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Bridge Beat

Aug 19, 2019

DURBAN DIARIES #4 – 3,000 Social housing units in 3 years

By Thursday, the series of PowerPoint presentations from Durban’s municipal officials were over and it was time to find some way to actually help.

We began Thursday by pulling aside key players to discuss that most powerful of brainstorming questions:  What’s holding you back? An hour of discussion followed. Issues were identified, ranging from co-ordination to problems with the private sector to an incredibly long planning and consultation process.

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Brainstorming with the eThekwini Team. Take note that when they succeed, it’s these leading women who will have made it happen.  

Our discussion on Thursday led to an identified goal for the group: 3,000 units in 3 years. That’s an ambitious goal in any city. Here it’s positively audacious.  When the Deputy City Manager set it out, every official in the room suddenly felt pressure to deliver. In fact, Team Canada suddenly felt under pressure, too. How can we help deliver on this goal?


On Friday, the stage was ours. We decided to underline three ideas that we felt would actually deliver units.


  1. The Fast Track –We recommended that officials prioritize three key projects and have the accountable people meet weekly, with the senior staff joining at least monthly. The municipality is divided into 8 clusters so you can imagine that priority alignment is a day-in and day-out battle. You can’t deliver housing in three years if your engineers tell you they will get the housing when they get to it. Ok, ok, you’re from Toronto and you know where the name comes from. Same basic idea, but here it’s all the more important.
  2. Municipal Incentives – We could not pick and choose among possible municipal incentives (tax rebates, fee waivers…) without knowing more nitty gritty than the week allows. Our recommendation was to ensure that whatever it choses, that these are 100% clear and available to the housing project.


  3. Use of the Private Sector – The plan has always been to use the “private sector” to deliver housing. But what they mean by “private sector” is not what you might think. It’s really an equivalent to non-profits, with some private parties creating pure market units. Think of it as though Toronto Community Housing catalyzed redevelopment and ended with non-profits running the social housing (instead of itself), with some funding coming from the sale of land of condo units to a private developer. (When I say it like that, they could be on to something we could use more often.)


    We had two main messages on this. The first was that the Request for Proposals through which they bring private players to the table has to be clear. All of the policies and all of the goals set on the public side, must find their way to contract through the prism of the RFP. The point here is to make sure the competition is on the points the public side wants it to be on – price, schedule, vision, operating capacity etc., and avoids discounts for risks it can control (such as zoning).


    The second main point related to profit sharing. Asks eThikwini: “How do you make sure the partner does not make too much profit?” Our answer was :”Maybe you don’t.” We emphasized that alignment is key. If the public benefits with every Rand the private guy makes, so much the better.  For a for-profit company, that’s dividends. For a non-profit, that’s equity that can be used on another site.


  4. Community Engagement. A funny thing happened at our session; we said we had 3 key recommendations and yet, we ended with 4. We had a host of other ideas to share, but as the session drew to an end, our “Closer”, Toronto Councillor Shelley Carroll, proceeded to give a master class in the power of community engagement. It was goose-bump provoking and promoted engagement to being one of our key recommendations – as it always should have been. Stepping down from the podium, she preached what she was practicing on the spot and talked about the importance of communicating with the impacted communities openly and honestly, and how to engage and empower community leadership. No one checking their emails while Councillor Carroll spoke.
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Prior to her master class on engagement, Councillor Carroll discusses Municipal Incentives. Vancouver’s Managing Director of Affordable Housing, Abi Bond, whose childhood hero was Nelson Mandela, is delighted to receive a thank you gift. We were all touched by the gift and Abi held her composure best. I went mute (which is rare) and Councillor Carroll was moved to tears. Abi must have drawn strength from the Zulu bead work you see in the picture.    


Before I end, I wanted to acknowledge the fourth member of our team, Bob Cohen of Montreal. Bob had to leave us due to a family matter. Both his company and his expertise in community based housing were very much missed.

Thanks also to Rooftops Canada – Barry Pinsky and Brad Lester, and the Canadian the South Africans all claim as theirs own – Lizette Zuniga - for your irrepressible commitment to housing around the world.


And so our time in eThekwini comes to an end. What we all really hope for – more than anything – is to be invited back in 3 years to see the housing that this team has created. While 3,000 units is an audacious goal, some may say it is only scratching the surface of the issue. To which I say, so what? For any family whose life is improved by the housing that is created, the unit they are in is the only one that counts.



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