Accommodation and Tenuous Livelihoods in Johannesburg’s Inner City: the ‘Rooms’ and ‘Spaces’ Typologies


‘Rooms’ and ‘spaces’ are two closely linked forms of accommodation where the unit of occupation and exchange is a portion of a larger building or property, within which services and facilities are shared. Through participant observation and qualitative interviews, this study explores two buildings featuring informal rooms and spaces and one building featuring formal rooms and spaces in Johannesburg’s inner city. The research demonstrated the incredible resilience of occupants in the face of an extreme shortage of affordable accommodation in Johannesburg’s inner city (Tissington 2013). Rooms and spaces in the inner city represented two of very few typologies research participants were aware of that allowed them access to the livelihood opportunities Johannesburg had to offer. The flexibility and diversity of rooms and spaces on the informal market enabled occupants to cope with insecure livelihood opportunities. While formal rooms represented the most stable support to those specific occupants, there were several ‘barriers to entry’ including the prerequisite of a stable income. However, the findings suggested an adverse relationship between accommodation and livelihoods demonstrated by the three ‘forms’ of rooms and spaces, where the only form available to people with the least secure livelihoods is that which, in turn, subjects them to the greatest insecurity. While one should ‘do no harm’ where aspects of accommodation are ‘currently working’ (Carey 2009:2), there is scope for targeted and differentiated intervention in some forms of rooms and spaces, in support of livelihoods.

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  1. 1.

    This report utilises the geographical boundaries of the ‘inner city’ as stipulated by the City of Johannesburg (2004a), from Yeoville and Braamfontein in the north to Marshalltown and Benrose in the south, and Vrededorp and Fordsburg in the west to Jeppestown, Bertams and Troyeville in the east.

  2. 2.

    In this report, ‘interviewee’ refers to a person who interviewed as part of the more formal semi-structure in-depth interviews. ‘Participant’ refers to a ‘general’ participant spoken to during participant observation. The term ‘participants’ is used to refer to both interviewees and general participants.

  3. 3.

    The mean number of residential moves for migrants since coming to Johannesburg was 7.5 times. Only around 13 % expected to be in the same accommodation within the next 2 years (Greenburg and Polzner 2008).

  4. 4.

    That is, additional volatility, and a cause of additional stresses or shocks for occupants.

  5. 5.

    In Indonesia, according to a 1985 study (Hoffman et al. 1991; cited by Rakodi 2002), one third of renters had monthly tenancies, while half were required to make advance payments—generally a full year’s rent.

  6. 6.

    Similarly, in tenements in Nairobi (Huchzermeyer 2011) when the tenant does not pay rent warnings will be issued, after which an ‘auctioneer’ will throw the tenant out and attempt to recover arrears from their assets.

  7. 7.

    The PIE Act (1998) and linked rulings stipulate that evictions require a court order, and must be carried out by the court sheriff. The municipality is required to provide alternative accommodation to evictees who would be rendered homeless, and an eviction cannot go forward until this accommodation is provided.

  8. 8.

    UN-Habitat (2003: 121) contends that ‘poor families are prepared to live in appalling housing conditions because they have higher priorities than housing, such as educating the children or setting up a business’.

  9. 9.

    A shebeen usually refers to an informal drinking place where one can buy alcohol, similar to a ‘tavern’.

  10. 10.

    The ‘Blue Moonlight’ (2012) and ‘Olivia Road’ (2008) judgements are particularly pertinent.


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Mayson, S.S., Charlton, S. Accommodation and Tenuous Livelihoods in Johannesburg’s Inner City: the ‘Rooms’ and ‘Spaces’ Typologies. Urban Forum 26, 343–372 (2015).

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  • Informal rental
  • Housing
  • Johannesburg
  • Multi-habitation
  • Rooms
  • Livelihoods