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THE Affordable Housing Company (Afhco) and the Agence Française de Developpement (AFD) signed an agreement last night to develop housing specifically for the lower income market in the inner city.

“This is a major breakthrough for the city,” said Afhco chief executive Renney Plit, at the signing on 19 June.

AFD is providing a R150-million loan, with Afhco contributing R23-million to the project. With this, 1 300 units for 3 000 residents will be provided by 2014, through the conversion of some five buildings. The housing will be in the form of units with kitchens, stoves, telephones, DSTV aerials, 24-hour security, and shared ablution facilities.

Afhco has been a major private sector player in the inner city in providing affordable rental housing, but until now housing for those earning less than R3 750 has not been available. These people, mostly domestic workers, security guards, gardeners, clerical staff and informal traders, have only had three options available to them: RDP housing units on the edge of the city, shacks in townships, and hijacked buildings in the inner city.

Plit says that AFD approached him just over a year ago. The French ambassador, Jacques Lapouge, said at the signing: “France has long experience in social housing of all types – more than 70 years. And AFD has developed wide experience, all over the world.”

AFD is a public development finance institution, a development aid body of the French government, with offices in 50 countries.

Lapouge added that the development would provide residents with housing alongside potential job opportunities, with transport facilities and a concomitant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Chrysler House
The first building Afhco will tackle is Chrysler House or Atkinson House at the southern end of Eloff Street. It is one of the city’s iconic buildings, completed in 1938 as a motor showroom and servicing centre over 11 storeys, with a hoist taking cars up and down from the street. At the time it was believed to be the fastest “of their type in the British Empire”.

It takes up an entire block between Eloff and Von Brandis streets.

“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 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 consisted of the latest Bauhaus-style chairs, tables and ashtray stands, while its hoists took cars up to the ninth floor.

“The main Eloff Street frontage is in the Skyscraper Style, with continuous, vertical stainless-steel fins (once highlighted at night with green vertical neon strips) to emphasise verticality,” Chipkin continues.

“The audacious use of reinforced-concrete structure, stainless steel, neon strips, a glass window wall twenty-six metres high, and the absence of contrived decoration, all form part of the new vocabulary of twentieth-century architecture.”

Chipkin adds that renovations to the building “have diminished the powerful presence of Chrysler House and have concealed the pristine quality of this pre-war skyscraper”.

The original south entrance lobby is still intact, with its glass brick stairwell, marble wall and floor finishes.

Plit indicated that because of the building's age - 74 years - it would need the necessary heritage permission before work could begin.

Afhco will be creating 500 units at Chrysler House, which has stood empty for some years. It will be available in about a year’s time.

One of Afhco’s most recent conversions is 120 End Street, on the eastern edge of the CBD. Some 500 units have been provided, with an 8 000m2 shopping centre on the ground floor.

Afhco has been operating in the inner city since 1996, providing housing for those earning up to R10 000 a month. So far, it has developed over 5 500 units, converting derelict, high-rise buildings into affordable rental housing.

It is also concerned with regenerating the neighbourhoods surrounding the buildings, and lobbies the City to improve parks and facilities in the inner city. In 2008, Afhco established the CityKidz Pre and Primary School in Mooi Street.

The company has received a number of awards for its efforts, including the National Business Award in 2008, the 2009 Halala Award for Caring Joburg, and the Halala Living Joburg award for 2009 and 2010.

Last year, it planted a rooftop vegetable garden at the African Diamond building, a 2007 conversion of a diamond cutting works into 60 residential units, with ground floor retail.

This year it went into a partnership with Homestart, an NGO that offers counselling for parents and children under the age of seven, at the End Street park.

Other buildings Afhco will be developing include Platinum Place in New Doornfontein, Connaught Mansions in Bree Street and Rodi Bose near Nugget Street.

Work at Chrysler House will begin in a few months.

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