Evictees’ lives turned inside out

Muzaniel Abrahams and his family camp outside Steenvilla social housing apartments after being evicted from the complex about a month ago. (David Harrison)

Muzaniel Abrahams and his family camp outside Steenvilla social housing apartments after being evicted from the complex about a month ago. (David Harrison)

The baby, Maikeel Abrahams, was a godsend. He arrived in the summer of 2016 and, despite regularly contracting flu, he changed the way Muzaniel Abrahams thought about himself and his wife Sharikah.

“It was a good feeling after Maikeel was born and a lot of things changed. The feelings also changed, the feeling of being a man, you are a father,” Abrahams says, adding that, for the first time, he felt responsible for the welfare of another life.

But Maikeel was a sickly child and was rushed to Mowbray Hospital almost every month after the first winter, where he was treated for flu. The drain on Abrahams’ merchandiser salary took its toll. Of course the money would go to the child. The rent would suffer but Abrahams would make it up, he reasoned. The Abrahams family would stay in arrears for most of the year until, finally, the eviction notice came.

The Steenvilla social housing apartments is the City of Cape Town’s flagship social housing programme, according to human settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela. Built as a collection of 700 units that range from studio apartments to two-bedroom flats, the land is leased to the Social Housing Company (Sohco) by the city for R150 a year, and its construction was financed by the provincial restructuring capital grant.

Sohco chief executive Heather Maxwell this week said 29 families were evicted three weeks ago for failing to pay thousands of rands in rent.

She denied rapid increases, saying the rent is set between R950 and R3 304, and is approved by the national Social Housing Regulatory Authority. The authority recorded increases of between 5% and 13% over the past four years.

Similar evictions took place at the beginning of June in Ocean View and Vrygrond, where a building was almost entirely emptied of residents who had also failed to keep up their rental payments.

In Ocean View, residents confronted the eviction company about the damage to their furniture. Metro police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the evictees.

Since the eviction three weeks ago, the Abrahams family and others sleep in makeshift tents on the grass embankment outside the apartment complex, with their furniture covered by sheets of black plastic donated by the Western Cape disaster management unit.

Each morning Abrahams attempts to restore normality with a meal and warm tea, boiled over the open fire made a few metres from his tent.

“Every morning there’s a fight. First there’s shouting because it’s wet and cold, then you have to warm everybody up. When you look again the shouting turns to crying,” he said.

Tina Schoor’s family stopped paying rent after her husband’s electrical contracting job at a pumping station was put on hold because of water restrictions brought on by the drought. “They didn’t take any of that into consideration. It means nothing to them,” Schoor said.

After days of being lashed by torrential rain in Steenberg, with their clothes and blankets drenched and permanently damp, the families this week said they feel defeated.

“After a while you don’t even care anymore, you just sleep through the cold and wetness,” Abrahams said.

Each day since the eviction is spent warming up by the fire and rebuilding wooden structures destroyed by the wind, with the memories of “violent” removal still fresh in their minds.

“They came with crowbars, throwing stuff out and breaking stuff,” Abrahams said. “Afterwards, when we were protesting, they just started shooting at us.”

Damian Peterson, another resident of this impromptu camp, has dug a deep hole behind his makeshift tent. less than two metres from the main road. “This is our toilet, ja. What else can I do?” he said. “The men can still use it but for the women, it’s terrible,” he said.

The plight of these families and 27 others has triggered a debate about the rate of social housing rental increases in the city over the past four years. This week fed up residents marched on the Western Cape Rental Tribunal and Madikizela’s office to register their concern.

“It’s silly season,” the MEC told the Mail & Guardian. “We are a few months before the elections so we are bound to see this kind of protests … If we allow these kind of opportunists who do not want to pay rent, we must forget about social housing.”

The evicted families should have lodged an appeal against the rental increases at the tribunal, instead of ignoring the monthly bills, Madikizela said.

The evictions at Steenvilla three weeks ago followed numerous warnings to settle the outstanding accounts, and an option to relocate to Wolwerivier and Blikkiesdorp, two temporary shelter areas on the outskirts of the city, Madikizela said.

But the residents chose to stay with their possessions.

“It’s very inhumane to put people in concentration camps. We are not animals,” Schoor said. “We’ve never said we don’t want to pay. We do want to pay but we are saying, government, please come to our level.”

Schoor sends her children to stay with their grandparents at night and her husband covers their belongings and reinforces the wooden cover keeping the wind and rain out of their tent. As the family sits idly on the grass embankment, homeless people take an interest in these homes turned inside out.

“Look, there’s another aunty coming to shop,” Abrahams says as he gestures towards a woman ruffling through his belongings. “Sorry aunty, we are watching you, please aunty,” he says, shaking his head.

Although Schoor and Abrahams admitted to not meeting all their rental bills, causing their bills to escalate, they felt aggrieved by Sohco’s unwillingness to enter into a payment agreement, and their failure to provide alternative accommodation.

Instead, they were offered storage space for their furniture, Schoor claimed.

Maxwell said Sohco was not responsible for alternative accommodation and defended the evictions, insisting that they were conducted in accordance with the law. Madikizela agreed, calling the Steenberg residents “chance takers”.

“Alternative accommodation was offered by the city, but they want to pick and choose … Beggars cannot be choosers. If those people are so desperate and need alternative accommodation, it doesn’t matter where they go,” said Madikizela.

Steenvilla resident and community leader Beryl Scauw organised a legal challenge against the evictions in the high court. It failed because the court heard that Sohco and the Western Cape human settlements department had acted within their rights.

Madikizela told the Mail & Guardian that none of the residents were ever compelled to accept the rental increases and, according to law, should not have paid anything more than 30% of their salaries for social housing. “I explained this to these people,” he said.

The option of appealing the rental increases at the tribunal was alien to Scauw, who admitted that none of the evicted families had lodged appeals, and said they were not aware of the processes.

Maxwell said that, in the past two years, Sohco had received only two appeals against increases at the rental tribunal, both of which were awarded in favour of the developers when the tenants failed to prove that the rent was more than 30% of their combined household salaries.

The situation at Steenvilla is not unique, and is a reality that could be faced by hundreds of families over the next three months, when rental increases come into effect from July  1, said the leader of the United Tenants Association (UTA), Moerida Morat.

On Wednesday the UTA joined other groups protesting against the increases of between 9% and 15% by Commicare, a nonprofit organisation similar to Sohco, and marched to the rental tribunal office to lodge a formal complaint. UTA represents recipients of social housing in suburbs such as Ruyterwacht, Bishop Lavis, Pinelands, Thornton and Brooklyn.

Inside Steenvilla, 34 more families have received eviction orders and are awaiting Sohco armed security’s arrival to kick them out. Having witnessed what happened to previous evictees who resisted, some have already started to pack up their belongings.

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