Inner-city pressure and living somewhere in-between 

On a cold winter’s day in 2014, I sat awkwardly in the office of the person managing a high-rise apartment building in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). The building is a former office block that has been renovated by the city’s largest private affordable housing company and is currently rented as residential accommodation. Affordable housing is commercial rental housing that caters to people who earn too much to qualify for state-subsidised housing, otherwise known as social housing, but too little to purchase their own properties on the regular market. Rents in the building in which this incident took place range from R1325 (£65 or Ksh9695) for a studio room to R3589 (£174 or Ksh26261) for a 2-bedroom apartment. I was in the building to interview the manager about the ins and outs of her job, and to then interview tenants living there. However, our interview was interrupted by a distraught tenant. She was visibly upset, and I soon realised that she had been locked out of her apartment. Unfortunately, this was not an exceptional situation. The housing company, like others working in Johannesburg’s inner-city, use lock-outs, or the threat thereof, to ensure that tenants pay their rent. Doing research into the inner-city rental housing market over a period of two years, I had frequently heard about the threat of lock-outs, but this was my first time witnessing the effects of one actually being enforced. Several building managers had told me that they find ways to avoid having to implement them, negotiating with tenants or giving them advanced warning so that they have time to scrounge money together to make a payment and stave off punishment. In this case, however, all efforts to prevent the lock-out had failed. It was the middle of the month, and rent, usually due on the 1st, still had not been paid. The building manager therefore had no choice but to adhere to the demands of her job, even though this had obviously disturbing and upsetting consequences. However, to mitigate the harm caused to the tenant and her young child, the manager, who also lives in the building, arranged for them to sleep in her own apartment that night, whilst they tried to locate some funds to begin repaying the debt. In this case, the pressures induced by fluctuating fortunes and a ruthless cost-recovery business model, as well as the strain to personal relations and consciences this induces, became stark.  

Although people living in affordable housing generally have stable salaries and employment, as the incident above shows, they too can experience downturns in luck, lose money and jobs and find themselves out on the street. Thus, whilst the plight of chronically un(der)employed people and those living in informal settlements is cause for concern and rightly receives much critical attention, it is important to bear in mind that the middle-classes too are caught between Johannesburg’s extremes. In what follows, I trace the (pre-covid-19) experiences of people living in social and affordable housing in inner-city Johannesburg. As will become clear, their lives are shaped by economic pressure, as they work hard to pay their rent and forgo other forms of social interaction whilst striving to get by. At the same time, they also encounter other forms of pressure, as they contend with difficult and unpleasant environments and navigate spaces marked by fear of crime and concerns about safety.  

Other pieces in this blog series have argued that pressure can be theorised as an imbalance between (real or imagined) economic demands and concomitant abilities to fulfil them. However, imbalances also extend beyond economic concerns and encompass desires about living situations, ease of daily life, and safety and security. In inner-city Johannesburg, pressure emanates from the fact that the prevailing urban reality does not match people’s aspirations for central accommodation that is close to jobs, schools and social services, but also provides comfort, peace of mind and liveable environments. Faced with this mismatch or imbalance between aspirations and reality, people are forced to live in-between, to reside somewhere and make do, whilst aspiring to be elsewhere, but simultaneously knowing that there are few avenues through which this aspiration can be realised. The cumulative effects of this pressure is a form of resignation and detachment, a sense of living in-between and accepting what one can get from a vastly unequal socio-economic landscape.  

Johannesburg is a deeply divided and fragmented city, with areas of wealth located predominantly in the north and poverty concentrated in the south. This spatial divide sustains the apartheid division of the city, with formerly white areas offering the best living standards, social amenities and employment opportunities. Former townships and new informal settlements continue to suffer from poor social services, few job opportunities and concentrations of poverty and unemployment. Because of this spatial divide, centrally-located, affordable housing is urgently needed. Social and affordable housing developments in the inner-city have been able to provide this, to some degree, making the area an attractive location for middle-income households. To be middle-income in the South African context is to earn roughly between R1300 (£63 or Ksh9500) and R14000 (£680 or Ksh102311) per month. Households earning these amounts earn too much to qualify for free government-provided housing. However, they earn too little to secure housing through the commercial market. Social and affordable housing companies consequently try and fill this gap, offering people small, basic rental units in central locations, from which they can access public transport, job opportunities and social amenities.   

