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Wednesday Mar 16, 2016

When landlords and tenants clash, mediation is key

Rental wars are mounting in Gauteng as tenants who can't afford to pay rent are facing off with their landlords now more than ever.

This has translated to more work for the first black woman to chair the Gauteng Rental Housing Tribunal.

Former national consumer commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi admits that in the last three years she and her team have had to deal with a plethora of disheartening property matters as the economic downturn sees more individuals drowning in debt.

"Many people are being retrenched. We have seen a vast increase in the number of people who are rental defaulters.

"Not because they do so intentionally, but because their financial circumstances have changed for the worse," Mohlala-Mulaudzi says.

She points out that many of these defaulters are single mothers who have had to face the prospect of being put out into the cold with their children.

The tribunal is Mohlala-Mulaudzi's current stint following her roles at the National Consumer Commission (NCC) and as director-general of communications, where she left under a dark cloud following her fallout with former communications minister Simphiwe Nyanda.

But it's the policy work she learnt in her previous jobs which Mohlala-Mulaudzi says has helped her rule decisively on matters at the tribunal, a sphere of the Department of Human Settlements that deals with disputes between landlords and tenants.

The mother of one, who is also a practising attorney, says she has grown in her current role despite the controversies relating to her previous jobs.

"Holding a grudge drags you down. You need to move forward as a human being and I believe everything happens for a reason. That encounter, good or bad as it may have been, served a certain purpose in both our lives," she says of her bitter public row with Nyanda six years ago.

She continues to hear it all. There are the ugly spats, the heartbreaking stories of tenants sleeping in their cars after being locked out by a landlord, as well as the problems of hijacked buildings in Joburg CBD.

She's also had to deal with complaints arising from old age homes and student accommodation over rental deposits, lack of maintenance and overcharging of rent money.

Many of these, she says, have forced her to make stern orders.

"The issue of families with children being locked out hits you the hardest in winter because you find that if you don't make an order that states these people need to go back into occupation, you are effectively condemning them to sleeping out in the cold. But you also have to balance that with the fact that landlords also have to recoup their monthly income from these tenants. It's often tricky."

She recalls a case of an HIV-positive man evicted from a room he shared with his family and how it left her feeling hopeless.

"He had no way of getting alternative employment because he was at the last stages of his illness.

"He simply couldn't pay the R250 rent needed.

"At that point I offered to pay the landlord out of my own pocket so that this man could go back home instead of leaving him to die in the streets. To you and me R250 could mean nothing but to another person it determines whether they have shelter or not."

Despite the consumer protection knowledge she acquired at the NCC, Mohlala-Mulaudzi says the challenge with her current job is creating awareness around the role of the tribunal for consumers.

She explains people think one only comes to the tribunal when a written lease between them and their landlord exists but adds verbal agreements are also looked into.

She points out that although her team deals with 60 cases a week, the urgent ones such as a lockout, electricity or water cut-offs by landlords are often given immediate attention and resolved within 24-hours.

Mohlala-Mulaudzi says they strive to be fair, their decisions are not necessarily sympathetic towards tenants.

"At the end of the day, one has to bear in mind that the bargaining power between a landlord and tenant is not the same.

"Our responsibility as the tribunal is to bring up the weaker party on par with the one who has the strongest bargaining power. I don't know if this is interpreted as the tribunal leaning more towards the tenants but the myth that we don't help landlords is untrue."

While there is no current legislation that caps rental fees, Mohlala-Mulaudzi says complaints of landlords charging exorbitant fees are often investigated.

A change she is looking forward to is the pending law that will compel every landlord to adhere to a standard pro forma lease.

"Amendments were made to the Rental Housing Act in 2014 and these clearly stated that once a date is proclaimed by the president, all leases will have to be written out and will be handled by the Department of Human Settlements."

Ultimately, she says, more South Africans need to play a bigger role. "I think if we were all to wake up and say we want to do our little bit to make this country a better place, we would have a much better place to call home."

Pretoria News


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