Rent battle intensifies
A constitutional expert says the government can, if it chooses, revive old-era rent boards to protect current tenants from being exploited by landlords.
24 May 2018 | Government
This was the argument articulated by constitutional law expert Nico Horn as he weighed in on the unfolding battle between the Affirmative Repositioning movement and government over its position that it needs a new rent bill to rein in high rental prices.
Horn said the pre-independence Rents Ordinance 13 of 1977 is still in place and the government can, if it chooses, revive the old-era rent boards, which were chaired by local magistrates and had the power to summon landlords to answer for why they were charging exorbitant monthly rental fees for properties.
“I don't see how we can escape the introduction of rent boards. It is a pity it was not done five years ago,” said Horn.
“The rent ordinance cannot be in conflict with the Namibian constitution because rent control boards must prevent landowners from asking exorbitant prices. At independence there were only 10 000 people living in shacks and now 140 000 people live in shacks.”
AR has threatened to drag government to the High Court over its failure to implement resolutions that had been agreed to during an eleventh-hour meeting at State House in 2015, which averted a countrywide land grab by its members.
Among these resolutions was that government would establish rent control boards, in a bid to ease the pressure on families that have been left at the mercy of developers and home and flat owners, who are raking in monthly rentals.
Industrialisation minister Tjekero Tweya responded to AR's legal threat last week.
He said government had tried to regulate pricing in the rental market.
“Government has undertaken a number of steps leading to the establishment of the rent boards as provided for in the Rents Ordinance of 1977. However, after the review of the ordinance, it is government's considered opinion that the ordinance is impractical to implement in its current form,” said Tweya.
In February last year, AR also threatened legal action against the government, which had put on hold the appointment of a rent control board until the tabling of a new bill.
Tweya, as information minister, announced a sudden turnabout on appointing a rent control board by saying the 1977 law had become obsolete and would “render the work of the rent board of no force or effect”.
He announced that a new bill was on the cards, which would replace the current legislation. Until that time, it would be impractical to implement a rent control board, he said.
Horn said while the 1977 rent ordinance may be amended to reflect the inflation rate of today, it can still be implemented to curb exorbitant rent prices.
According to him the ordinance was never repealed and cannot be in violation of the post-independence constitution as it is supposed to prevent landowners from exploiting tenants.
Horn also called on government to show how far it is with the proposed draft rent bill, which is yet to be tabled in parliament.
He said AR has a point and is theoretically correct to say the pre-independence ordinance is still in place, as it was never repealed.
Responding to Tweya, Horn said: “He is possibly correct, but in the sense that society has totally changed. But the principles remains the same, of course the amounts would be dramatically different than it was. But the regulations attached should be an easy job that can even be done by the minister.”
He added there is an urgent need for intervention.
Chairperson of the Namibia Estate Agents Board (NEAB) Anne Gebhardt also echoed AR's sentiments that there is an urgent need for legislation to protect members of society. However, she urged that such legislation be implemented properly.
“The biggest concern at the moment is the shortage of property to rent and any industry is driven by demand and supply.
“If there is a lot of supply then the prices will go down because people have a lot to choose from. There is a very high turnover in the rental industry; people cannot afford the rentals in the market and end up committing to a property because they are desperate to have a home, but three months down the line they cannot afford the property anymore,” she said.
The draft rent bill makes provision for regional rent tribunals to oversee complaints and other rent-related matters.
The 1977 rent ordinance stipulates that a rent board shall consist of the local magistrate and not more than four additional members.
The magistrate shall act as the chairperson and determine the times and places at which the rent board shall meet. Minutes of these meetings must be kept.
It also provides that a register of leased dwellings situated in the area of jurisdiction of rent board, and of the rent charged in each case be kept.
The chairperson of the rent board is also responsible for the investigation of complaints and has the power to summon.
Any person able to give material information concerning the rent charged or who it presumes or believes has in their possession any book, document or thing which has any bearing upon rent investigation, may be brought before the rent board.
A local estate agent who spoke on condition of anonymity said current rent was either a monthly bond repayment or just less, and that people cannot afford it.
“Townhouses are standing empty. And now owners must negotiate and will end up asking N$8 000 for a N$12 000 townhouse, because they cannot wait until they find tenants and then the prices go down again,” she said.