Experiences of apartheid in South Africa have resulted in the association of shelter with citizenship, adding significance to the concept of “home”. This paper reviews experiences with grassroots efforts to make the government’s housing policy and programme more effective in addressing the needs of the urban poor. The experiences offer lessons relevant within and beyond South Africa. First, collaboration between state and civil society has been possible and has added substantively to the effectiveness of state programming. But, with a multiplicity of government agencies, the context is difficult. Housing construction has been constrained by delayed subsidy payments, and by a professionalization that limits opportunities for low-income residents. Second, community initiatives have had multiple incremental positive influences on state policy and programmes; but substantive progress requires government adopting a more inclusive policy. Civil society agencies remain ambitious about the potential for securing substantive transformation, but this remains a work in progress.