This blog was written by Paula Meth and Sarah Charlton.

When gender is the focus of housing research, it usually involves a focus on women’s experiences of housing. We applaud this attention yet also wonder about the gendered implications of housing for men. Although men have often been at the heart of housing research (by virtue of being household heads), research hasn’t foregrounded housing from the perspective of being a man, vis-à-vis questions of masculinity and men’s experiences of housing.

Our recent paper, considers the experiences of poor men in two cities in South Africa who have benefited from a state-subsidised new home. Implemented to address the dire shortage of decent housing, the housing programme aims to reduce the long-standing gendered and racial inequalities in land and housing ownership, borne particularly by black women, but by black men too. Strict eligibility criteria include having low or no income, and having financial dependents.

Multiple new neighbourhoods of generally low-rise structures have emerged, often known locally as ‘RDP houses’, frequently in relatively peripheral locations in cities, where land is cheaper. There have been numerous critiques and celebrations of this programme, including gendered analyses but we’re interested in the outcomes of this programme for men. Against a context of severe social and economic stress we explore impacts of the state housing benefit on the family life, self-worth and dignity of poor men with limited prospects and few social safety nets.

New RDP Housing in Cato Crest, Durban (Source: Paula Meth, 2011)

Evidence suggests that at least 50% of state housing in SA is being allocated to women, shifting gendered patterns enormously. The current Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, recently caused a storm by asserting: ‘When they get divorced the house belongs to the woman. That is our policy. So the man picks up his jacket and gets out’. Her intentions are explicitly gendered in favour of women, and are arguably progressive, but they show little awareness of implications for men and their offspring.

Our research, with men who’ve received state-subsidised housing in the cities of Durban and Johannesburg and surrounds, identifies three key findings:

1. “In this house I feel like I’m a real person”: Impacts on identity

Men were overwhelmingly positive about the impact of the new house on their lives and expressed deep gratitude to the state. Thulani in Durban said:

‘[I’d] like to thank the … municipality to take me from the shack which was decreasing my dignity as a South African citizen’

Some male participants tied this impact to their masculinity directly such as Nkosinathi, also from Durban:

‘If you are man and staying in the mjondolo [shack] you feel hopeless, … since I receive this house… I have dignity now as a man. I feel like I’m a real man…’

New housing pervaded their sleep time visions, with Fikile from Johannesburg explaining:

‘It makes me feel good [to have my own house]…Even when I get my dreams, I just dream about my house’

Mandla, another Durban resident, described how whole families were caught up in the excitement:

‘My family were so happy for me to get this house and some members of my family didn’t go to work that day because of excitement and helping for the cleaning of the new house…’

2. Men and relationships

New housing positively impacts on parents and children. There are formal divisions between rooms and often houses are bigger than previous shacks (although not always). Relatively mundane domestic tasks and practices such as eating together, watching TV and doing homework were noted. New houses and yards provided men with opportunities to raise and educate children about ‘good house-keeping’, previously impossible as explained by Nkosinathi in relation to his new house in Durban:

I love so much my house and it is clean. I teach my children to clean the yard… I teach them many things in this house because at mjondolo was not easy as houses are crowded. If you try to clean at mjondolo people look at you and laugh at you because everything there is dirty.

Some men, such as Owen from Johannesburg, set examples of civic responsibility and good neighbourliness in keeping the pavement and the road clean, orderly and free of stones and glass that could be hazardous to children:

I am happy [with the RDP house] that is why I did this house so nicely, I met the government half way. In fact our street…can you see it is clean? I did it myself, I did not call some worker [to] come do it, I want to show him [government], he must cope and then we do it [too].

Children previously living elsewhere, can join parents in the new house instead of ‘roaming around the streets at home [in Venda]’ says Thomas from Johannesburg. But housing size and location can also result in spatially split families with some home-owning fathers living apart from children, because of the location of jobs, or lack of schools near the new housing. Housing impacts on intimate relationships between men and women. Privacy, because of bedroom separation was important, shaping sexual relations, illustrated by Mandla, living in Durban, who explained:

‘… If we want to do the thing for old people we don’t have to be stressed [about] the children or neighbours’. Sfiso’s relationship with his girlfriend who lives rurally (while he lives in Durban) has been enriched:

…she didn’t like to visit me while I was staying in the shack… but now she likes to visit me most of the time. She was complaining about the dirt at mjondolo.

Adult bedroom in Cato Crest, Durban (Source: Paula Meth, 2011)

Housing form and quality impact on men’s capacity for sociability and providing for their families, with Sfiso again describing the change:

‘The time I was staying at mjondolo my mother never visit. It was difficult to bring your parents in the dirty place because was not safe. My shack was very small for visitors’.

Gains in space and electrification enabled men to entertain, and Mandla describing his house in Durban explained: ‘We are going to have a braai [BBQ] because it is the weekend and is nice to enjoy life as we are living in the proper house now’. Not all men benefited from this however, as smaller earlier-generation RDP houses precluded these practices.

3. Financial pressure and income generation

Impacts on employment or income generation depended largely on the location of the new housing, with well-located housing holding more promise than those on the periphery. Costs of commuting meant some men spent nights or weeks in another part of the city, away from their new house. Andile intermittently visits his RDP house in the far south of Johannesburg (two hours train ride away) when he can afford to. The rest of the time, he and his wife sleep informally at their pavement trading stall in central Johannesburg, whilst his two children live with their grandmother in Soweto.

Housing recipients describe their houses as proper with new expectations around consumption, especially purchasing furniture, no longer at risk of damage from rain. Perishable items could also be purchased because of refrigeration and storage space.

Interior of a new house with consumer items (Source: Sarah Charlton, 2011)

But the costs of consumption were a problem for many men, as poverty is still rife and leads to jealousies and conflict: ‘The only thing which is stressing me [is] to look [at] other neighbour’s houses [which] look beautiful and my house is not look good because I have failed to have money’, says Nkosinathi.

The housing programme shows little evidence of actively reducing poverty for urban residents, and associated costs of owning or transportation are prohibitive for many, with some forsaking food because of poverty such as Siphelele in Durban who lamented: “We are grateful to get these houses but it is not enough’.

Finally because housing is a valuable asset, decisions over who receives and controls it can cause tension potentially damaging relationships (both interpersonal but also familial)as Mandla explains:

‘The violence at Cato Crest [in Durban] is happening between the families when they receive the RDP houses. The woman and the man are fighting for the house … in the shack everything are fine for their relationship but when the development starts the problem also start and fighting for the ownership’

Housing is gendered and men’s experiences are important. Housing shapes masculinity, receiving a house can reaffirm their sense of dominance or it can assist in lifting men out of very negative spaces. These must factor in explanations for male aggression, disillusionment, depression and anti-social behaviour.

If you found this blog interesting, our paper poses wider questions pertaining to the issues outlined above, and also in relation to men who do NOT benefit from this programme.

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