Opinion: Why property owners are suing COJ over sewer and water

Property owners, represented by the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association, are suing COJ over sewer and water. File image.

Property owners, represented by the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association, are suing COJ over sewer and water. File image.

Published Oct 8, 2023


By Angela Rivers

The City of Johannesburg has launched a renewed attack on responsible ratepayers with the arbitrary reclassification of various residential buildings in the inner city in an attempt to extract more money from account holders that traditionally pay their bills.

But property owners, represented by the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA), are not taking these latest efforts lying down and have brought two court applications against the City and its utilities partners, one relating to refuse and one to sewer.

Blocks of flats have always paid a domestic per-bin charge for refuse services, but COJ has now reclassified these buildings so that they can charge what amounts to a tax on each individual unit in the building. This tax is levied regardless of whether the unit is occupied and actually producing any refuse. In the inner city of Johannesburg, where JPOMA members have experienced a worrying increase in vacancies in many multi-storey blocks of flats, this unwarranted extra cost is putting more pressure on the already squeezed affordable housing sector.

Tariffs for services should relate to the service it purports to provide, and in the case of refuse, the output can be clearly measured by the number of bins per building that Pikitup collects and empties. The number of flats in a building has absolutely nothing to do with the equation, and if a half-empty building uses half the number of bins because it produces half the volume of refuse, it is preposterous that COJ allows Pikitup to claim an extra fee beyond the handling of the actual refuse that is presented for removal.

In a typical case, we have a member building with 600 units, of which 100 are unoccupied. Pikitup’s charge for the 100 empty units amounts to R10 800 per month that the landlord must pay over to COJ. The landlord is allowed by law to pass all council charges onto the tenant, except for property rates, but when a flat stands empty, the landlord has no way of recouping this cost of R108 per flat, which does not represent any actual service delivery.

The same concern goes for sewerage, where the City of Johannesburg bills according to a fixed rate rather than any kind of usage metric. Johannesburg is the only municipality in the country that charges a set amount for sewerage – every other municipality uses the logical metric and charges a percentage of the property’s water usage.

Those who are frugal with water and who follow all the suggested water-saving rules, will be charged a flat rate for sewerage regardless. Those who use a total of less than 6kl of water per month – including for the flushing of their toilets – get their water free but will still be billed for sewerage starting at R292.18, excluding VAT. Even if a property is standing empty, the owner has to pay a monthly sewerage charge. And without a tenant to pass this cost on to, the landlord ends up footing this bill, too, which, in the above example of 100 empty units, amounts to almost R30 000, excluding VAT, every month.

The sewerage court case against COJ calls out this unfair methodology. It also calls into question the way the City distinguishes between a block of flats and multi-dwelling properties, such as townhouses, where more than one individual unit, often free-standing, are situated over a number of erven.  The multi-dwelling tariff is naturally more expensive, as it is usually higher-value properties on larger individual parcels of land.

What the City of Johannesburg has now done is to change the category of many blocks of flats to the more expensive multi-dwelling tariff when the block is built over two or more erven. This allows it to bill each individual 50sqm dwelling unit in a high-rise block of flats in the inner city the same sewerage rate it charges an individual townhouse with its own garden and two or three flush toilets – simply because the building the flat is situated in occupies two erven.

In addition, COJ has back-billed the owners of these blocks of flats for three years at this new, more expensive rate. For a provider of affordable housing, who is likely to have been battling to keep tenants in a crumbling city in this tough economic climate and who might sit with only 50% occupancy, the resulting debt due to COJ can run into hundreds of thousands that they simply do not have.

The court case is arguing for this unfair sewerage calculation to be set aside, and to follow the examples of neighbouring municipalities, including Tshwane, and bill sewerage based on water usage, which is the only fair way to do this.

This court case affects every single resident in Johannesburg, but in particular, those who live in modest accommodations in the affordable-housing sector. These people, who use less, pay more per volume of water than their wealthier counterparts in the suburbs, with their swimming pools and multiple bathrooms. A set-up with the same modest water usage in our neighbouring municipality of Tshwane would cost the resident half of what it costs in Johannesburg. Only in Johannesburg would the poor be expected to subsidise the rich with the city council’s blessing.

Angela Rivers is the General Manager of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association.