We all want a place to call home, but since not everyone is in the position to buy, rental is the next best thing. Or is it? That very much depends on the relationship between landlord and tenant…

The pros and cons of renting are numerous. On the up side, it can be a cheaper option; you’re not responsible for many of the maintenance costs; it buys you time to save up for a deposit; and it’s temporary (which helps if you’re on a contract or scouting the housing market).

But the reality is you’re paying off someone else’s bond.

You’re not guaranteed a lease renewal. It’s not your own space. You can’t make improvements. And if you’ve signed a lease agreement with a problematic landlord/agent, you’re pretty much hooked for the duration of the contract.

On paper, it’s mostly a win for landlords, though, because letting out property makes business sense. All that’s ­required is to find suitable tenants, who hopefully pay on time, aren’t a nuisance and care for the property; pay your levies and bond insurance; ­attend to the upkeep and after a few years, you might even turn a profit.

Yet relationships between landlords and tenants are ­seldom easy. Sometimes, they’re downright abusive.

Soon after I wrote about landlord/tenant relations, a reader, Mickey Engelbrecht from Pretoria, contacted me in desperation about his issues with his rental agents.

His partner had recently had another baby, their business was struggling, the rental agents were cutting their ser­vices for late payment and threatening them with eviction every other week.

Once they were told to get out within four days; most recently, at the end of this month.

“I am a tenant under contract with Rapid Rentals in Villieria, Pretoria. Due to late payments of rent (because of late payments from our clients), Rapid Rentals have had a habit of disconnecting our water and electricity, without prior warning, and usually in the late afternoon or evening,” Engelbrecht said. 

“To our knowledge, landlords are not allowed to cut the water and electricity to rented properties. This situation is unacceptable to us; we have a small child who needs to wash, eat breakfast and go to school, as well as a newborn whose needs go without saying. 

“We’ve received clear threats to make our stay unbearable, and they informally told us to vacate the premises by this weekend. We have no wish to have an outstanding balance on the rent and no ­intention of absconding.”

Days later, Engelbrecht’s partner, Shannon Medici, updated me: “Sorry for the delay, we’ve had no power again for a few days. On May 10, the maintenance man came to ­disconnect the utilities. ­Michael refused him entry and phoned the police, who arrived as the maintenance man was leaving for other work.

“The police said we should not allow him entry and they weren’t going to wait for him to come back.

“The following day, Bianca (de Wit, the rental agency’s manager) and a man from their offices arrived and she became abusive towards us.

“She told us instead of the four-day eviction notice, we now need to move out by May 31, and if we don’t pay R1 400 that afternoon, they will cut utilities again.

“My mother mentioned that it’s illegal and we will refuse them entry, but Bianca said maintenance has their instruction to jump the wall.

“The gentleman mentioned that people in our same position took them on with the Estate Agency Tribunal and came off second best.

“Bianca was also told there was an article in the newspaper about their illegal practices; her response: ‘Shame.’”

Whatever issues there are between agents and tenants, only the council may disconnect utilities and even then, water supply may only be ­reduced to a trickle, legal adviser at the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EEAB), Deli Nkambule, told me.

“Trustees cannot disconnect electricity supplies without either a statutory right to do so, or an order of court. It is illegal to ‘take the law into your own hands’ in an attempt to force owners to pay outstanding levies,” Nkambule said.

“There is legislation that makes shutting off services an offence. In terms of the Rental Housing Act (which deals with matters arising between landlord and tenant): ‘Any person who unlawfully locks out a ­tenant or shuts off the utilities to the rental housing property will be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both such fine and such imprisonment.’

“(Only) bulk suppliers of electricity, such as Eskom or a subsidiary supplier such as a local authority or City Power, can disconnect the supply of electricity in response to non-payment of the account and after due notice has been given.

“The legal route is for the body corporate to recover the levies from the owner in the magistrate’s or high court.”

Property law expert and ­lecturer Marlon Shevelew, the director of Marlon Shevelew and Associates Inc in Cape Town, said: “The Gauteng Unfair Practices Regulations, promulgated in accordance with section 15 of the Rental Housing Act, provide that a landlord may not ‘engage in ­oppressive or unreasonable conduct’, and a landlord must not ‘conduct any activity which unreasonably interferes with or limits the rights of the tenant, or which is expressly prohibited under the lease, these regulations, the act or any other law’.

“Weighing the landlord’s actions in this case against the act and unfair practice regulations immediately reveal the gravity and extent of the conduct. Indeed, the landlord’s conduct is oppressive in its disregard for the tenants’ ­fundamental human rights.”

And the tenants’ rights had been violated on a number of levels, Shevelew said, pointing out that landlords were obliged to provide all services agreed to in the lease; they cannot evict without a court order; they may only enter premises on “reasonable ­notice to a tenant to inspect the dwelling; to make repairs to the dwelling; or pursuant to an order of court”; and they may not “cause the non-supply or interrupted supply of services to a dwelling without a court order, except in an emergency; or after reasonable notice to the tenant to do maintenance, repairs or renovations”.

There are consequences for this type of behaviour, he said: “(The act says) ‘any person who commits an unfair practice is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both such fine and such imprisonment’.

“What is perhaps most startling about the landlord’s conduct is that the landlord’s act of cutting off the electricity and water appears to have been intended as a punitive measure in response to the tenants’ late payment of rent.

“Instead of following the clearly defined legal route prescribed in these circumstances, that is, delivering a letter of demand and exercising the right to cancel the lease should the tenants fail to rectify their breach prior to the expiry of the prescribed 20-business day period, the landlord has uni­laterally (and inexcusably) seen fit to wilfully deprive the tenants – a couple with a young baby – their access to water and power for a number of days and on a number of occasions. This is conduct which is nothing short of deplorable and warrants the harshest of sanctions.”

It boiled down to preying on the weak – the tenants ­simply didn’t have the means to seek legal advice, but they had rights and recourse, Shevelew said.

“Fortunately, the tenants have access to a cost-effective mechanism which has been specifically designed to assist in circumstances such as these, and I would advise that they immediately lay a complaint with the Rental Housing Tribunal.”

That might work well in some provinces, but judging by some complaints I’ve received, not in Gauteng.

The tenants say Rapid Rentals has been reported to the tribunal (and nothing came of it).

They haven’t been reported to the EAAB though, Nkambule told me: “Rapid Rentals has not been sanctioned by the EAAB.

“Should we receive a formal complaint – submitted in the correct procedure – we can investigate them.”

I asked Rapid Rentals’ principal, Cronje de Wit, and manager, Bianca de Wit, about whether they were aware it was illegal to disconnect services. They declined to respond.

No surprises there.

Wise up

KEEP YOUR NOSE CLEAN: Most issues arise over payments. As the tenant, you need to pay on time and maintain the premises (and garden, if there is one). Landlords are responsible for the exterior maintenance of the property, and if anything goes wrong with plumbing, leaks, electricity etc.

TENANTS HAVE RIGHTS TOO: Landlords and agents may not disconnect your services, only the council can do so for arrears, and you may not be locked out of your residence. If you’re lumped with an account you can’t pay, try to make an arrangement with the council.

DIRECT YOUR COMPLAINTS: The website of the Estate Agent Affairs Board (EAAB) outlines the complaint procedure. Either fill in the online form found at https://www.eaab.org.za/complaint, or call their “whistle-blower” hotline at 0800 223 225.

Property law expert Marion Shevelew advises complainants to address their issues through both the EAAB and the provincial Rental Housing Tribunals, because some agencies are more efficient than others.