Special-needs housing still a dream
Two years after the finalisation of a special-needs housing policy, it is yet to be tabled for approval
The housing sector is beset with challenges, most notably a severe housing shortage, a sizeable backlog in housing provision and severe overcrowding. Despite these challenges, government’s efforts in addressing the housing problem must be acknowledged. Between 1994 and 2014, about 2.8 million state-subsidised houses and in excess of 875 000 serviced sites were delivered, benefiting around 12.5 million people. However, with the alarming state the housing sector is in, people with special needs who require access to housing bear an additional burden.
Although the state has taken steps to provide housing to vulnerable groups, particularly people with physical disabilities and the aged, a range of other vulnerable persons who require special-needs housing struggle to access state assistance. Some of these vulnerable groups include persons with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, victims of domestic abuse, orphans, the homeless, persons undergoing substance rehabilitation and parolees, ex-offenders and juvenile offenders. The challenges facing these groups are illustrated by the recent Life Esidimeni tragedy in which an estimated 94 mental healthcare patients died at 16 nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and three hospitals from non-psychiatric related conditions such as dehydration.
In June 2015, the department of human settlements, after extensive consultations with civil society organisations, developed the draft Special Housing Needs Policy and Programme, which was aimed at providing housing opportunities for persons who – for a variety of reasons – are unable to live independently in standard-type housing or require assistance in terms of a safe, supportive and protected living environment and who therefore need some level of care or protection, be it on a permanent or temporary basis. The main objective of the policy is to provide capital grants to approved and registered NGOs “for the acquisition or development of new and/or the extension of and/or upgrading or refurbishment of existing special-housing needs facilities for persons or households with special-housing needs”. However, two years after the finalisation of the policy, it is yet to be tabled for Cabinet approval.
A study by the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found that the policy had not been finalised due to a lack of consensus about which government department’s mandate most appropriately covers the provision of specialneeds housing. Human Settlements expressed the view that while it bears primary responsibility for the implementation of this policy, it is concerned about who bears responsibility for oversight and funding for operational management of the housing post construction.
The report makes the argument that effective intergovernmental cooperation is essential for the execution of the special-needs housing policy. It also criticises the highly bureaucratic nature of the policy’s decision-making structure and how this can cause delays in implementation. The report found that there was a severe burden on nonprofit organisations (NPOs) to assist government in its provision of special-needs housing. While this model has many advantages, the national housing policy framework does not currently make provision for capital grant funding to NPOs that provide housing to people with special needs. In identifying potential solutions to ensure the finalisation of the policy, the report proposes the need for a clear division of roles. At a meeting which included the departments of health, human settlements and social development, and civil society representatives it was acknowledged that currently, NPOs are sent “back and forth” between various government entities and that these delays, due to both insufficient availability of suitable facilities and unaffordable spaces within existing facilities, mean that vulnerable persons are unable to access specialneeds housing.
Other issues raised regarding the policy included the challenge of conducting a socioeconomic impact study of the policy, capacity building, operational and funding support to NGOs which provide accommodation to persons with special needs and the lack of costing for operational management in the policy post construction. For civil society, the main issues were accountability for the failure in providing special-needs housing and cooperative governance between national and provincial government.
In the interim, it is proposed that the scope of the provincial human settlements departments’ decision-making authority is increased while clear norms and standards are set to ensure that NPOs are able to access institutional subsidies to fund their operations.
National and provincial governments need to work together in ensuring that the right to housing for people with special needs is upheld. Extended delays in the finalisation of the policy have real consequences for people with special needs, as the Life Esidimeni tragedy demonstrates.
Sinethemba Memela, Tatenda Muranda and Querida Saal are researchers with the SAHRC
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