Building hijackings on the rise

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

The inner city of Johannesburg is once again being plagued by property hijackers. This is threatening the urban regeneration project that property investors are trying to implement.

Johannesburg's inner city has been plagued by problems since the early 1980s when criminal elements moved in and basically started to run the show. The issue, which, if truth be told, was ignored by the authorities for some time escalated and pretty soon the entire area became an ungoverned mess. Tenants who had been paying rent to landlords soon found themselves being forced to hand over money to people who had no intention of maintaining any sort of acceptable standard in the living conditions and buildings soon became uninhabitable.

By 2010 it was estimated that around 1 200 buildings and 1 500 houses had been hijacked. The area basically became a no-go area as criminal elements took to the streets and billions was owed to the City of Johannesburg in the form if unpaid rates, taxes, water and electricity charges. Something had to give and the move by the city to clamp down on slum landlords and the hijackers was seen by many as a new beginning.

The papers were full of stories about how property owners were taking back what was rightfully theirs. Developers fuelled by government's decision to offer tax breaks to those who chose to invest started to pay off and fairly soon the area not only started to look better, it started to attract the right sort of tenant.

However, if the recent reports are to be believed, things are once again beginning to slide and property owners and investors in the city's CBD are threatening to pull out as renewed building hijackings increase.

It's always going to be a difficult task to keep hijackers from trying to take control. These people's actions are blatant and more often than not the building is hijacked from within when the hijackers portray themselves as a body corporate or maintain that they are the agents for the property. Once they have control they will often hire a security team to assault or intimidate the residents who do not want to pay them.

Unfortunately, little can be done without the support of both the police or the municipality and owners. According to a report in The Star, owners are once again receiving little or no help when their buildings are hijacked. What is even more tragic about the situation is that some of the buildings that have fallen victim to hijacking are those that have been recently refurbished. One such building, The Ridge, situated in Berea, was renovated in 2013 to the tune of R40-million. The owner, an emerging black entrepreneur has already spent some R600 000 in legal costs since the tenants stopped paying rent in September last year. It has been estimated that he stands to lose around R1.6-million as well as having to deal with the extensive damage that the illegal tenants have caused to the building.

In another case the owner's efforts to renovate a building in Parktown have been thwarted by tenants who refuse to vacate the property, despite the fact that the 20 occupants were given three months notice to vacate the premises. They started a rent boycott in February this year and have vandalised the property, setting two of the flats on fire.

It's clear that some sort of drastic action needs to be taken by all the parties involved. Tenants who choose to break the law by not paying rent to the landlord and destroy other people's property need to feel the full might of the law. Likewise those who decide to hijack a property, causing untold misery to the owners and those who live in the building need to be rooted out and dealt with appropriately.

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