Pietermaritzburg - Poor residents of Pelham — some of whom have outstanding rent and services debt approaching R200 000 — have appealed to the Msunduzi Municipality “to have mercy” on them as they await eviction.
The residents of Erica and Nerina flats in Rudling Road said they have no idea what their future holds after some were given eviction notices. Others complained of living in unhygienic conditions due to a lack of maintenance.
According to the residents, their problems began when Pietermaritzburg was named the only capital of the province in 2004.
“Our rent was increased to a market-related value — something none of us could afford and which resulted in thousands of rands in arrears over the years. Now we are being punished by getting threats from officials and being forced to live in terrible conditions,” said one of the Nerina Flats residents, who asked not to be named.
With their rent in arrears, the residents had their electricity disconnected after their utilities bills and rent were consolidated into one account.
All the residents who spoke to The Witness refused to have their names published for fear of being evicted from their flats.
They said they were paying R480 rent per month before the increases. Their rent increased by 15% each year for the next five years to just under R1 000 per month. However, the increases over the subsequent years were erratic — as low as six percent some years and as high as 20% in other years. They are now required to pay R3 440 per month for their two-bedroom flats. Some of them have made arrangements to pay what they can afford while others are not paying anything at all.
On a tour of their homes, Erica and Nerina residents showed The Witness the condition of their flats.
“The walls are all damp. Neighbours’ bathrooms and geysers are leaking into our homes. The ceilings are peeling and look as if they are about to collapse. We are living in a dump. How can the municipality expect us to survive like this?” asked one resident.
She said her electricity was disconnected after her rent went into arrears, and alleged that the municipality refused to allow her to make an arrangement to pay what she could afford.
She now uses candles and gas.
One resident said she believes bats or birds are nesting in her ceiling, but numerous calls to the municipality to address the matter had fallen on deaf ears.
According to the residents, including pensioners, they were told during a meeting at the city hall recently that they would be kicked out within 90 days should they not settle their accounts.
“Now we are just waiting and praying they do not kick us out. Where do we go? We were told we would eventually own these flats, but now we are being kicked to the streets,” said a pensioner who has lived in Nerina Flats for more than 16 years.
The residents claimed they were continuously harassed by municipal officials who “demand” they pay off their debts.
“This man comes to our courtyard and starts screaming at us to pay our debts in front of all the people who live here. It is embarrassing and inhumane to treat us this way,” said a resident.
The municipality has acknowledged the condition of the flats, but said that rent defaulters reduced the funding available for maintenance.
“Residents need to appreciate that they need to pay rent like the rest of the tenants,” said acting Msunduzi spokesperson Nqobile Madonda.
She said funding for maintenance was balanced against rental income.
Madonda refuted claims that bullying tactics were used by municipal officials to recover debts, saying “if anything the employee in question was merely clarifying some information [talking] to the tenant that was standing and speaking to him from his balcony”.
“There was certainly no fighting or bullying of any sort. We request that whoever may have evidence of this bring it to the council’s attention,” she said.
Madonda said any possible decision to write off the tenants’ debt and have the flats transferred into their names lay with the city’s full council.
The council could resolve to write off debts for pensioners and deceased households, and other instances where debt is not recoverable. However, where debt is recoverable, tenants must seek alternative accommodation if they cannot meet the requirements for signing new leases and acknowledgments of debt.
Madonda said the full council had also resolved that the flats would not be given to the tenants to own.
“We are in the process of setting up an office on the flats’ premises for people to verify their occupancy and submit documents to sign new leases if they qualify,” she said.