The Suburban Commune: A case for Johannesburg

The suburban commune is a motivation for developing a different social structure, it is not a utopia, perhaps overly optimistic. The suburban commune intends to highlight the opportunities of a shared living. An idea to readjust South African cities for better spatial justice and encourage household agency and development, to restructure the sprawling suburbs for spatial justice.

Gustavo Gutierrez writes that for the poor it’s not about generous relief action but building a new social order.

Mid July 2021, South Africa experienced the worst violent riots since apartheid, ignited by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. Although politically driven to make South Africa ungovernable, it emphasises the fragility of South Africa’s equality and housing crises. The heavy rains in KwaZulu Natal during 2022, showcased vulnerability of low-income residents to the effects of the global ecological crises.

The entanglement of difficulties within South African cities are supplemented with the lack of social capital within vulnerable and low-income areas, limiting the ease of agency and subsequently obstructing the development of these cities. Social capital is a nuanced concept that can be understood as the wealth of knowledge and skills readily available that an individual can draw upon from people socially connected to them.

Attempts to address the housing crisis with social and affordable housing has its own limits and difficulties. In 2020, a developer in Johannesburg, brought 2000 affordable housing units to the inner-city market, it was hailed as a good response, well integrated within the city. The affordable housing market celebrates standardisation as means to keep costs down and reach economies of scale, it fails to recognize diverse households. Current affordable housing models concern itself more about the business of housing than the development of the resident.

The suburban commune investigates a shared living framework for tenure safety, financial capacity building, combined with sharing social capital to encourage household agency coupled with improved household cash flow to build a more just social order.

A case for the suburban block as city resource 

The suburban commune oscillates between the perspective of the household and the perspective of the city. South African cities’ diverse social life was amputated largely in the 1960’s’ with the Group Areas Act, such as the case of Sophiatown in Johannesburg, replacing the once culturally rich neighbourhood with bland apartheid spatial planning. Since then, spatial professionals have looked for ways to achieve spatial justice within South African cities, to revive the once diverse neighbourhoods, it’s a slow and hard process often with politics involved. 

Top down or bottom up, rather middle in

The suburban commune motivates for a middle-in approach. Investing in and developing the emerging and so-called middle-income households and suburbs, enabling these households to be custodians for the development of our cities, having agency. Shifting agency and responsibility to the public, away from capitalistic and top-down developers.

The middle-in approach attempts to first strengthen these households, to be resilient, increasing the stability within neighbourhoods, and secondly sharing that capacity with low-income households. To equip the so-called middle-income household to aid and develop suburbs to be inclusive, spatially just and an environment of growth.

Suburbs are critiqued for its sprawling nature, the exclusivity and general blandness, although offers an allure to the residents, for its gardens, the driveways, the safety, quietness, and family orientated living. 

The suburb holds immense potential for building a different social order. The middle-income suburb has land, low density, social capital, maintained infrastructure, service delivery, social infrastructure such as schools, religious and recreational spaces, parks and green spaces, shops, and political weight. 

Land readjustment as a tool offers the opportunity to adjust our suburban city blocks to host the suburban commune. Land readjustment is mostly used to modify the organisation of a neighbourhood to allow for better road access for service delivery with structured infrastructure such as the re-blocking of organic formed neighbourhoods. Whereas land readjustment for the suburban commune entails the readjustment of property lines and space within the existing suburban block and roadways. 

We want land 

We want land, a slogan from the Black First Land First political party highlights the deep political and emotional connection we as South Africans have with land. Land, or otherwise tenure is key in the restructuring for spatial justice. Public projects such as the Westbury bridge in Johannesburg, showed its failure as a neighbourhood upliftment project. The capital injection is now a relic, a once political monument of Transport Orientated Development, once a crime hotspot, is now an artefact of failed understanding, a white elephant in ruins due to a service delivery protest. Residents commented that the distribution of the financial capital could have been better spent if it went to the ongoing development of education within the area. The need for operational cost or a running cost directed to developing residents is crucial and sometimes more beneficial than large once-off capital injections such as the Westbury bridge, yet both has its place.

Consider the hard lockdowns of South Africa in 2020 with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly Level 5 and 4, when public space was temporarily amputated from citizens and their movement highly restricted. Vulnerable residents were captured within overcrowded houses, some forced to live in conditions of increased domestic violence. The household home needs to be at the centre of the discussion of restructuring the city for spatial justice. Residents cannot solely rely on public projects to change their cities. We need a reform in housing.  

Not only a reform in the structure and organisation of the house but also the location of it. We want well-located land, should be the slogan. The middle-income suburb comes into play for providing easy access to the city and economic opportunities.

South Africans are raised with the aspiration to own land. Land is seen as wealth and its distribution is highly contested in South Africa. Land is underutilised especially in higher income neighbourhoods. Suburbs could be a resource for the city, as dreadful as their existence is for being monotonous, they offer built and reasonably well-maintained infrastructure, service delivery, schools, parks, political weight, and importantly social capital.

