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Somerset Nurse’s’ Home to become affordable housing

The City of Cape Town has rezoned the site of the old Helen Bowden Nurses’ Home for affordable housing, but activist occupation continues to stand in the way of development.

By Mark van Dijk

, |

Somerset Nurse’s’ Home to become affordable housing

The City of Cape Town has rezoned the site of the old Helen Bowden Nurses’ Home for affordable housing, but activist occupation continues to stand in the way of development.

By Mark van Dijk

, |

3 min read

After years of controversy, the old Helen Bowden Nurses’ Home near Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront is set to be developed into social housing following the City’s decision to rezone the site for this purpose. However, the building remains occupied by the Reclaim The City activist group, who moved in on March 2017 and renamed the site Ahmed Kathrada House.

‘Struggles of poor people’

The building was a former home for nurses who worked at the nearby Somerset Hospital, but it had long been left empty and derelict. Many had hoped – and, in truth, many politicians had promised – that the site would be redeveloped into affordable housing, but by 2017 no affordable housing had been built in Cape Town’s inner city or its immediate surrounding suburbs.

‘It was clear that the provincial government was unwilling to listen to the struggles of poor and working-class people in need of affordable housing in the inner city. Many of our members had nowhere else to go,’ Reclaim The City claimed at the time.

In April 2017, about a month after the initial occupation, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wrote that:

‘It is important to note that affordable housing does not mean free housing, which cannot be achieved in the inner city (or even on well-located suburban land). For a start, it would be impossible to replicate the massive subsidy this would require for more than a tiny proportion of people on the waiting list. How would one decide who would benefit from such a huge and unreplicable “bonanza”? How would it pass the constitutional test of rationality, equity and cost-effectiveness?’

By then, though, it was clear that the two sides – the City on one side, the activists on the other – would not agree on the issue. They still can’t agree on what to call the property.

Deteriorated conditions

By February 2019, conditions in the building had deteriorated even further. The hundreds of residents had no electricity or running water. Drains were blocked. Rubbish remained uncollected. Toilets were overflowing or blocked with sand. In June 2019, the provincial government claimed that it had spent R18 million since in the previous July on security at the home, with the province’s Department of Public Works saying that it was spending R2.9 million a month on security there. Nobody pays rent.

Reports of assault and sexual abuse at the home continue to surface, despite Reclaim The City’s rules that ‘everybody who lives inside an occupation must be a member of Reclaim the City’, and its insistence that ‘house leaders are elected at Congress every year and are responsible for adopting and enforcing house rules to govern the house.’

Rezoning confirmed

January 2020 appeared to bring a breakthrough, when the City of Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements, Malusi Booi, confirmed that the site had been rezoned. This would allow for the development of social housing on almost 11 hectares.

But in his State of the Province Address in February, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said that the housing developments were being held up by the illegal occupiers.

‘Both the Woodstock Hospital and Helen Bowden mixed housing project sites are overrun by illegal occupants ­– many of whom were encouraged to take their criminal action by registered NGOs purporting to stand for land redistribution,’ he said. ‘How ironic, then, that these very organisations are driving the exact opposite outcome. The longer these sites are illegally occupied, and the more costly delays we suffer, the less we’ll be able to deliver. To these occupiers I say, vacate these premises so that we can build homes for those who have waited patiently for decades to receive much-deserved redress.’

Reclaim The City issued an immediate response.

‘The Premier tries to paint our occupations as unlawful, but the reality is that we are the same people who would benefit from state-subsidised affordable housing – if only the Province built it,’ it said in a Facebook post. ‘The Province has failed poor and working-class families over and over again. It has refused to prioritise the development of affordable housing in well-located areas. And now it is blaming people who need homes for its lack of delivery.’

The stalemate continues.

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