South African Backyard Rentals: A Case for Support

Backyard rental accommodation is a prominent practice within South Africa’s current set of housing options. Despite the immense popularity and prevalence of this form of housing – possibly due to its lower visual prominence in comparison to informal settlements – it has been largely neglected by policymakers and researchers until fairly recently (Scheba & Turok, 2020a). However, the Census 2011 data show us that the number of households that are being built as backyard dwellings are growing faster than those in informal settlements (Statistics South Africa, 2011).

Backyard rental accommodation straddles the spectrum of what can be broadly understood as ‘formal and informal’; an understanding that doesn’t take into account what backyard accommodation in informal settlements really means (Isandla Institute, 2020a). It is often understood and referred to as a secondary dwellings or residential units in lower income areas on either state or privately-owned land. These dwellings can include backyard ‘shacks’, ‘wendy houses’ or more permanent backyard structures (brick, concrete blocks e.t.c) with varying levels of access to basic services (ibid.). While the term implies any form of Backyard rental accomodation, for the purpose of the studies employed for this contribution it does not refer to former Apartheid era domestic servant housing in previously designated ‘White neighbourhoods’ that are today marketed as student, ‘granny flat’, Airbnb or other forms of accommodation that are typically governed by housing and building regulations.

* This is an interesting separation of concept and reading of ‘formality/informality’ that requires further inquiry elsewhere.

Examples of Backyard accommodation ‘differences’ in research and practice in South Africa (Source: (Property 24, 2021) & (Bennett, 2010))

In terms of typologies of Backyard housing covered in the studies used towards this case for support; there is a great degree of variety in terms of structural types, quality, neighbourhood types, rental arrangements, and levels of access to basic services such as electricity, running water and sanitation (Isandla Institute, 2020c). Equally there exists a varied number of landlords and tenants types within this sector. Landlord types can include subsistence landlords, homeowner landlords, and entrepreneurial landlords (ibid.); while tenant types typically include backyard owners (who own their structures, renting out space in the yard from landlords), backyard tenants (renting out both the backyard structure as well as space in the yard), backyard residents (with an alternative form of tenure, including relatives, or persons residing in the yard on the basis of charity), and lastly; main house tenants (renting a room in the main house directly from the landlord) (ibid).

Backyard Housing for those ‘waiting’ for RDP housing (Source: Bennett, 2012)

So, what are the pros and cons of this clearly vital housing practice?


Backyard rental accommodation offers a flexibility and adaptability that other forms of housing struggle to provide. It meets the needs of people across a much wider array of social groups. Consequently, it allows for a multi-tiered accessible housing pathway for many urban residents whose housing needs are otherwise unmet by the government’s housing subsidies, social housing, or the formal housing market (Scheba & Turok, 2020a). These include, but are not limited to, persons on the waiting list for subsidised housing, people in the ‘gap market’, migrant workers, students and what Bank describes as ‘female-headed households’ (Bank, 2007).

Backyard dwelling (Source: University of the Witwatersrand, 2019)

This myriad of options and configurations demonstrates the diverse offering that makes this form of housing to cater for a broad cross-section of different housing needs across different social groups – across South Africa.

A major advantage of typical backyard rental accommodation in more established areas in South Africa; is that backyard dwellings are often located in relatively well-located and better serviced areas in comparison to informal settlements. These may be closer to socio-economic opportunities, offer improved quality housing, and consequently greater potential for an improved quality of life (Gardner & Rubin, 2016).

Backyard flats in Delft, Cape Town (Source: HSRC. 2020)

The data available at the moment of this article, indicates that backyard rental accommodation is an important source of income for many landlords, particularly more vulnerable members of South African society and thus offers a means of mitigating poverty and opportunities for economic empowerment (Isandla Institute, 2021b & 2021c). In this light, backyard rental accommodation assists in creating employment for local builders, labourers and hardware suppliers, supports emerging estate/rental agents, while also densifying well-located areas, and improving public transport viability and community facility/services usage (Scheba & Turok, 2020b).

Backyard housing construction using local builders and labourers (Source: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa. 2020)


While backyard rental accommodation provides a vital low-cost housing system, there are many health, safety, economic and rights concerns with this mode of development.

As Scheba & Turok (2020b) note, backyard rental accommodation is generally built without adhering to municipal building standards or by-laws, due to the complexity and cost of these processes. Non-compliance, and lack of municipal oversight, mean that the structural integrity of this accommodation may pose health and safety risks to residents, affecting the long-term resale value of the properties. Increased backyard housing development in existing neighbourhoods leads to a type of densification, which – although an important element of good urban form and typically is pursued as an urban policy objective – may result in the overburdening of municipal bulk services infrastructure and inadequate access to basic services not only for backyard residents but for entire neighbourhoods (Govender et al., 2011; Lategan & Cilliers, 2013; Di Lollo, 2020; Scheba & Turok, 2020a).

