How the Nimby Factor Impedes Equal Housing Opportunities in Cape Town

image June, 2016 Housing

This short opinion piece uses the example of the Ruo Emoh (Our Home spelt backwards) Housing Project to argue that the NIMBY (Not in my backyard) factor is extremely detrimental to equal housing development in Cape Town, South Africa. It provides a summary history of the project and the challenges it faced and concludes with a discussion of how NIMBY factors impede spatially equal development, especially in a city as segregated as Cape Town.


“The Ruo Emoh savings members made history in 1999 when they illegally built a formal house overnight on vacant land in Mitchell’s Plain. Although the house that was built in two nights was demolished in 3 hours, the action resulted in negotiations for open land in the immediate vicinity.”

More then a decade ago (1997) a community, composed largely of backyard shack dwellers decided to build their own houses in Mitchell’s Plain Cape Town.  Recognizing that government could never deliver on the promise of housing for all they formed the Ruo Emoh savings scheme and began saving to build their own houses. As part of the South African Homeless People’s Federation (later renamed FEDUP) they identified a piece of in-fill land in Colorado Park, Mitchell’s Plain which was purchased, on their behalf) by the Utshani Fund ( The story of their initial struggle, from which the above quote is taken, is described in this document.

Over the subsequent years numerous obstacles hampered the projects progress; land-use and planning policies were anti-poor and extremely time consuming, government officials were reluctant to provide subsidies to beneficiaries on private land and the local ratepayers association vociferously opposed the development. Over time the community became disheartened and fragmented.

Finally in 2011, after much compromise and back and forth, work to install infrastructure began amidst a feeling of renewed hope and vigor. However no sooner had the contractors arrived on site then the local ratepayers, egged on by their ward councilor, attempted to disrupt construction. In some cases physical conflict was narrowly avoided as ratepayers stood in front of bulldozers. Under political pressure the city reneged on a previous agreement to extend subdivision approval and in July 2011 uTshani Fund (as the developers) received a “cease unlawful activity” notice from the city. The project was stopped at significant cost to the developer with half the infrastructure left, incomplete in the ground. Needless to say the patience, fortitude and planning of an organized community who merely wanted to build their families a safe home was left shattered.


Objections from ratepayers:

Opposition from ratepayers, who never made an effort to truly understand the project, was premised on the assumption that the development would lower property values and overburden basic water, electricity and sewerage infrastructure.  Ironically many of those who objected had backyard shacks in their own homes – where their sons, daughters and relatives lived!

Despite repeated attempts to amicably engage and explain the details of the development the ratepayers, and ward councilor, would not compromise on their often-misinformed presumptions. Through their objections the developers and community reluctantly ceded to a lower density for the project. In reality this would mean less poor people would receive a house, and those who did receive one would have to pay more. It would also mean that at a time when housing provision across South Africa was crying out for medium to high-density projects, which incorporated cross-subsidization and innovate building methods in using state subsidies, an opportunity was lost to create a people centered precedent.

Hence the NIMBY factor was hugely divisive in shaping the project along more conservative lines and, eventually, halting the cumulative efforts of over a decades work. In the case of Ruo Emoh there is absolutely no argument that this interference promoted the common good. It was rooted in self-interest.


Current status:

Subsequent to the above events that cumulated in the “cease works order” uTshani Fund, assisted by Peoples Environmental Planning (PEP) worked tirelessly to find the funding, re-unite the community and overcome the institutional and administrative hurdles needed to restart Ruo Emoh.  In late 2015, after numerous consultations with Province and the City of Cape Town (and many other stakeholders), the project was included in the cities official budget at the level of the new subsidy quantum. All approvals are now in place and at the time of writing the installation of infrastructure is imminent.


The bigger picture:

As many authors, social activists and commentators have noted Cape Town is an inherently spatially unequal city. This inequality encompasses multiple factors stretching from access to basic services and housing to safety and policing (e.g. look no further then the findings of the commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha).

A land and property market that is, at best inaccessible for and at worst fundamentally exclusionary of the urban poor, exacerbates inequality. It is very clear that the market alone will not create more equal cities. More progressive policies need to be, and in some cases have been, implemented (e.g. affordable banking finance for the poor, rental stock, gap housing etc.). What such policies demand, especially in Cape Town, is well located in-fill land on which to develop affordable housing stock so that the urban poor can have equal access to the benefits of the city- a process that, although recognised by the state, moves all too slowly.

As the example cited in this piece demonstrates NIMBY objections can derail this process. This is not to devalue legitimate objections to development (a process which should always be protected) but to argue for a special case when it comes to the development of housing for the urban poor.  In this case, the greater good of the city, and not individual interests should be prioritized and recognised in regulations and action. This would not be an ad hoc decision but part of a carefully planned and considered process that would, downstream, benefit the goal of a more inclusive city.


Noah Schermbrucker on behalf of Peoples Environmental Planning (PEP)