Opinion: Beware of high-end developments posing as ‘backpackers’

Tracy Hyde, who leads the OCA’s Architecture & Heritage portfolio, wrote the following article for the May edition of ObsLife:

As the demand for housing continues to grow in Cape Town, development is a reality that all residents need to adjust to. However, in several neighbourhoods we see a scenario emerging where the City seems willing to sign off on almost any proposed development, with little scrutiny on whether the development is lawful, sustainable or responsible. And developers, of course, often resort to certain questionable practices designed to get their buildings approved at all costs. This is the first of a series of articles which explores some of these practices that Cape Town residents need to be aware of.

In Observatory, the City of Cape Town has approved a number of large developments on the basis that they are “backpackers” or “boarding houses” when they are in reality apartments, each with their own kitchen and bathroom. This distinction is important because a “backpacker” or “boarding house” designation allows developers to provide fewer parking bays within the grounds of the development. In at least one case, we know that a development was approved as a backpacker only for the owner to advertise the apartments for rent. So, it is clear that a developer can bypass the City’s parking minima simply by calling their development something it isn’t.

Leslie London, an Observatory resident who convenes the Observatory Civic Association’s work on oversight of large developments, says that fewer on-site parking is likely to result in excessive parking on the narrow streets of Observatory which will exacerbate the already problematic parking and traffic congestion in the suburb.

I put these concerns to Marx Mupariwa, Manager for Table Bay District for the CoCT. He argues that in the future there will be less cars, suggesting that the MyCiti bus programme, Metrorail and services such as Uber will reduce the need for cars.

Leslie was unconvinced. He said, “There is currently no MyCity bus routes through Obs, Metrorail is a shambles and Uber taxi drivers stop wherever they want and require parking in-between rides.”

Howard Richman, owner of the Green Elephant backpackers (a real backpackers), says that parking on the street is already a problem and now there are three large developments planned up the road. He is aware that the existing backpackers in Observatory do not reach full capacity throughout the year and doubts that there is sufficient demand for the large quantity of new fake “backpackers” being approved for them to be viable. It’s clearly another trick the developers are using to try and hoodwink the community.

Tauriq Jenkins, Chairperson of the Observatory Civic Association, says: “OCA is in support of responsible development that doesn’t abuse legal loop holes, which among other challenges, may precipitate already existing parking issues. We are seeing an exceptionally high number of large developments being approved by the CoCT, but with little or no consideration for parking requirements and the upgrading of roads to accommodate the additional traffic. OCA would welcome a seamless and efficient public transport system that reduces our reliance on motor cars. It is good for the planet and good for social integration. But for the moment, the City’s policies are making little progress on solving the transport problem and Observatorians are plunged further into traffic gridlock, parking mayhem and unruly rat-run drivers.”

Most of the southern suburbs are zoned Single Residential 1, which means they do not have to deal with developers concealing luxury apartments as ‘backpackers’. However, in areas such as Observatory, Salt River and Woodstock this may be a particular problem.

Cape Town is in desperate need of better accommodation, which includes well-placed and affordable housing for all residents, including students and working people. But the planning process run by the City does not deal with development applications with this larger view in mind. Rather, it approves developments on an individual basis, allowing developers motivated solely by maximising their profit to get their developments approved as they wish, without consideration of the cumulative impact of a series of such approvals on whole communities. There is also no real effort made by developers or city officials to ensure inclusive housing is fostered.

Resident can monitor applications that present themselves as backpackers by scrutinising plans for whether each housing unit has a separate bathroom or kitchen. If it does, it is not a backpacker. Bring this to the attention of your ward councillor and insist he or she takes it up with the relevant officials.

Any developer who fraudulently presents their development as a backpacker but who then markets the units as apartments after the building is complete can report the case to Sharon Damon at the City as a Zoning Contravention for further action.

Tracy Hyde is a member of the Observatory Civic Association responsible for Architecture and Heritage. This article originally appeared in ObsLife.