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Housing crisis: the situation in Canada and South Africa

While France wants to "massively simplify standards" to revive real estate construction, Canada is converting offices into housing and South Africa is taking stock of its major development plan 30 years ago. Explanations from our correspondents on site.


Source: France Info

Justine Leblond, Claire Bargelès


Aerial view in Canada (Toronto)

Canada is facing the biggest housing shortage in its history. In 2023, on average across the country, the rate of empty homes is only 1.5%. To address this shortage, one response is to use empty office buildings to transform them into housing.


In South Africa, when Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, large-scale housing construction was launched, often in the form of small houses, to give them to the most disadvantaged and allow access to property for black and mixed-race populations. But 30 years later, the results of this program, among the most ambitious in the world, are no longer at all satisfactory.


In Canada, a program to convert offices into homes appeals to developers


One city in Canada is particularly advanced in this area: Calgary, in the west of the country. After the pandemic, the number of empty offices reached a record rate of 34%. In 2021, the city therefore launched a rehabilitation plan. To motivate property owners to convert these empty buildings into homes, they receive $75 for every square meter of office space converted. 


The developer, Strategic Group, is in the process of converting more than 400 apartments and the advantage, according to the group's vice-president, development, Ken Toews, says that it moves quickly: "We did our planning in four months and it took less than 12 months to complete construction! Whereas to build a classic tower, it takes three years for the design and obtaining permits, then it takes another two or three years to build it."


Revitalizing city centers


Before embarking on the conversion of an office into housing, there are still several criteria to take into account, the windows, the floor plan which can be converted into apartments or not, the condition of the elevators, the number of parking spaces. In two years, the city of Calgary has already rehabilitated 5% of its empty buildings into housing.


The objective is to respond to the housing crisis, but also to revitalize downtown Calgary. With all the tall glass towers empty, downtown Calgary is pretty deserted. Especially since 2014, explains Natalie Marchut, the director of downtown development at town hall. "When the oil and gas sector began to enter into recession, our city center was largely developed to accommodate commercial offices in this industry. So we are trying to take advantage of this situation to install housing there, but also schools, daycares, grocery stores, green spaces, all the things people want to live in community." In total, according to city hall, more than 12 buildings are being converted into housing right now in downtown Calgary.


In South Africa, housing is lacking and decrepit


Today in South Africa, 30 years after the large-scale construction of houses for the poor, it is still one of the programs of which the ANC party, still in power, is most proud. It is also the most visible. According to official figures, there are nearly 3 million of these homes. These small houses, recognizable from a distance, built on the same model, are nicknamed "RDP houses" after the ANC's flagship program in 1994, the "Reconstruction and Development Program." This ambitious plan aimed to provide healthy housing to populations kept in poverty under Apartheid, who had no access to water, electricity or decent toilets. This right to housing was already enshrined in the Freedom Charter of 1955, as well as in the post-Apartheid Constitution.


If a household earns less than 170 euros per month, they can, in theory, become the owner of one of these homes, free of charge, and will have the right to resell it after 8 years. According to the latest census of 2022 - but these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt according to some experts - almost 30% of South African families live in these "RDP houses."


Waiting list and corruption


But according to the authorities, in the region around Johannesburg, the most populous in the country, there is a waiting list of more than a million people, some of whom registered almost 30 years ago. Many scams have emerged around the allocation procedures and regularly, patience reaches its limits. Residents no longer hesitate to invade the sites and illegally take over houses, sometimes unfinished.


The quality is not always there either. Indeed, buildings, after only a few years, would already need to be rebuilt, and many construction sites also remain abandoned for long periods. All this is also surrounded by suspicions of corruption and embezzlement.


Spatial segregation


Many criticisms also concern the areas where these houses are installed. These “RDP houses” are very often located in townships, on the outskirts of cities, on cheaper land. They are accused of reinforcing the spatial segregation that was created under Apartheid. Their inhabitants find themselves far from centers of activity, and as public transport is still limited, inequalities are reinforced. “We are working to ensure that social housing is located closer to jobs, schools and services,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa aware of the situation, just months before the elections.

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