Housing campaigners are worried that the loosening of lockdown restrictions will see a sharp spike in evictions as people who have lost jobs battle to pay rent.
Government housing authorities have already noticed an increase in the number of cases being referred to provincial housing rental tribunals for help to mediate between tenants and landlords.
Although the numbers don’t fully reflect the scale of a potential eviction crisis, they give an idea of just how many people face possible eviction brought on by lockdown hardship.
Housing rental tribunals are statutory bodies that mediate between tenants and landlords in rental disputes. They have jurisdiction only where a landlord and tenant relationship exists.
In Gauteng, through the provincial human settlements department, the tribunal said it has received 268 cases since April. In the Western Cape 460 cases of lockdown rental disputes are being mediated; in KwaZulu-Natal, 1 149 cases are before the tribunal.
If all these cases were to result in rulings in favour of landlords, it would mean 1 877 households could be forced out on to the street. That would equate to nearly 10 000 people potentially being left homeless.
“There is no doubt that the number of disputes is going to escalate, simply because a lot of people have lost jobs during the lockdown and the landlords are becoming very impatient with keeping tenants in their rented properties,” said the KwaZulu-Natal human settlements spokesperson, Mbulelo Baloyi.
Baloyi added that the department was also anticipating cases in which landlords disconnected tenants’ water and electricity, either to get them to cough up or to force them to leave.
“Landlords who were initially accommodating of the tenant’s situation of ‘loss of income during lockdown’ are saying the government has not considered them in the allocation of the relief funds; hence, they will not be able to pay for bonds and utility bills,” Baloyi said.
With the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions, provincial human settlement departments are bracing for an increase in disputes before the housing rental tribunals.
“In a nutshell, it is a very difficult period for both landlords and tenants. We expect an influx of cases as we descend to alert level one of lockdown, because even the courts will be referring rental disputes matters back to the tribunal,” Baloyi said.
Under amended lockdown regulations for level two, landlords are now allowed to evict tenants, but must approach the courts for an eviction order first.
Courts, though, have the discretion not to grant an order if the tenant’s lack of payment was because of lockdown hardships. “A person may not be evicted from his or her land or home or have his or her place of residence demolished for the duration of the national state of disaster unless a competent court has granted an order authorising the eviction or demolition,” the regulations read.
The gazetted regulations make it clear that it would be unfair for landlords to throw out tenants because of a loss of income brought on by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The regulations also say that landlords should give defaulting tenants ample notice and allow them to make representations about their personal financial position.
The online advice group Rent Strike South Africa — which has been calling for a boycott of rentals and mortgage repayments for the duration of the coronavirus lockdown — said it was seeing a sharp rise in the people requesting advice as landlords demand rental payments.
Yigal Paul Fraser in Bellville, Cape Town, posted on the group that he and his family had been given their marching orders, even though he provided proof the lockdown had resulted in his income being negatively affected.
“We were given notice to vacate the granny flat that’s attached to the landlord’s house,” Fraser said. “During the lockdown, I lost my job. My wife has to work from home and gets only 50% of her salary. We did all the necessary paperwork stating our position to the landlord so that they can get a payment holiday from their bank.”
Despite this, the landlord had become aggressive, he said. Electricity to their apartment was cut off and Fraser and his family are now living in the dark. He said he was even assaulted.
There are also fears that people who manage to find their feet and return to their jobs, but who have not been paying rent for several months, will be saddled with months of unpaid water and electricity bills, arrears, legal fees, penalties and the possibility of being blacklisted by credit bureaus.
Kashiefa Achmat, a member of the rent-strike campaign and chairperson of the civic group The Housing Assembly, said it was expected that when lockdown restrictions were lowered, the eviction notices would start flooding in.
“It’s level two and the landlords are moving in. And, yes, while it’s difficult for landlords to evict, there is constant harassment. They want people out so they can put new people in. We’ve had reports of landlords breaking down gates and turning off electricity,” said Achmat.
The rent-strike campaign is advising people to lay charges with the police if landlords come knocking without the necessary paperwork. There are also calls for the provincial housing rental tribunals to hear urgent disputes between renters and landlords.
The recently published lockdown regulations also advise that tenants may approach the courts for a spoilation order, which bars landlords from depriving households of utilities such as water and electricity if they have not paid their rent.
Through the latest lockdown regulations, the department of human settlements has been instructed to find solutions to the pending evictions disaster. Human settlements spokesperson Yonela Diko said the trend was worrying, but not unexpected.
“We had anticipated these challenges on the affordable and social housing space and had given a budget to the Social Housing Regulatory Authority to cater for all people who cannot afford to pay rent or bonds for their social houses. The department has since considered expanding that help to backyard dwellers and those at the very bottom,” he said.
Diko said the department has called on banks to continue to offer mortgage-payment holidays to landlords so that debt breathing room could be extended to tenants.