South Africa: After Decades Living in Council Flats, Tenants Want Title Deeds

Elderly residents of Nigel's Alra Park say they were on the housing list but were allocated rental flats. Now they want ownership

  • Tenants who have been renting garden flats in Alra Park, Nigel, for decades from the City of Ekurhuleni say they now want title deeds.
  • Most of the households are headed by pensioners struggling to pay rent and live with the constant fear of eviction.
  • They argue that the rental units were allocated to them instead of houses and since they were given no other housing option they should have rights of ownership.

"The thought of being moved from my home scares me," says 83-year-old Christina Smith. She has lived at Alra Park flats, between Bloubok Avenue and Northern Road in Nigel and owned by the City of Ekurhuleni, for 30 years.

She fears she will be evicted and is having sleepless nights, she says. She and people in 43 other households that make up Alra Park, many of them elderly people, are struggling to pay their rent. Some owe large amounts in arrears.

Smith owes R2,000 in arrears. In 1994, when she moved in, she paid R290 a month. After she lost her job at a factory, she negotiated the rent down to R37. Later, her rent was increased to R130 where it stayed for a long time.

In December last year, she and other residents were presented with a new lease setting their rent at R785.78 as of 1 February. Rent for some units has increased to R1,800. The tenants say they were never consulted about the increases. Several told GroundUp they could not afford more than R300 a month.

The residents were allocated the single-storey, two-bedroomed Alra Park garden flats when they applied for housing decades ago, some of them still during apartheid, with the help of the Labour Party. Some flats have since been taken over by the children or relatives of the original occupants who have died.

While these long-term residents say they should be given title deeds, Councillor Wollaston Labuschagne (DA) says there is no commitment by the municipality to hand over title deeds. The units form part of the City's rental stock and the rentals are below market rates, he says.

But Smith says the promise of title deeds goes back much further. She watched the Alra flats being built in the 1980s. In the early 1990s she got her name on the housing waiting list. In 1994, the housing department allocated her a flat and told her that it was to be her new home. She understood this to mean she had a permanent place.

"I got no other house when I applied for a house. But now they want to evict us," said Smith. "What will l do at an old age home when l have a house? I want to die in my house."

She also wants to leave the flat to her grandson who lives with her and is currently studying at a college.

"We were promised title deeds for these flats," insists 70-year-old Mildred Salie, resident since 1985.

She was unable to get a house during apartheid because she had separated from her husband without legally divorcing him.

Salie's rent has also been increased to R785. She says she cannot afford this but she doesn't want to move.

"I fail to understand why the municipality did not go ahead and give us title deeds because this is where I've lived for the past 38 years. The government said these are our houses; now they are telling us a different story," says Salie.

Dora Msibi moved into her flat in 1991 with her mother. Msibi is now a pensioner and has taken over the lease. She is struggling to pay the rent and to pay off the arrears her mother left when she died in 2015.

"It's not easy to be asked to leave the home where you grew up. The government should consider giving us title deeds and stop charging us large sums in rent," said Msibi.

According to Labuschagne, if people are in arrears, they should approach the Nigel finance department to make payment arrangements.

He said the rental increases are based on the City's valuations and are "set at below market rental amounts". He said many of the flats' occupants have refused to enter into lease agreements. He encouraged them to renew their leases.

German Visser, who says he was a councillor from 1994 to 1998, says the flats were built as rental units under apartheid. After 1994, people started asking about ownership. But no decision was taken by government.

Yet, he said, in Diepkloof and Orlando, hostels had been transferred into home ownership. "It became a matter of why the same was not being done in so-called 'coloured' areas with the flats people were living in."

"People in those flats have been living there for as long as people who lived in hostels in other areas and were given title deeds."

He said the tenants in the flats deserved to own them.

"The City of Ekurhuleni issued notices to the tenants in February 2023 advising them to approach the finance department to make payment arrangements on overdue accounts as well as sign new lease agreements with human settlements department," the City told GroundUp in response to questions.

It said the City had invited public participation before implementation of the increases but gave no details.

"The City has not threatened any tenant with eviction."

The City said the units are for rental purposes only and there cannot be an expectation of title deeds and the units cannot be transferred to tenants. Residents are "definitely not" entitled to apply for indigent relief while living in the flats.

The City said historic debt cannot be cancelled "because when they signed the lease agreements they undertook to pay for services".

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