effects of housing poverty in South Africa

The Effects of Housing Poverty in South Africa

Housing is a fundamental human right, and the quality of housing has a significant impact on various aspects of life, including health, education, and economic opportunities.

In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid, economic disparities, and inadequate housing policies have resulted in poor housing conditions for millions of people, especially those in marginalized communities.

As a driver of the largest housing programme for the poor in the world, the Department of Human Settlements has built more than 3 million new housing units since the dawn of democracy, for households earning less than R3 500 per month. Admittedly, they have done well in serving the vulnerable communities but there are still many challenges to be overcome. The housing backlog stands at over 2,4 million households in need of adequate housing in South Africa as per the National Housing Register, and the number may be higher if everyone in need of housing is registered.

Here, we explore the impact and effects of housing poverty in South Africa – based on studies conducted in the past 7 years.

Population Density

Fire disasters

The poor spatial planning and lack of decent housing in urban areas has led to proliferation of informal settlement in peri urban areas. These often densely populated settlement are often proned to fire disasters particular in the cold winter months as the inhabitant rely on open fire for cooking and keeping families warm.

Health Impacts

Increased Susceptibility to Diseases

Poor housing conditions, characterized by inadequate sanitation, lack of clean water, and overcrowding, significantly contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. For instance, tuberculosis (TB) and respiratory infections are prevalent in densely populated informal settlements where ventilation is poor, and living spaces are cramped.

  • Example: Residents of informal settlements in Cape Town have higher TB incidence rates compared to those in formal housing areas.

Mental Health Issues

The stress of living in inadequate housing can lead to significant mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders. The lack of privacy, safety concerns, and the constant struggle to maintain basic living conditions contribute to these mental health issues.

  • Example: Individuals living in informal settlements experience higher levels of psychological distress compared to those in more stable housing environments.

Educational Barriers

Limited Access to Quality Education

Children living in poor housing conditions often face significant barriers to education. These include physical distance to schools, lack of transportation, and inadequate study environments at home.

  • Example: Children from informal settlements in South Africa are less likely to attend school regularly and are more likely to drop out compared to those from formal housing areas.

Impact on Academic Performance

Poor housing conditions can negatively impact children’s academic performance. Overcrowded and noisy environments make it difficult for children to concentrate on their studies, and the lack of basic amenities such as electricity affects their ability to complete homework.

  • Example: A survey revealed that children in informal settlements scored significantly lower in standardized tests compared to their peers in formal housing areas.
education and housing poverty


Economic Inequality

Reduced Access to Employment Opportunities

Housing poverty often forces individuals to live far from economic hubs, increasing their commuting time and costs. This distance can limit their access to job opportunities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

  • Example: Residents of townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg often spend up to 40% of their income on transportation alone, limiting their ability to save or invest in their futures.

Barriers to Economic Mobility

Without a stable and secure home, it is challenging for individuals to improve their economic situation.

Poor housing conditions are often linked with limited access to financial services, including loans and credit, which are crucial for starting businesses or investing in education.

Only 20% of residents in informal settlements in SA have access to formal financial services, compared to 70% in formal housing areas.

Social Inequality

Increased Vulnerability of Women and Children

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of poor housing. Female-headed households, in particular, face higher rates of housing insecurity and are more likely to live in inadequate conditions.

  • Example: In rural areas, women often face legal and cultural barriers to owning land or housing, exacerbating their vulnerability to poverty and homelessness.

Lack of Social Cohesion

Poor housing conditions can lead to social fragmentation and a lack of community cohesion. High levels of transiency and the absence of stable community structures make it difficult for residents to build strong social networks.

  • Example: A study found that informal settlement residents report lower levels of social trust and community involvement compared to those in formal housing.


The effects of poor housing in South Africa are far-reaching and deeply intertwined with broader issues of health, education, economic stability, and social equality.

Addressing these challenges requires comprehensive policies that focus not only on providing adequate housing but also on improving the overall living conditions and economic opportunities for marginalized communities.

By understanding and addressing the multifaceted impacts of housing poverty, South Africa can make significant strides towards achieving greater social and economic equity for all its citizens.

What can you do?

Join us at the 2024 Nelson Mandela Build this July!

Be part of a transforming South Africa. We are looking to build 335 houses over the course of 5 days. We can achieve this with your help!


  1. von Fintel, M., Zoch, A., & Berg, S. (2017). The Dynamics of Child Poverty in South Africa Between 2008 and 2012. Child Indicators Research.
  2. Jonah, C., & May, J. (2020). The nexus between urbanization and food insecurity in South Africa: does the type of dwelling matter?. International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development.
  3. Franklin, S. (2020). Enabled to work: The impact of government housing on slum dwellers in South Africa. Journal of Urban Economics.
  4. Alabi, B., & Fapohunda, J. (2021). Effects of Increase in the Cost of Building Materials on the Delivery of Affordable Housing in South Africa. Sustainability.
  5. Cheteni, P., Khamfula, Y., & Mah, G. (2019). Gender and poverty in South African rural areas. Cogent Social Sciences.