Backyard Housing in Gauteng (Source, Bennett, 2010)

Informal backyard rental agreements offer little or no legal protection of the rights of tenants, who are therefore vulnerable to arbitrary rent increases, limits on access to services, and evictions (Lemanski, 2009; Scheba & Turok, 2020b). Access to services, services payments, and the contributions thereto, are often a source of tension. Lack of independence and privacy when renting from family may also be a cause of tension for tenants (Isandla Institute, 2021b). Lack of knowledge on the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants affects these interactions. Formal lease agreements may not be an appropriate solution to tenure insecurity as they impact the flexibility of informal agreements and may thus impact the market and its social relations (Isandla Institute, 2020a)

An example of a poorly supported area of backyard housing is noted by a number of authors (Kumar, A. 2020; Scheba & Turok, 2020b; Isandla Institute. 2020b and c), who explain how Covid-19 has exacerbated housing insecurity; which has resulted in many backyard tenants facing evictions – without any legal protection from rental agreements or forms of ‘formal’ contracting. Due to limited options, this has left residents with few options and being forced to resort to land occupations as a means of securing housing in reasonable proximity to socio-economic opportunities and public services. Of course, this precarity has resulted in the loss of income also affects landlords.

Rental Units being added to newly built RDP (Bennett, 2010)

Backyarding as an Urban Strategy?

The issue of land ownership (state vs. private) is a key factor in determining state interventions in the servicing of backyard rental accommodation. A significant barrier to the provision of basic services to backyard residents living on private land is the long-held local government belief that the Municipal Financial Management Act (MFMA) renders public expenditure on servicing backyard structures on private properties illegal (Isandla Institute, 2021a). However, legal opinion has made clear that municipalities have the power, authority, and obligation to provide these services, although questions around how these services are to be provided, and their targeting remain (ibid.).

Backyard rental accommodation encompasses a variety of contextual differences, and understanding these is critical to developing appropriate, targeted responses and supportive interventions (Isandla Institute, 2021b). The common themes that can be drawn out includes:

  • Improved Access to Basic Services; increasing support to both landlords and tenants (including finance and technical support)
  • Bulk Infrastructure Improvements; public realm improvements (including area-based violence prevention interventions);
  • Education and Legal Support; related to the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. Any interventions made in the backyard rental accommodation sector need to be accompanied by effective monitoring and learning, in order to rapidly incorporate these lessons into any further interventions (Isandla Institute, 2021c).

Backyard rental accommodation is a severely underdeveloped and under supported area of housing and land development in support of addressing systemic spatial inequality across South Africa. While these pros and cons outline a balanced debate towards understanding the nature of Backyard rental accomodation – it is clear that there much room to engage with these practices in support of a more just South African landscape.

Backyard Housing as Housing Growth (Bennett, 2010)


Bank, L. 2007. The Rhythms of the Yards: Urbanism, Backyards and Housing Policy in South Africa. Journal of Contemporary African Studies. 25:2, 205-228

City of Cape Town. 2020. Khayelitsha property owners and others can boost rental market.

Di Lollo, A. 2020. Innovations in Backyard Rental: Models for the 2020s. Johannesburg: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF).

Gardner, D and Rubin, M. 2016. The ‘other half’ of the backlog: (Re)considering the role of backyarding in South Africa. In: Cirolia, L.R., Görgens, T., van Donk, M., Smit, W., and Drimie, S, ed., Upgrading Informal settlements in South Africa: A partnership-based approach. UCT Press: Cape Town, 77-95.

Govender, T., Barnes, J.M., and Pieper, C.H. 2011. The impact of densification by means of informal shacks in the backyards of low-cost houses on the environment and service delivery in Cape Town, South Africa. Environmental Health Insights, 5: 23-52.

Isandla Institute. 2020a. Backyarding: An Important Urban Housing Solution Practice Brief 1. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Isandla Institute. 2020b. Backyarding: Housing vulnerabilities and land occupations under Covid-19. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Isandla Institute. 2020c. Backyarding: Affordability, dignified shelter and Covid-19. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Isandla Institute. 2021a. Legal opinion on service provision to backyard residents living on private land. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Isandla Institute. 2021b. Backyarding: Understanding backyard rental markets better: A synthesis of research findings in eight neighbourhoods in Cape Town. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Isandla Institute. 2021c. Informal Backyard Rental Housing: Policy options and a delineation of responsibility. Cape Town: Isandla Institute.

Kumar, A. 2020. How to respond to Cape Town’s surge in land occupations. GroundUp. 27 July 2020.

Lategan, L. & Cilliers, E. 2013. South Africa’s informal backyard rental sector: linkages with Smart Growth and sustainability concepts. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment. 179:303-314.

Lemanski, C. 2009. Augmented informality: South Africa’s backyard dwellings as a by-product of formal housing policies. Habitat international, 33: 472-484

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Scheba, A and Turok, I. 2020b. Transforming backyard shacks into decent flats. HSRC Review. March 2020.

Scheba, A and Turok, I. 2021. Informal backyard housing development at a crossroads. HSRC Review. March 2021.

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