between a particular mode of informal housing, backyard dwellings, and state-subsidised low-income housing projects. Backyard dwellings arguably contradict state housing objectives by symbolising informality and disorder; a symptom of inadequacy that the housing programme strives to overcome. We consider first the views and experiences of landlords (owners of state-subsided houses) and tenants (occupiers of privately-provided backyard dwellings) in a section of Alexandra, Johannesburg. We then reflect on the potential of backyard accommodation within post-apartheid housing delivery, arguing that despite challenges, the phenomenon of planned, state-led infrastructure generating secondary accommodation represents an opportunity rather than an example of failed modernity. South Africa’s backyard dwellings resonate with similar forms of self-funded and managed rental stock across the global South. As a quick, flexible and regenerative housing asset, cumulative acceptance of such rental markets is necessary—along with viewing the driving actors as astute innovators in shelter and livelihood provision.


Alexandra Backyard dwelling Johannesburg Low-income housing RDP Rental housing State infrastructure South Africa 



This paper is based on research in 2010 towards a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Planning (Honours) at Wits University, supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa. Any opinion, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and therefore the NRF does not accept any liability in regard thereto. The authors wish to thank the ARP, particularly Mr Neels Letter, Mabandla Mwela and Sammy Mamabolo for facilitating site visits and Daluxolo for his research assistance. Thanks to Ms Alize le Roux (CSIR Built Environment) for assistance with GIS mapping. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Spatial Planning and Systems (Built Environment Unit)Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)PretoriaSouth Africa
  2. 2.School of Architecture and PlanningUniversity of the Witwatersrand, JohannesburgWits, JohannesburgSouth Africa

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