Government needs to subsidise tenants’ rentals

By Dr Sayed Iqbal Mohamed Time of article published Jul 7, 2020

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We salute property owners and tenants who have co-operated with each other during this turbulent period of the Covid-19 pandemic to maintain their tenancies and good relations. They have thus far managed to find common ground.

Commendable too are landlords who have allowed their tenants to move out and accepted on trust their tenants’ undertaking to pay off their arrear rentals and service charges. There are instances of landlords having reduced rentals or even waived some of the arrear rentals. Tenants too deserve to be admired, especially those who are self-employed and struggling to survive, but are conscientiously paying off their rental arrears.

While the lockdown has eased, rental arrears continue to accumulate due to loss of income and growing unemployment. There are many cases of unpaid rentals and large-scale evictions looming.

Where a landlord has used her tenant’s rental or damage deposit in lieu of outstanding rental and is willing for her tenant to move out, the tenant will need rental deposit and proof of income for a new lease agreement.

Moving out under these circumstances literally means moving into the streets, something that would become a reality for a large number of tenants once evictions are processed through the courts, ejection orders are granted and warrants of executions are in the hands of the sheriffs to physically remove tenants.

The financial and psychological impact remains unmeasured and may not be ascertained adequately or in time to make any difference to the fractured lives. In fact, what difference would all the research studies make if there is no financial help for struggling tenants?

In the meantime, with growing frustration, some landlords are resorting to self-help remedies by unlawfully evicting tenants or forcing tenants out of the properties by locking them out. Disconnection of basic services have left some tenants without water and electricity for three months, increasing health risks.

While landlords are legally entitled to seize and remove their tenants’ personal belongings for rentals in arrears and service charges, this can only be achieved through the courts. Under the level 3 regulations, this may not be possible.

Some landlords have decided to unlawfully seize their tenants’ personal belongings to force them to settle their arrears.

A recent incident has left a self-employed plumber in a quandary when his landlord removed his tools that included a basin wrench, pliers, hose cutter, metal file, pipe wrench and plumber’s tape. The landlord was adamant that he would release the tools only once he received at least 50% of the rentals owed to him. The tenant is not in a financial position to take legal action if it were possible to do so under level 3 lockdown. Any hope of generating an income seems impossible.

While most unlawful cases relate to disconnection of water and electricity supply, followed by unlawful evictions and unlawful seizure of tenants’ personal belongings, there is one unusual situation of a “lock-in”.

Last week, several families in the Bluff area were locked in, unable to leave their rental property because their new landlord has stationed a security guard on the property to ensure the gate remains padlocked. Tenants are in rental arrears for two months and when the disconnection of the electricity failed to force them out of the property, the main gate was padlocked.

The previous owner said he sold the property in March with the lease agreements. In other words, the new owner bought the property with the tenants in occupation. The previous owner did not cancel the lease agreements. He therefore categorically stated the tenants were not his problem.

He provided the conveyancing attorney’s name and only after investigating on the internet were the attorneys located in Overport.

The reception at the attorney’s office was unable to offer any information about the Bluff property because the person in charge of conveyancing was off sick. Tenants have no clue who the new owners are, and in the absence of any written communication, they are locked in.

Non-payment of rentals and failure to pay for service charges appear to be the main reason that motivates unlawful actions. Without government intervention to provide relief, unlawful actions will continue to rise.

The government has not provided rental benefits or subsidies to assist tenants and their landlords. Their hardships and traumatic lives have not been recognised.

Even if tenants and landlords as diligent taxpayers took to the streets, their protests will not command any recognition from the government.

They do not have the economic muscle of the taxi tycoons. Their woes and voices are not factored in when the lockdown regulations are drafted and re-drafted, except for the moratorium on evictions.

As mentioned previously (“A dismal future looms for tenants in wake of coronavirus pandemic”, April 7), government needs to subsidise the rentals of poor and struggling tenants. This would alleviate the financial burdens faced by both tenants and their landlords.

In terms of the Rental Housing Act of 1999, provision is made for the minister of human settlements to introduce a rental subsidy housing programme, as a national housing programme or other assistance measures, to stimulate the supply of rental housing property for low income persons. Parliament may annually appropriate to the South African Housing Fund an amount to finance such a programme.

It was under level 5 lockdown that landlords were prevented from evicting tenants when the coronavirus infection rate was still quite low.

As the infection rate soars, the ban on evictions needs to be extended, but landlords cannot be the ones subsidising their tenants’ rentals. It is the government’s responsibility to step in, and to do so urgently.

* Tenants who need advice during the lockdown can WhatsApp Pretty Gumede at 0713465595 or Loshni Naidoo at 0714445671 or email [email protected], or Dr Mohamed at [email protected]

Dr Sayed Iqbal Mohamed is the chairperson of the Organisation of Civic Rights and deputy chairperson of the KZN Rental Housing Tribunal. He writes in his personal capacity.


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