A sustainable livelihood cost-benefit model to enhance the understanding of the dynamics between low income housing and location

  • Sharon Biermann
Keywords: sustainable livelihood, low-income housing, South Africa


To keep pace with increasing urbanisation pressures and a substantial inherited backlog, subsidised low-income housing and services have predominantly been provided on the peripheries of South African cities where land is cheaper and more readily available. While this strategy has been widely praised for its rapid delivery of more than a million low-income housing units. it has been severely critiqued for perpetuating the marginalisation of the poor by restricting their access to urban opportunities and leading to extensive commuting. which absorbs a disproportionate share of their time and already limited disposable income. with associated environmental costs in terms of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. The alternative proposed has been the compact city model, involving curtailing outward expansion. increasing housing densities and promoting public transport. The merits of this model, have however. only been subjected to scant empirical testing in South Africa. This article seeks to make a contribution to the 'location-question' by empirically testing the hypothesis that low income housing in peripheral localities is more costly and less beneficial to society than the same housing provided in more central localities. In order to do this. a sustainable livelihood cost-benefit model was developed and applied in eight subsidised housing locations in two cities. Amongst others, measured variables were transportation costs, travel times. fuel consumption and accessibility to employment and other urban opportunities and amenities. The results indicate that more central localities do not necessarily perform better overall than more peripheral localities on the scores as measured. This is attributed to:

  • the polycentric nature of our cities: and 
  • the relatively lesser importance of access for lower-income households to formal employment nodes than to informal job opportunities within or near the low income settlement itself and in middle to high income residential areas.

In addition to this. the needs of low-income households were found to change over time. which suggests that no single type of location will optimally serve all low income households, while at the same time being affordable to households and government.


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