People told me that they moved to the inner-city precisely because it allows them to escape some of the stresses that come with living in peripheral locations. Numerous tenants pointed out that now they are living in the inner-city, they can avoid the long and expensive commutes and poor social amenities that characterise life in the townships:   

It’s easy for me to get taxis and the shops are around me. If I knock off late at work I just take one taxi, instead of two or three to get to the lokshin [township]…. It’s very easy here in Jozi. I don’t have stress.  

In Tembisa [a township situated in Johannesburg’s East Rand] we spend too much on transport but now we can save, expenses are gone. We are saving a lot! 

My needs are so close to me when I’m here. When I’m at location I have to catch taxi when I want to go to town – actually everything I want when I’m around [the inner-city] I can get it. It’s very better. 

However, whilst living centrally eases some stresses and pressure, accessing well-located housing comes with other pressures and problems. Prospective tenants must demonstrate their economic stability, providing two months’ worth of bank statements, identification documents, salary slips or affidavits from the police attesting to their regular sources of (legal) income. They are also required to pay deposits and one month’s rent upfront. As many people have fluctuating incomes and rely on informal livelihoods, these stipulations make housing hard to access and beyond the reach of many. Those who do meet these criteria also face financial difficulties or uncertainties, as the incident with which I started this piece shows. People can lose their jobs, fall ill or incur unexpected expenses, which can make paying monthly rental difficult. Other tenants also spoke about constant financial worries or stress. Although social and affordable housing companies attempt to maintain rentals at rates that they consider inexpensive, increases happen due to inflation, increasing maintenance and repair costs and profit margins being squeezed. This creates a disjuncture between what housing companies consider ‘affordable’ and what people can actually afford to pay. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that both social and affordable housing companies are run as profit-making enterprises. To remain sustainable, they pass these costs on to their tenants, leaving many struggling to pay. The decisions and timing informing rental increases are not communicated to tenants, adding stress, uncertainty and making planning difficult. With exasperation, one tenant sums up the position many find themselves in, declaring, ‘The main problem that we are having is the rent issue, it’s affecting us big time; it’s putting a strain on our lives!’ 

Navigating this economic pressure necessitates flexibility and adaptability. Many people have resorted to sharing and sub-letting apartments, dividing the rooms and monthly rentals between several households. However, living in sub-letting arrangements can often be a source of tension, as people from different backgrounds and lifestyles are forced to live in cramped conditions with one another. Although no incidents of violence or outright conflict were shared with me, low-level disagreements and discomfort are common. People also spoke about the pressure of affording the rent every month, whether living in a sub-let or not. Cognisance of economic pressure is constant, and defines the parameters of social action and sociability for many people, limiting their abilities to enjoy their lives and think about other things. As one tenant plaintively exclaims, ‘It’s like you are working only for paying the rent. What next about life? [sic] Nothing you can do!’   

Preoccupation with economic issues means that people do not devote time and energy to other activities. Although some housing companies organise social events for their tenants, there is little to no organised political or social life in the area. Feelings of community are absent, and people are generally isolated and concerned with their own wellbeing. A local councillor sums the situation up as follows:  

Here in inner-city it’s not easy of that [to form community] because most of the people that are staying in the inner-city are from different provinces, they only influx here for a better living, that’s the only thing they are here for. They are not interested in anything, so if they can get a job and work, after that, by the end of the month they just go home. 

A housing supervisor also echoes this when, when asked if he thinks that there is a communal atmosphere in Hillbrow he responds, 

I wouldn’t say that much, because everybody here is in Joburg looking for a job. It’s not like when you are coming from in the township or in the rural areas where it’s in a community and we grew up together, because everybody here comes from a different place, so everybody is looking for a job, looking for their own living to survive. 

These feelings of detachment and self-preservation also mean that people are not invested in the area and do not feel any long-term attachment to it. They are, rather, living in-between, trying their best to make the most of the circumstances they find themselves in, whilst fixating their long-term aspirations elsewhere.  

