Backyard accommodation is widespread in South African cities; a phenomenon that is rare in most other parts of the world. Such a ‘solution’ is an outcome of past and present policies and this article demonstrates that over the years there have been certain similarities in government policy between Chile and South Africa, the only other country with significant numbers of families living in backyard accommodation. However, Sowetan backyard dwellers are different from their contemporaries in Chile. Sowetans do not usually have family relationships with people in the main structure. They also live in significantly worse conditions, in terms both of the quality of the structure and the services available. The backyard dwellers are not likely to disappear quickly. As such, there is a vital need to develop some kind of response to improve their current living conditions. The government is correct to argue that it is seeking to help those in the backyards through its housing subsidy programme, but to presume that a subsidized home is going to be available to most backyard families in the next ten years is surely wishful thinking. As such, something should be done to improve living conditions in the backyard shacks and to do this it is important to know who is living there. The article provides the empirical information that will allow an appropriate policy to be defined.