Landlords’ tenants from hell

2013-12-04 00:00

ROGUE tenants have turned houses in some of KwaZulu-Natal’s richest suburbs into drug labs, brothels, stolen goods warehouses and even blood-spattered muthi centres.

This week, estate agents and homeowners in Durban and Pietermaritzburg told The Witness how suburban houses have been increasingly targeted for abuse — and how tenants have used secrecy and the law itself to keep owners almost powerless to protect their homes.

Their horror stories follow an exclusive interview with Winston Park homeowner Garron Stewart on Monday, in which he revealed how — despite reasonable efforts to vet his tenant — he had “no idea” that his five-bedroomed house had been transformed into the largest drug lab ever found in the province. Nineteen men were arrested at his former family home, and R41 million worth of drugs and equipment seized.

And it comes two years after warnings from the SAPS that drug dealers and human traffickers were turning to rentals in affluent suburbs in the province in an effort to hide their operations.

Yesterday, Louis van Deventer, a tenant in Durban’s affluent suburb of Glenwood, admitted to The Witness that drug dealing and prostitution were rampant in his rented home.

“I continuously report what is happening at this house to the Umbilo police station,” he said.

“Sometimes there are 15 people living inside the house. It is making me crazy.”

Neresh Maharaj, who runs a home loan business next door, said the police had raided the house before, but the drug peddling continued.

“This is ruining the area,” he said.

Tracy Koekemoer, of Natal Property Consultants, said syndicates were targeting rentals in large homes around Pietermaritzburg — with at least three homes leased by her agency alone having been turned into brothels last year.

“It happened about three or four times last year to large houses we were renting in upmarket suburbs in Pietermaritzburg,” said Koeke­moer.

“We find all kinds of adult toys and used condoms lying around. If the neighbours complain or the tenant asks for locks on every door we know there’s a problem. We now do strict check-ups.”

Haden Searles, chairperson of the Umhlanga and Durban North Community Policing Forum, said the forum had investigated half-a-dozen cases in which tenants had run criminal operations from multi-million rand homes.

He said police were currently investigating a brothel run by tenants within a stately home in Umhlanga.

“The owner leased the house to what they thought was a nice couple — now there’s a big problem there,” he said.

Searles said a number of landlord nightmares involved “muthi operations”, theft and vandalism, adding “in every case, the tenants were foreign, carrying asylum-seeker documents”.

He said that in one case, on Ridge Road, Umhlanga, police and forum members entered a house after tenants — already months behind in rent — had stolen the owner’s stove and furniture, and fled.

“We found animal blood everywhere, as well as baboon heads; two goats’ heads and serious damage to the property,” said Searles.

In another case, “we found a python in a toolbox”.

Searle said, previously, one house in Round the Green Street in Sunningdale had been used as a brothel and a centre for human trafficking — “the owner was totally shocked when informed”.

Alan Smaldon, chairperson of the Outer West Ratepayers’ Association, said one up-market property in Ridge Road, Forrest Hills, was used as a hub for stolen cars and black market goods.

“The day after the [electricity] disconnection, the tenants just had someone come over and do an illegal connection to get it back on,” said Smaldon.

In 2011, Tracy Ann Pretorius, a tenant in Briar Lane, Durban North, turned the large house she was renting into a major cannabis-growing operation — even excavating the basement to accommodate the hydroponic drug factory. She and four others were convicted on drug charges last year.

Meanwhile, a methamphetamine lab was also being run from an up-market home in Westville.

Searle placed the blame squarely on letting agencies, alleging: “The vetting of tenants is grossly insufficient — agents are often just getting anyone in who can pay, and quite obviously are not doing regular inspections”.

However, some agents blamed “absentee landlords” — particularly those working overseas — and Russell Pearson, head of rentals for Remax, said “reputable” agents had “stepped up” vetting and credit control checks on prospective tenants.

Stewart (44) told The Witness he feared multiple months without rent as police combed for evidence on the drug syndicate, and said, “I never imagined this could happen at our house. The guy could not have been a more perfect tenant; at least for the first couple of years.”

Simon Watson, a property attorney in Durban, said “major flaws” in the law protecting tenants — the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act — had limited landlords’ ability to stop rogue tenants, and also emboldened criminal residents.

He said the law forced landlords to spend from R10 000 to R80 000 to secure an order of eviction for non-paying tenants — and that even habitually delinquent tenants could win the right to stay on, rent-free, by claiming they had nowhere to go.

“Its all about vetting the tenants beforehand,” he said.

Pearson said owners should be encouraged to request two months’ deposit up-front, and to require quarterly inspections in lease contracts.

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