Ian Fife is 62 and always wears a small sailing cap. It started, he says, because his girlfriend likes to sunbathe and, since he’s pretty thin on top, he was getting burned. He is a property journalist for South Africa’s Financial Mail, and one of the sharpest and most interesting property developers in South Africa.
His chosen area to acquire buildings is a district called Hillbrow, which sits above the city centre of Johannesburg. Nowadays it is almost always described in the news as “the drugs and crime capital of the city.” In the 50s and 60s, however, it was the most bohemian area in the country and the site of South Africa’s first gay bar.
The buildings are, in fact, beautiful apartment blocks, but since the late 80s the area has rapidly declined as homeowners moved out and slum landlords took over. It began to reflect the massive population volatility that has been Johannesburg’s history as people from all over Africa come looking for money and work. The population changes almost monthly as refugees and economic migrants pour in. Overcrowded and rife with crime, it is, to coin a South African expression, “totally hectic”.
One afternoon last month, Fife and his “apprentice”, a 30-year-old guy from Lesotho called Lehlohonolo and known as Hloks, walked me round the area. Without Hloks we would have been at risk from drug dealers and criminals or police demanding a bribe.
Despite his cuffs and tweed jacket, Hloks walks and talks with the savviness of the streets. The month before he had approached one building in which Fife had bought some flats and a squatter emerged with a gun. Hloks simply said: “Shoot me if you’re a man.” The squatter paused and asked him in for coffee.
Fife is no slum landlord. He is buying property because, as he says: “Decline happens fast and across a whole area. Regeneration happens slowly and building by building.”
His strategy is to acquire 30% of 100 buildings rather than 100% of 30. And here’s why. Flats in South Africa have what is called “sectional title”. In effect, everyone owns their flat’s freehold. Then they come together in what is called the body corporate to manage the building. What Fife does is to get a foothold by buying a few flats. Then he makes his presence felt by Hloks or another of his young team attending the meetings. And this is the controversial bit: they don’t try to turf anybody out, instead, they start to put together a committee by identifying leaders who live in the building. I tease Fife that forming cells of cadres like this must remind him of his young communist days in London. He smiles.
But he never wants control of the building. Instead, he wants to turn the people who live there into the instruments of regeneration; to take control of the body corporate and, therefore, the building themselves. Once they do, they enforce the rules – they police overcrowding, they turn out squatters, they insist on the ground rent being paid, they initiate security.
His plan is in three stages. First, immediately to make sure each flat has at least one light and the lock works. Phase two he calls roadworthiness, where everything is functional, and phase three will be the eventual gentrification with the original tenants still there. He expects this to take between five and seven years. And that’s where his long-term profit will eventually come from. But in the process, he will have encouraged a whole slew of new homeowners. Hloks will buy a flat soon.
It’s a pretty unusual model. And for an old lefty, Fife has managed to put behind him the traditional suspicion of homeownership. It’s community work through property owning. You can’t be selfish to own a flat in one of these buildings, he says. To improve it you have to join in, and if you’re an absent landlord you’d best sell up if you won’t.
“It’s the journey from we to I,” he says. “People want to own their homes and they also want to improve the area. But you can’t do that for them. They have to do it themselves.” Even if, at first, Fife and Hloks have to lean pretty hard on them. But, hey, that’s property development in one of the most hectic districts in the world.
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