- Vernacular Regeneration: low-income housing, private policing and urban transformation in inner-city Johannesburg by Aidan Mosselson
At the time of writing this review, the city of Johannesburg is mayor-less. Herman Mashaba, a proponent of inner-city regeneration, had resigned from the municipality of the City of Gold. Driven by the dream of turning the inner-city into a 'construction site', a defining characteristic of the mayor's stint, along with (and, in fact, complementary to) his xenophobic rhetoric, was wooing big developers and major financial institutions back into investing in the inner-city. Yet the trope of regeneration is far from new in Johannesburg. Inner-city regeneration has been a key theme of city policy and plans in the post-apartheid period, the subject of critical academic writing and a catalyst for seminal socioeconomic rights litigation. The mayor's invocation of regeneration is the latest wave of what has been a longstanding unfolding of practices, discourse and built environment changes in inner-city Johannesburg.
In his book, Mosselson (2019) proposes that urban regeneration in Johannesburg (and elsewhere) deserves a nuanced interrogation. From the outset, he cautions against uncritically or simplistically applying encompassing understandings of neo-liberalism, and associated phenomena of urban gentrification and revanchist renewal. He wrestles intentionally with binaries as he interprets and conceptualises the practices and approaches of inner-city financial institutions and developers, private security companies, inner-city tenants and regulation in inner-city accommodation. Mosselson's approach, rather than to follow those who write about Johannesburg in its extremities, is to shed light on the less-articulated [End Page 128] complexity of the 'in-between'. To do this, he applies a lens of simultaneity to urban regeneration, drawing on Henri Lefebvre's approach to the city. As Mosselson explains in chapter one, Henri Lefebvre and Pierre Bourdieu provide the theoretical scaffolding for his work. Both are concerned with socio(spatial) order, its reproduction, and the everyday. It's their recognition of dynamism, contestation and agency in understanding domination which he invokes. Intertwining the two theorists, Mosselson deftly uses the concepts of 'spatial capital' and 'spatial habitus' as the guiding theoretical devices to interpret his research in public spaces and residential buildings, through interviews with inner-city developers, tenants, building managers, and security managers. Although he says his sympathies lie with comparative and post-colonial schools of thought, this, particularly the latter, does not quite shine through. Rather, his use of Bourdieu and Lefebvre, and his intentionality in pointing out agency and the messy non-linearity of neoliberal processes, suggest a clearer post-structuralist disposition.
In chapter two, Mosselson sets the foundational argument that he builds carefully throughout the book: the institutions, people and practices behind regeneration in the inner-city can have agendas and outcomes that are simultaneously neoliberal and (what he describes as) developmentalist. He argues that institutions with spatial capital in the inner-city have adapted their practices to its socio-spatial realities. His first illustration of this is the financial institutions who fund housing development in inner-city Johannesburg – their names an acronym soup: Trust Urban Housing Finance (TUHF), the National Housing Finance Corporation (NHRC), and the Gauteng Partnership Fund (GPF). Rather than financing high-end development, which is the expected phenomenon in the gentrification story (and the reality of Cape Town's CBD), the financial institutions operating in inner-city Johannesburg have largely focused on low-income housing for the 'in-between'. These are households excluded simultaneously from accessing housing finance from mainstream banks and from accessing state-sponsored homes. This market is black, rents, and is made up of single people, working migrants, and young families. Mosselson shows how the heads of financial institutions operating in the inner-city recognised and accepted this housing need and display a spatial habitus that responds to the inner-city environment. This 'developmental agenda', he suggests, competes and sits simultaneously with a neoliberal market-based agenda where the bottom-line still matters: loans for [End Page 129] affordable housing are squeezed, the more profitable of...