At Least 74 Killed in Johannesburg Building Fire, Including Children: Live Updates

Police officers at the scene of the fire on Thursday. The government, rights activists say, has prioritized building private apartments and student accommodations, which are more profitable than public housing.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

The building where dozens of people died in a fire in Johannesburg was the only option for residents who couldn’t afford to rent an apartment legally and were forced to squat in cramped, unsafe quarters, rights groups say.

People are occupying these buildings because there’s nowhere else where they can access the inner city,” said Khululiwe Bhengu, a senior attorney with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, a nonprofit. “South Africa has made sure that townships and other areas are very far, far away from the inner cities.”

Her group works with people who are under threat of being evicted from occupied buildings to ensure that they do not end up on the street. She said that many of them are informal vendors in the city who make only a few thousand rand a month, or less than $200, and cannot afford even the lowest rents. At the same time, they need to be near the city center to work.

After officials lifted restrictions on movement that the government imposed in the apartheid era, experts said, many lower-income people moved to the cities in search of better opportunities. But there was not enough affordable housing for the influx.

The government, rights activists say, has prioritized the building of private rental units and student accommodations, which are more profitable than the public housing for which poor residents fill long waiting lists.

“There are a lot of houses that are being built for those who can afford them,” said Thami Hukwe, the coordinator of the Housing Crisis Committee, a residents’ group in Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg. He said that the Black population was the most affected by the housing crisis.

“We are not being prioritized,” he added, “especially the poor and the working-class communities.”

At the same time, Ms. Bhengu said, many landlords in the late 1990s abandoned buildings in the city center, wary of the uncertainty of a new democracy. These buildings have slowly filled up with those who could not afford to live elsewhere, she said, as poorer residents found makeshift solutions the government was not providing.

“There’s a lack of political will to keep poor people in the inner city,” she said.