A focus on the lived experiences of beneficiaries of South Africa’s main housing programme reveals its diverse results, which challenge more straightforward readings of it in either largely positive or largely negative terms. Incorporating specific findings from previous studies in the metropolitan areas of Johannesburg and Durban, the article explores a range of emotions, experiences and effects of the housing benefit across three dimensions: first, beneficiaries’ interactions with their housing; second, gendered experiences; and third, citizenship practices. Discussing different aspects of the lived experience of the housing sheds light on the effects of policy on people’s lives, helping to refine and distinguish multiple facets of an often unqualified and limited portrayal of the housing ‘beneficiary’. These complex, and at times conflicting, inscriptions, impressions and effects are read against particular socio-economic contexts. Outcomes reveal some sense of inclusion at the same time that wider patterns of inequality persist, to a large extent echoing Anand and Rademacher’s (2011) analyses of public housing initiatives in Mumbai.