The way of the future
In spite of efforts by developers to promote the sales of apartments in places like Melrose Arch in Sandton and Durban’s revitalised Point area, high-rise living in South Africa has a long way to go to attain the same popularity as it enjoys in places like London and New York.

"This type of lifestyle could become very important in the future if we look at the rising costs of land and building," says Mike Bester, CEO of Realty 1 International Property Group.

Absa’s report on property trends in luxury housing released in May 2007 showed that population density increased by 89.4 percent in the country’s metropolitan areas between 1996 and 2005, while only increasing by 33 percent in rural areas.

More people looking for housing in cities

"This kind of pressure means higher numbers of people looking for housing in the urban areas," says Bester, "and although the current occupants of flats are more likely to be lower income individuals who can’t afford better accommodation, we’re seeing this starting to change with the increased supply of luxury apartments coming onto the market."

High-rise complexes such as Melrose Arch in Johannesburg and the New Ponte in Hillbrow generally offer residents a variety of benefits such as onsite gyms, restaurants and shopping facilities as well as the all-important 24 hour security and parking.

Richard Goller, former editor of the Sunday Times magazine who is now freelancing in London, says he lived in a high-rise apartment in central Johannesburg by choice.

"I’ve always loved the idea of the apartment lifestyle — chic and convenient," says Goller. "The amenities in the building were great and the apartment itself was a good investment."

Sensible urban planning

He believes that a city like Johannesburg with its huge population growth and problems of urban sprawl will follow international trends. "If there is sensible urban planning," he says, "it means more people per square kilometre which means more high-rise apartments."

Bester agrees. "This form of housing could certainly help to alleviate the pressure on the urban areas. And with the traffic problems and the cost of fuel unlikely to reduce substantially in the long term, people want to cut their travelling time and expenses," he says. "What better way to do this than to live close to your place of work?" Bester says that a rising trend amongst affluent South African families seems to be to live close to the city during the week and have a home further out where the family can disappear to for weekends.

This theory is certainly borne out by sales of high rise apartments. In June 2007 the Berea Lofts, a newly-converted high rise block in Durban, sold out all 133 units including three glass-fronted penthouses within days of release. The ultra-expensive and luxurious Nedbank La Residence in Sandton recently dropped in favour of using the space for offices instead, had sold half of its 152 units at the time of cancellation at prices of up to R40 000 per square metre.

However, the luxurious new apartments in Durban’s revamped Point area haven’t done quite so well. This area, along with other places traditionally seen as 'flatland' such as Pretoria’s Sunnyside, may have properties to offer but the surroundings seem to be discouraging for potential buyers.

"It’s difficult to consider buying a R1.2-million apartment in a secure block if you have to run the gauntlet of drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes to get to the building," says Bester. Johann Basson of Realty 1’s Pretoria Hatfield office says that demand for flats of around R1-million in Sunnyside is nevertheless strong although the majority are purchased as buy-to-let investments, given the area’s large student population.

So how does high-rise living in South Africa currently compare with London? "Well, apartment lifestyles are still cheaper in South Africa when it comes to property,” says Goller, “but in London you get a different kind of value: security and being at the centre of things."

"While luxury high-rise living may well be the way of the future for many South Africans, it’s going to take a while before we start to view 'flat life' as a viable alternative lifestyle to an upmarket sectional title unit," says Bester.

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