Historically, many mining companies in South Africa housed their white workforce in towns established and managed by the company and their black workforce in single-sex hostels or compounds. By the early 2000s, most company towns had been ‘normalised’, the mining industry had abolished the compound system and homeownership had become the dominant policy goal. We use evolutionary governance theory and the concepts of social disruption and place attachment to reveal two problems: the path dependency of the migrant labour system and the goal dependency of government policy. To illustrate the effects on the residents of a coal mining town, we identify three housing clusters: renters, homeowners and informal settlers. Using findings from a survey of one South African mining town (Emalahleni), we show how the housing system created by normalisation places undue pressure on municipal services. We argue that by ignoring the continued migration and the likelihood of mine decline or closure government policy is putting homeowners at risk.