Whether you're a tenant, looking for pleasant, affordable and convenient accommodation or a landlord searching for a suitable tenant, the letting business can be risky and the only certainty is that people are unpredictable.
Many landlord, tenant issues could be avoided if tenants simply paid their dues on time and looked after properties.
But legions of landlords are getting away with cutting off services, locking tenants out of properties, intimidating them into moving out and refusing to refund deposits.
When disputes become acrimonious, there is help at hand in the form of the Housing Rental Tribunal. Each province should, by law, have such a tribunal to resolve issues between landlords and tenants.
The Role of the Tribunal
The Gauteng Housing Rental Tribunal chairperson, Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi, explains: "The Rental Housing Tribunal is an independent body appointed by the MEC in terms of the Rental Housing Act to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants in residential dwellings. It is an alternative to costly court action.
"The tribunal has the powers to summon a landlord or tenant to a mediation or tribunal hearing. It can order a landlord or tenant to comply with any part of the Rental Housing Act and its procedural regulations.
"Tribunal rulings have the same power as the judgment of a magistrate's court. Any tenant or landlord or group of tenants or landlord or interest groups may lodge complaints for unfair practice."
The tribunal applies to all dwellings used for rental housing purposes, irrespective of who the owner or landlord is, Mohlala-Mulaudzi says, but it does not get involved in disputes between landlords and their agents - for these, the Estate Agency Affairs Board must be approached - or in issues over business premises.
Tenants and landlords can approach the tribunal as soon as there are disputes or infringements by either party. These include non-payment of rental or municipal services; failure to refund deposits (with interest), invasion of tenants' privacy, overcrowding, unlawful seizure of property, discrimination against prospective tenants, bad behaviour of the tenant, lack of maintenance and repairs, illegal eviction, lockout, disconnection of services, and unacceptable living conditions.
The tribunal does not have powers to order evictions - it can stop an illegal eviction but cannot remove tenants or squatters. "Only a magistrate and high courts can order an eviction," she says.
"A party to a lease agreement can walk into any of our offices where their complaint will be assessed. If there is a valid complaint, the officials will open a file. The alleged offending party will then be notified.
"If the issues in dispute can't be resolved through mediation, the matter will then be placed on a roll for a full-on hearing by members of the tribunal, for arbitration," Mohlala-Mulaudzi explains.
If a tenant's been locked out, or had their water or electricity c u t off without a court order, the matter becomes urgent.
"A ruling will then be handed down within four hours. The turnaround time for other hearings is 21 days."
Mohlala-Mulaudzi, who started at the Gauteng Housing Rental Tribunal in 2013 after leaving the National Consumer Commission, stresses that it is not a toothless organisation and can enforce rulings.
"Our orders have the same force and effect as a judgment by a magistrate's court. Should there be non-compliance with the order of the tribunal, it will be enforced by a sheriff of the court and or members of the police."
Taking Matters in Hand
The law states that there can be no electricity or water cut-off without a court order or if the municipality has sanctioned it.
If a landlord or agent takes the law into their own hands, their tenant must approach the tribunal for reconnection.
"Failure to comply with such an order will lead to the sheriff or the police coming in to ensure the enforcement of the order.
The only circumstance under which a municipality can order a disconnection of services is when, on their own (and not at the insistence of the landlord), due to a high outstanding bill, disconnect services without a court order," Mohlala-Mulaudzi says.
About Those Deposits
Rental deposits are supposed to be kept in interest-bearing accounts. The reality is that landlords often use the money as their own personal funds and either refuse to repay their tenants or simply don't have it any longer.
Deposits, Mohlala-Mulaudzi says, must be refunded to the tenant within 14 days of their vacating the premises, provided there are no deductions for damages or outstanding rental and utilities accounts.
In recent years, the Gauteng Housing Rental Tribunal has been lashed for its poor service. Phones were never answered, e-mails not responded to and front-desk staff accused of brusque manners.
Mohlala-Mulaudzi says the tribunal improved its staff capacity earlier this year from an initial six to 10 to improve turnaround time.
"We have also increased the number of hearings from three per week in Joburg and two per week in Pretoria to five days a week in both cities.
"Where there is a need, members are also willing to schedule hearings on Saturdays."
Whether this has made any difference is questionable. Last week, I tried calling their offices numerous times in the morning and couldn't get through. Most often the phones rang off the hook.
In December, a consumer posted on Hellopeter.com: "Does the tribunal operate or it has been shut down?" This was after trying for two weeks to get through.
"No one picks up calls at any of the provincial numbers, no one also responds to e-mails. I think it would be wise to write a notice on the website that operations closed or it does not operate any more."
Fair point - and that wasn't the only complaint on such sites.
Mohlala-Mulaudzi is at a loss to explain why calls to the tribunal are going unanswered.
She says the administrative side of the Housing Rental Tribunal is managed by the Department of Human Settlements, which employs staff to log complaints.
To her credit, she took it up with the head of department immediately. They've resolved to set up a dedicated telephone line to keep communication channels open.
By the end of next week, that number should be available, she vowed.
I'll share the number as soon as it's available.
The tribunal, she explains, only got involved further along the process.
Yet the service disconnect still experienced by housing consumers at the beginning of the process needs to be resolved if the tribunal wants to improve its reputation, which it seems to be taking seriously.
Tribunals have been set up in Gauteng, Limpopo, Western Cape, Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State.
In the other provinces, people can approach their Human Settlements Department offices directly.
"It is important for the public to know that they have the right to approach us because our services are free of charge, and we are here to serve and protect them," she says.
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