Lowest rentals in Joburg first

crysler top

Joburgers inner city will soon boast dignified housing for thousands of the city’s residents, as the Affordable Housing Company, with the JDA, is overhauling office buildings into budget-friendly housing.

chrysler1Joburg is transforming block after block of office buildings into homes where thousands can live (PHOTO: Heritageportal.co.za)One of Joburg’s iconic heritage buildings, Chrysler, or Atkinson House, is to be resurrected as the cheapest accommodation in town, at R1 700 a month for a 20m² studio flat, catering for people earning R3 750 a month.The Affordable Housing Company is revamping Johannesburg’s inner city office blocks to house the city’s lowest-income residents at affordable rates. The company’s holistic approach includes providing a school, making roads pedestrian-friendly and planting roof gardens.

This is made possible by Afhco or the Affordable Housing Company, with the slogan “building inner city communities”. Afhco has, over the past 18 years, bought and converted more than 60 inner city office buildings, supplying Joburgers with 5 500 apartments, and housing 20 000 people in “decent accommodation”, in a R1.5-billion portfolio.

Afhco now only owns 45 of those buildings, but together with some 80 “decent developers” in the city, there are now 50 000 units available for rental in the inner city, capable of housing 250 000 people. Renney Plit, the chairman and chief operations officer of Afhco, estimates that developers have pumped around R10-billion into the inner city by.

Chrysler House, built as a motor car showroom in 1938 on the southern end of Eloff Street, will be converted into 270 units. Plit says the low rental is possible because tenants will share communal bathrooms.

Plit describes the bathrooms, which will provide for privacy within each shower cubicle, as “a breakthrough for the city – there is such demand for affordable accommodation”. The revamped building will cater for domestic workers, security guards, gardeners and informal traders, whose accommodation alternative is slum and hijacked buildings.

Chrysler House was just one of a number of showrooms in what was the city’s auto district. Operating until the early 1970s, showroom floors stocked the latest American cars for Joburgers to browse. It had a central lift core in which vehicles would be hoisted up and down the 12-storey building, for servicing, panel beating, or storage.

Art deco heritage

Chrysler House is Afhco’s first major conversion of a heritage building. The block is modelled on New York’s impressive Chrysler House, with a similar ziggurat tower design.

“Chrysler House reveals a new level of sophistication and competence in the Johannesburg of its day, above all in its core of extra-large lifts, vertical service ducts, air-conditioning (to keep the dust of the mining town off the shiny automobiles) and massive reinforced-concrete structure with cantilevers of six and a half metres on the perimeter (up to the level of the setbacks),” writes respected architect Clive Chipkin in Johannesburg Style, Architecture and Society 1880s-1960s.

Its double-volume ground floor showroom “once glinted with the latest models of stream-lined US automobiles – icons of Americanisation – on the rubber-tiled sales floor”. Its décor comprised the latest Bauhaus-style chairs, tables and ashtray stands.

Although the building has been stripped of all its metalwork, some original features remain – the beautiful terrazzo floors, unusual glass bricks, the rectangular granite tiles in the foyer, and the two winged stairways leading up to the platform where the salesmen sat.

The showroom and the salesmen’s mezzanine gallery, and the dual stairway to the gallery, are to be restored. The steel handrails on the stairway will also be replaced. The main entrance with its grand square arch will also be restored. Full height glazing on the ground and first floor frontages will be installed.

“The front at ground level had to be substantially altered to bring it in line with the original architecture. There is a section in the centre of the building that steps in from the pavement at an angle on the left and right, and this had over the years been removed and turned into a straight frontage," adds Plit.

The revamp has been made possible through the Agence Francaise de Development - a development arm of the French government - which has provided a R150-million loan at favourable rates, at a time when finance is hard to get, says Plit.

Holistic approach

On rebuilding the inner city, he says: “We need more schools, informal trading malls and recreation.”

In 2008 he opened CityKidz School, which caters for grades 0 to 7, with 300 children enrolled. Afhco has built a large garden on the rooftop of one of its buildings. And Afhco is a partner in a new initiative – transforming Kerk Street and surrounds with food stalls, movies, basketball, free wi-fi, music, poetry readings, and choirs on the pedestrian section of the street, on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We want to get the community out on to the street. I’m hoping the retailers will stay open.”

He also wants to improve the block outside Chrysler House by installing a playground, benches, chairs and basketball courts, to make the area pedestrian-friendly.

In the building itself tenants will have access to a lounge, play areas, a crèche, and a shop, and on one of the top floors there’ll be a large laundry.

But Afhco does more in the city. It has replaced manhole covers, fixed potholes, painted street lines and replaced dustbins. Street cleaners and security guards are positioned outside the buildings Afhco owns.

“We are trying to develop stable communities, it’s a holistic approach,” adds Plit.

Afhco has picked up five Johannesburg Development Agency Halala awards and the 2009 Caring Joburg award for the CityKidz School. In the same year it was awarded the Living Joburg award for its renovation of Sambro House. In 2010 it received the Living Joburg award for Cavendish, another inner city conversion. In 2012, it received the Living Joburg award again for the conversion of 120 End Street, its biggest, with 925 units. Plit and his brother and business partner, Wayne, were acknowledged in 2012 with the Believing in Joburg award.

Joburg, built as a white collar city, has been transformed from block after block of office buildings, to one where hundreds of thousands live and work.