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Monday Nov 18, 2013

Durban tackling its slum properties

Hoosen Moolla, head of the eThekwini's regeneration project, iTRUMP, and its Better Buildings programme, is passionate about rejuvenating Durban's slum areas, and after meeting him this week there is room for cautious optimism that the tide is turning against slumlords, criminal elements and urban decay.

The Tong Lok Building in Mahatma Gandhi (formerly Point) Road.

Moolla, a qualified environmental practitioner, is committed to rejuvenating slum areas in the city and can report an increasing number of successes.

While he is realistic about the magnitude of the challenges facing his department, he said the law would be enacted against exploitative landlords and criminal elements, no matter how long prosecution took.

'The cost of high court action is not the issue here. We will prosecute if our negotiations with the owners of buildings do not result in compliance. It can take up to five years for all the statutory phases to be complied with, but we will take the issue to its conclusion and we will win,' he said confidently.

'My department has not lost one court action since iTRUMP was founded in 2006. We are not anti-business - far from it - but we aim to create a compliant environment where no one is exploited and city buildings are safe for the people who live and work in them.'

From his headquarters in a formerly derelict factory in the Warwick Triangle precinct, Moolla heads a small but dedicated team of inspectors. They can report successes in parts of town that long ago became 'nogo' areas for Durban's middle classes. He believes the tide will turn in time, and that urban regeneration will lure investors and shoppers back into Durban's business and residential nodes, like the notorious Albert Park precinct.

'We called the current programme 'Better' rather than 'Bad' buildings to overturn negative perceptions,' he said. 'With the help of EU funding we have already turned a lot of problems into opportunities in the Warwick Triangle. A turnaround is taking place that offers local economic development opportunities through the regeneration of our urban slums.'

The difference is already being felt by those who live and work in Umgeni Road, Warwick Avenue and the beachfront areas, among others.

Notable successes achieved by Better Buildings in the past year include the cleaning and sealing up of number 20 Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, the rehabilitation of a hijacked building at 65 St George's Street, and the evacuation of criminals from the notorious Ark Royal and Tong Lok buildings in Mahatma Gandhi (formerly Point) Road.

The Ark Royal has now been sealed off, said Moolla, and the building will be rehabilitated by the new owner. The Tong Lok building, the site of two murders and a series of gang rapes, was sealed off two months ago after its last illegal inhabitants were evicted.

'We want to place the building under judicial administration, and the city has expressed interest in purchasing the property,' he said. 'To that end we are contacting all the sectional title co-owners to reach agreements of sale with them.'

Another 'bad' building - the Anna Capri block of flats in Albert Park - has been placed under judicial administration by Moolla's team, and they are making application to council to relax the law against advertising being placed on residential buildings, in an attempt to provide a revenue source for tenants that will help them offset their arrears.

The objectives of Moolla's team are to identify illegal building use, address poor building maintenance and health and security risks to inhabitants and prosecute recalcitrant offenders. They aim to restore degraded buildings wherever possible, rather than condemn them, as they have the potential to boost the city's rates base and help pay for much-needed infrastructural maintenance and upgrades.

Some of the challenges they deal with daily are the relentless influx of foreign nationals, slumlords who charge desperate illegal residents high prices for accommodation that puts their lives at risk, human trafficking rings, prostitution gangs, drug dens and illegal abortion clinics.

Private ownership of buildings complicates issues, particularly in the case of sectional title buildings, sub-letting, trusts and deceased estates, which take years to unravel.

The Better Buildings programme swings into action when a problem building is reported or comes to the team's attention because it is placed under judicial administration or its water and electricity supplies are terminated due to non-payment of utilities.

'We are not going to tolerate a situation where parts of Durban disintegrate in the way Hillbrow has done,' Moolla said in conclusion.

'We are in the process of drawing up a new set of bylaws governing problem buildings, and are aware that current municipal and High Court challenges need to be addressed. We are encouraged by our successes, and confident we will combat lawlessness and play our part in the regeneration of Durban.'

But ultimately, Moolla says that in order to succeed in the long term, his unit will have to be backed by government intervention to address the critical shortage of employment and housing.

Vivian Atwood
City Watch
Sunday Tribune


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