No place like someone else's home

When first-time home buyers Mary Jerry and her husband Joe Wanjigi signed the papers to buy a two-bedroom, semi-detached house in Bellevue East, Joburg, in October 2006, they weren't at all concerned about its "tenants".

"The seller told us he'd give them notice to vacate in December and we were due to move in on February 1," Mary says.

The house was registered into the couple's names on January 9 and they were supposed to have been given the keys on January 29.

To this day, they don't have those keys, nor have they set foot in their home, despite having had to pay the first monthly bond instalment of R2 398.
Having had to vacate the cottage they were renting in Joburg, Mary and Joe ended up sleeping in their car in early February. Meanwhile, the chief squatter, a man I'll call Mr Z, is not only living in the cottage in the yard of their house, but collecting rent from others who are occupying the main house.

Now Mary and Joe are living in one room of someone else's flat, for which they are paying R2 500 a month.

The injustice of the situation is overwhelming Mary.

"I just can't believe this is happening. I feel so cheated. I wake up every night, my heart pounding in my chest, thinking about those people living in the house we are paying for. And the money we saved for renovations is now being spent on rent and keeping our stuff in storage!"

She believes that the seller, Robbie Smith, and the estate agent, Liz Muir - who was working for Firzt estate agency at the time - deliberately kept them in the dark about the true nature of the "tenants". She blames them, and the government, for their situation.

So I asked all three parties to comment.

Both Muir and Smith denied any wrongdoing, saying Mr Z had been a kind, obliging fellow who promised to move out at the end of January. But when the time came for him to go, he suddenly began talking about his right of occupation.

Ironically, Smith said he allowed Mr Z to stay on the property rent-free while it was on the market, to prevent squatters from moving in.

"I made him sign a notice letter agreeing to get out by the end of January, but instead he ended up sub-letting the house to some of his mates."

Smith said he paid a security company to go to the house to meet Muir in a bid to get the "tenants" out, but this was unsuccessful.

Muir takes up the story: "Mr Z knew we were selling the property. He had no problem with me showing potential buyers around. And then he turned nasty when the time came for him and the others to move out.

"On the day the security company arrived to get them out, a Yeoville councillor and a police officer showed up, both of whom sided with Mr Z," she says.

I contacted the head of communication and media liaison in Gauteng's department of housing, Victor Moreriane, on February 13. Despite repeated requests for a response, I haven't had one.

I didn't get much out of Mr Z either. When I got hold of him on his cellphone he was indignant. "I don't have to talk to you," he said.

Mary has since asked attorney Patrick Magne to apply for an eviction order to get the squatters out of the house.

"This situation is happening every day," Magne says. "It's keeping me very busy.

"Often, when the illegal occupants are finally forced to move out, they trash the house first. It's very painful for the owners."

Muir says Mr Z told her he knew his rights and he didn't have to move out until the owner found him alternative accommodation.

He was referring to the Prevention of Illegal Evictions & Unlawful Occupation Act, better known as the PIE Act.

Designed to protect people who have nowhere to live, as well as the owners of the land they move onto, it involves drawn-out legal procedures for eviction, including forcing government to find them another piece of land to live on first.

But an appeal court ruling almost five years ago suggested that the Act could also apply in cases where a tenant stops paying rent and refuses to vacate the property.

In terms of the PIE Act, landlords don't have to find alternative accommodation for a defaulting tenant before eviction, provided that the tenant has occupied the property for less than six months. In cases where an unlawful tenant oc-cupies the property for more than six months, they can't be evicted until the municipality has found them alternative accommodation.

Which is why Mary's attorney also has to serve the Gauteng municipality with papers in this regard before the sheriff can serve the eviction notice.

The terrible irony of this situation is that Mary and Joe, the legal owners of the house, ended up being the ones forced to look for alternative accommodation. And there is no law compelling the municipality to find it for them.

  • This article was originally published on page 6 of Daily News on February 26, 2007

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