Balancing community needs with developer’s needs
Communication is key12th Feb 2021
Property development is about more than buying low, adding value and selling high. It’s about creating communities because, without the potential to be part of a community, no-one will buy into a development. This is why it is important to not only envision the community you want to create, but also to take cognisance of the existing community, and to balance their needs with those of the development and any future residents.
It’s well understood the world over that different neighbourhoods, suburbs and even towns or cities undergo cycles of value over time. The familiar ‘boom, slump, recovery’ sequence is a bit of a simplification but it explains how, when prices are low, smart, upwardly mobile (often young) people buy into the area, and start renovating, pushing prices up, boosting the local property market and stimulating local business development.
Then, slowly, prices start dropping relative to neighbouring areas – perhaps as those areas start hitting their boom. And then, once they’ve fallen far enough, a whole new crop of upwardly mobile investors buy in at low prices.
Of course, in South Africa, the legacy of apartheid spatial planning creates another layer of complexity with its own potential for conflict. This is particularly apparent in communities that managed to stay together despite the Group Areas Act only to disintegrate in the face of post-apartheid gentrification.
Gentrification vs upgrading
Now there is no denying that some areas that are in the slump phase of the cycle could do with some upgrading, but it should not be at the expense of the existing community. And that’s where developers need to be particularly sensitive. Of course, the slump cycle is the perfect time to invest, and – with clever development – it is possible to hasten the recovery. But a ‘recovery’ that does not provide for existing residents is no solution at all, as it merely pushes the ‘problem’ to the periphery. And those ‘problems’ are not problems; very often they are people and families.
So how can you upgrade with sensitivity?
‘It’s all about communication,’ says Nadia Agherdine of the Salt River Heritage Society (SRHS). She goes on to describe how a developer put in plans for an eight-storey block of bachelor flats in Salt River and, sticking to the letter of the law, put one small notice in the local community newspaper, put up one notice at the site and – somewhat disingenuously – one at the library, which was closed due to Covid. But the Tatler notice was seen, the community spoke out, and the development has been put on hold.
‘But we’re not just anti-development,’ she adds. ‘There is another development going up near the station. The area is grimy, dirty and delinquent. This development will change the whole area, and it suits the needs of the community. Salt River is a community of families; we don’t need bachelor flats, we need starter family homes. Developers need to have consideration of the culture of the community they are coming into, and the needs of the community.’
Balance sensitivity with practicality
The most important thing, says Nadia, is to communicate with the community. Salt River, for example, is a Heritage Protection Overlay Zone (HPOZ), so no development can take place without significant community input.
‘Talk to us (SHRS)’, says Nadia. ‘We are one of the registered bodies in Salt River, and we hold quite a bit of weight and clout.’
But heritage is about more than buildings and architectural style. It’s about community. ‘So,’ says Nadia, ‘develop with the community. Find out needs at ground level. What are the people looking for? What can they afford? Get a balance between community needs and developer needs. Meet in the middle. I believe there is an opportunity.’
Just as a top-of-mind example, she suggests perhaps offering unfinished units at a competitive price to existing community members, as there are many neighbourhood artisans who can do the tiling, painting and such-like as the new owners can afford. This is not the only possible solution, but it’s an indication that some lateral thinking is called for, and the best way to generate new ways of thinking about a development is to consult with people who have a different perspective. So, to reiterate: communicate.
As Nadia says: ‘If you know better, you can do better.’