Developers accused of “capturing” Sea Point ratepayers association

“A committee representing property interests is responsible for vetting their own development applications”

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Photo of people in a hall
Residents of Sea Point meeting in January 2017 to express support for affordable housing on the Tafelberg property. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

The executive and planning committees of Sea Point, Fresnaye and Bantry Bay Ratepayers and Residents Association have been taken over by property developers, say some residents and land activists.

The association’s objective is to represent the interests of the community in engagements with the authorities and ensure that residents have a say in decisions that affect them.The planning committee, which is appointed by the executive committee, has to review planning applications for private and public space within Sea Point, Fresnaye and Bantry Bay.

The current secretary, Jacques van Embden, is the managing director of Blok, a leading luxury property development firm in the area, which lists nine major residential developments in and around Sea Point on its website. Marco van Embden, the chair, is Jacques’ father and also the chairman of Blok.

Jacques van Embden has previously come under fire from Reclaim the City activists for his role in the Bromwell Street eviction controversy.

Also, in December 2016, Reclaim the City and Sea Point for All held a picket outside Van Embden’s Sea Point residence to protest the eviction of Thandeka Sisusa, a Sea Point resident of 23 years, who’d been living in an apartment owned by Van Embden’s wife, Lori.

Almost all the corporate sponsors listed on the association website are estate agents. Financial reports show that these sponsors contributed almost R300,000 to the Association in 2016.

Paul Berman, chief executive of Berman Brothers Properties, whose website portfolio boasts 23 Sea Point properties for sale, with prices ranging between R3 million and R20 million, currently serves on both the executive committee and the planning committee.

According to Marco van Embden, “the planning committee is run professionally according to proper processes by individuals who give up a lot of their time on a voluntary basis. We get a lot of wonderful reports.”

Gavin Silber, an urban policy expert currently studying Sea Point’s booming property market, says there is a conflict of interest. “You have a committee representing property interests responsible for vetting their own development applications.” They are acting as “both players and referees”, he says.

“Berman Bros ‘Coming Soon’ billboards are ubiquitous on Sea Point’s main road, and they have led to some of the largest and most controversial developments in the area,” says Silber.

Berman said he had recused himself from “each and every discussion on any development of which I am part”. He said this was the same for any planning committee members involved in a property development in any way.

Lucy Graham, who has lived in Sea Point for ten years, says she joined the association in late 2016 because she felt decisions were being influenced and not in the best interests of the community.

“The association had become captured by a few property developers with vested interests,” said Graham.

Jacques van Embden told GroundUp via email that it was “such a shame when volunteers who are putting in real effort are constantly being pushed to step away from good civic / public work”.

But Isa Jacobson, who joined the association in October 2016, says it quickly became clear to her that the Association and in particular the planning committee was “a kind of cabal where everyone is feeding each other – these are not people who do this for the greater good”.

Jacobson, Silber and others point out that the association rejected proposals to build affordable housing on the old Tafelberg school site in 2016. David Polovin, then deputy chair, said it was “not in the interests of the community”.

Activists at Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU) say that Polovin’s remarks exposed “the limited interests the SFB [the association] serves”.

Silber agrees. “They give the impression that they speak on behalf of the wider Sea Point community. They do not. For example, there is no one on the committee representing Sea Point’s large domestic worker population who have faced challenges for decades and are now being evicted to make way for new luxury developments.”

Jared Rossouw, co-director at NU, says, “If residents feel they are poorly represented then they need to engage in the structure and ensure that they vote more suitable candidates in.”

The last AGM was attended by less than 40 people.

Shayne Ramsay, DA Councillor for the Atlantic Seaboard, said, “The City does look at infrastructural requirements for every development. It’s actually quite a rule bound process. And every citizen is given the opportunity at any time to object if there is any application that goes beyond the current zoning laws.”

Ramsay said that the association “does a lot of very good work in Sea Point in terms of keeping it clean and so on. They’re really rather active”.

She said the planning committee is “just a small team within the overall structure of the association and they don’t have influence over all of the decisions of the ratepayers”.

Andrew September, a Heritage Officer at Heritage Western Cape, confirmed that the conservation body’s approval of new developments and demolitions is “influenced to an extent” by whether or not any objections were raised by the association’s planning committee.

Minutes from planning committee meetings show that the committee issued ten “letters of no objection” to proposed demolitions in Sea Point between August and October 2017.

A Sea Point resident of more than 20 years says the City appears to be “only interested in working with the big guys” and that it has ignored residents’ complaints about demolitions and new developments. “These developers are slowly annihilating the spirit of Sea Point,” she said.

The mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, Brett Herron, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Rossouw says that there have been “some positive change under Brett Herron” but there is still a “deeply entrenched belief that the role of the state is to cut the red tape and facilitate private sector activity”.

According to a July 2017 FNB document on Cape Town house prices, the Atlantic Seaboard, which includes Sea Point, is the “hottest market” in the metro, and possibly the entire country, with prices increasing by about 30% year-on-year. However, the report cautioned that land shortages, affordability, deterioration and signs of weakening interest from foreign buyers could impact future growth.

Rossouw says, “The developers are essentially making an obscene profit off the back of an unsustainable and unjust developmental model that will affect all residents, especially the poor and working class, for generations to come.”

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TOPICS:  Civil Society Housing

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I own a house in Sea Point, but do not live in Sea Point.

How do I make sure that I am notified of the Ratepayers meeting? All the above mentioned developers, in my estimation are lining their hefty pockets well. As are estate agents rubbing their greasy paws in anticipation of a good commission.

So sad to read that only 40 residents attended a meeting.

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