Aspirations to be elsewhere are compounded by other pressures and anxieties that come with living in the inner-city. Despite improvements in safety and policing, crime rates in the area remain high. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and mugging are common, and violent incidents regularly occur. Knowledge of crime informs how tenants live in the area and navigate its spaces. The following accounts were shared by residents, demonstrating how people come to map spaces of the inner city according to experiences, temporalities and geographies of anxiety, noting the times and places in which they feel afraid or exposed. When comparing the inner city to Soweto, where he is originally from, one resident explains, ‘It’s [the inner city] very very different [from Soweto] ‘cause there I know even if I’m in the street at 8 o’clock at night, I don’t have a problem. But here by six o’clock, 7 o’clock I have to be in the house because it’s not safe out there’. Another tenant living in the CBD also cautions that ‘In town, it’s dangerous if you walk at night and all that, but during the day it’s safe, you just have to look after yourself… Just to be careful, you mustn’t walk outside after 8’.  Living in the inner city, then, necessitates adapting one’s routines and movements to prevailing fears and insecurities. Another resident demonstrates this starkly when she explains,  

I saw a person being shot back there at Tudhope Street [one of the main thoroughfares in the area]… It’s difficult but you have to learn to deal with it and take care of yourself, you need to put yourself in order; certain time, such things they make you stay in the house. 

It thus becomes clear that for many people, life in the inner city is lived in relation to feelings of endangerment and anxiety, and their spatial experiences and abilities to use the area and the amenities it offers are circumscribed by these fears. These fears also mean that they are never at home or settled, but are constantly on-edge, anxious and thinking about being elsewhere.  

The inner-city is also one of the most densely populated areas of Johannesburg. It is currently home to a much larger population than it was originally built to accommodate. Maintenance of the public spaces in the area and refuse collection have not kept pace with the increased stresses a large population place on them. Many parts of the area are consequently run-down and choked with litter and grime. This creates an unpleasant living environment, with many tenants complaining about finding it dirty and overcrowded. It has also become an increasingly enticing location for young families. However, the area was not designed to accommodate young families, leading to a severe shortage of green spaces and recreation facilities. Most buildings too are not adapted to the needs of families and do not have safe spaces in which children can play. During my period of fieldwork, a horrifying incident in which a young child playing in the stairwell of a high-rise building fell to her death was fresh in the minds of many, adding to the sense of unease and anxiety that permeated the neighbourhood.   

For these reasons, the inner-city is not a place that many people aspire to live in or harbour long-term plans of remaining in once they have arrived. It is a fundamentally transitory space, used as a landing area for people trying to gain footholds in the urban economy. However, despite the fact that few people I spoke to articulated aspirations to remain in the area, Johannesburg’s fractured and unequal landscape means that many find themselves stuck there. There are few other centrally-located accommodation options available, and the housing market does not cater to middle-income households. In response, people decide to remain in the area, tolerating its pressures and anxieties as there aren’t any better options. As one resident prosaically reflects, ‘For now I’m stuck here, but I don’t have a problem’. Tenants therefore resign themselves to remaining in the inner city and their experience is characterised by detachment, endurance and acceptance. This is a stressful situation for people. However, stress doesn’t manifest in feelings of urgency or desperation, but rather in resignation, as people resign themselves to finding ways to get by in difficult circumstances.  Another tenant explained, ‘It’s just that you have to accept the condition, the way of living where you are. You have to accept’, whilst another sums up the way many relate to the inner city by stating pragmatically, ‘It’s not a place I like, but I can live with it’

Occupying the middle (income) ground is thus a state of living in-between, of living in an undesirable area, aspiring to be elsewhere, but unable to find somewhere better and still affordable. It is a state of pressure in which opportunities for fulfilling aspirations, enjoying comfort and peace of mind, and residing in a place that people feel some form of affinity for, are not matched by the prevailing realities. Thus, whilst middle-income households are free from some of the other pressures and anxieties more precarious people face, they encounter pressures that derive from living in a vastly unequal society, where the chasm between extremes is immense and hard to breach. The opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their relatively stable social positions are limited and constrained by geographic, social and economic pressures and anxieties.    

Aidan Mosselson is currently a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh. His research agenda focuses on diverse forms and experiences of social and spatial inequality and marginalisation, and works to overcome conceptual divides separating the Global South and Global North. He has undertaken research that analyses processes of urbanisation and development in the Global South as well as socio-material infrastructures of migration, labour, race and care in Britain. He has previously held a Newton International Fellowship (2018-2020) as well as an Urban Studies Foundation International Fellowship (2017-2018).

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