The suburban commune intends to benefit from the underutilised land in the middle-income suburb, motivating for a Community Land Trust (CLT) for individual suburban blocks, who will act like a body corporate or residents association, managing the suburban commune, its workings and development

A CLT consists of one third residents, one third professionals and one third city officials. The CLT will operate as a commercial entity, providing the residents with much needed technical support.

The suburban commune and CLT requires communal land with residents’ private properties connected to it. Obtaining the communal land could be potentially tricky, but achievable with negotiations with residents and using tools such as land readjustment.

The suburban commune motivates for the donation or exchange of a portion of resident’s backyard. Creating a central shared green space accompanied by block specific resources, coupled with property line and tenure readjustment, allowing various erf sizes to accommodate diverse household needs.  

The suburban commune considers a matrix of tenure namely community land trust, freehold, sectional title, rent to buy, rental – residential, rental – retail, rental – commercial. And acknowledges multiple forms of incomes and block developers.

The motivation for the complicated tenure structure is to acknowledge diverse housing needs and fluctuating economic capacities of households, for instance a household headed by a single parent or a household with three generations have different housing needs. This model allows for various sizes and types of properties, in opposition to the standardisation of current housing models.

Further consider if residents could adjust their housing to their economic capacity, that they could either sell or buy a piece of property as needed. Or temporary sell the piece to the suburban commune when they have an emergency and need cash, only to later buy it back once they are financially stable. This can be a difficult and complicated process, but it is not unachievable.  Patch 22 is an open building in the Netherlands. The building is designed to allow tenants to buy and sell areas within their apartment and adjust the internal walls to accommodate these changes.

The opportunity exists to readjust our suburbs, to suburban communes, either all the blocks, a couple of blocks or partially adjust of some blocks, establishing a collective of suburban communes in a neighbourhood which can share resources and knowledge.

The stokvel and financing opportunities

The suburban commune acts as manager, developer, and bank of the block, aligned with the thinking of a stokvel and bouwgroepen. The suburban commune is structured as an organisation to support households with microloans coupled with building and maintaining shared resources. For example, a baker in Westbury, a low-income area, received a contract to supply baked goods to a nearby office canteen, the baker would be paid after first delivery. The baker did not have the cash flow to first bake the goods with payment later and thus lost the economic opportunity. Consider if the baker was part of a suburban commune, which had a commercial kitchen as a shared resource and financial support such as micro loans to aid in cash flow. The baker could rent out a portion of the kitchen either a dedicated workspace or a time of day. The rent will be subsidised by the suburban commune, reducing the cost, and allowing an affordability to the small business owner. The kitchen will be maintained by the suburban commune, alleviating the cost to the business owner.

This allows the baker to have access to commercial and large-scale equipment, access to microloans to aid in cash flow, sharing social capital with other bakers and chefs using the kitchen, and not to work from home. In some cases, in low-income areas the business often overtakes the home leaving little space for living and recreation. Consider a day-care in Westbury, the house was converted to a day-care but subsequently forced the family to live in these little spaces or the one left over room.

The suburban commune will need to be a professional entity with regulations, adhering to formal accounting strategies and laws of South Africa, it cannot be an informal system. The suburban commune will require a stable source of income, to allow it to develop shared resources and subsidise rent.

The aim is that the suburban commune will own property in the block, act as landlord for apartment buildings and retail spaces, renting at market related prices and investing the financial means to cross subsidise the workings of the suburban commune. A further motivation for shared resources such as the shared commercial kitchen, is that it will be used by multiple groups reducing the cost to the individual and requiring less subsidy. The suburban commune could benefit from government funding, consider instead of funding social housing organisations who build for the business of housing, building on inexpensive land far away from economic opportunities, building for scale and standardisation, we fund suburban communes. In Los Angeles, The Backyard Homes Project by LA-Mas aid homeowners in building Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s). LA-Mas supports homeowners with financial, design and construction support for these ADU’s in exchange that the ADU is rented out for 5 years to Section 8 voucher holders. The Section 8 voucher program is the federal government’s program for assisted rent for vulnerable residents to gain access to decent housing in the private market.

Social capital and household agency 

Social capital, the quiet missing link. Apartheid is entrenched in our society; We are still separated. Consider two children, one from a middle-income suburb and one from a low-income area. One is faced with daily struggles of safety, limited food, overcrowding, lack of service delivery and limited education whereas the other is offered with a warm bed, safety and comfort, opportunities, and encouragement to learn from the neighbour who works as an accountant and can aid with homework, the child has a wealth of knowledge and skillsets readily available. Consider if we could cross subsidise social capital. If we could create a neighbourhood sharing intangible social resources, increased density and bringing vibrancy to the dull suburban block.

Social capital is fundamental to the development of South African cities, to rectify the severe damages of apartheid, to encourage household agency and possibilities. Household agency is a means for families to contribute to the development of cities, to help define how they would like to live, to be active citizens less dependent and influenced by government.

In summary the suburban commune highlights that we need a reform in housing, we need to cross subsidise social capital, we need access to micro loans to improve cash flow and financial capacity building, we need tenure safety to encourage households to become custodians of the development of our cities to have agency in its workings and alleviate some of the difficulties within.