have been renting a house for the past two years and pay my rent on the first of each month without fail. I am responsible for the electricity bill, but the water bill is included in my rental. There are several maintenance issues that the landlord has not repaired and he keeps promising to come and sort it out, but I have not seen or heard from him since December and he does not answer my calls.
A week ago, Johannesburg Water shut off our water supply without any notice to me – all statements and notices go to my landlord’s personal address. I have tried all avenues to get hold of him, but he is not available. What legal route should I take to resolve this problem as I am not financially ready to buy a place of my own?
DEON BOTHA OF RENTMASTER REPLIES:
In any dispute, the first step would be to read the lease agreement and see what is required by the tenant should the landlord breach the lease agreement – normally, the tenant would have to put the landlord to terms in the manner prescribed in the lease agreement or under the Consumer Protection Act. Only after the landlord has failed to remedy the breach within the demanded time would the tenant be able to take certain actions.
In this case, there are two issues, namely maintenance and the cutting off of water supply.
Maintenance is a complex area that is subject to interpretation as the owner is liable for structural maintenance, but the tenant is liable for fair wear and tear.
The owner and tenant often differ about what is seen as structural versus wear and tear. The competent authority in such disagreements and disputes remains the Rental Housing Tribunal, which will investigate complaints and make binding and final awards.
It is important to note that a tenant cannot offset repairs against rent. In other words, they may not withhold rent in lieu of performing maintenance themselves.
When it comes to switching off the water, this is a clearcut case and the landlord is in the wrong as the supply of municipal services is not optional.
If the tenant pays her rent and the supply of services is discontinued due to the owner’s failure to perform, she is suffering direct tangible damages and has an immediate claim against him.
The problem here is that the municipality may discontinue water supply due to nonpayment of other utilities, such as rates. Because she is directly and adversely affected by the owner’s failure to perform, she will have a strong case for settling the bill with the municipality and offsetting it against rental due. She must, however, be able to show that she made her best efforts to contact the owner and put him to terms in this regard. Here, her consumer rights in terms of the Consumer Protection Act would protect her. She needs to formally notify the owner of his failure to perform. If she is unable to contact him, as explained, then sending the notice by registered mail to the address stipulated in the lease agreement will suffice. The notice must explicitly lay out the demand for performance and provide a fair notice period for performance – say seven days (add five days for registered mail delivery and keep the original receipt from the Post Office) – as well as clearly state her intended action should he fail to perform in terms of the notice. This could include cancelling the lease agreement and vacating the property, or attending to the damages and offsetting this against the rent. She may want to approach the municipality to ascertain the exact cause of the disconnection of services and the amount of outstanding money involved. The point here is that if the owner has not paid any rates for 12 months, the amount may be substantial and exceed the monthly rental amount. She may be able to enter into an arrangement with the municipality to divert the rental amount directly to them and pay off the outstanding amount that way.
CITY PRESS REPLIES:
Michelle Dickens of TPN Credit Bureau confirms that a tenant should revert to the lease before taking further action, however, she raises the concern that Phumi may struggle to get her deposit back upon cancellation of the lease, which means she may not have money to secure a new rental property. Dickens says the Rental Housing Tribunal is the only available resource to help that will not add to her financial burden.
As each province has its own tribunal, City Press tried to confirm the telephone numbers in each province without success, except for the Western Cape, which confirmed that its provincial customer call centre was the first port of call. In most cases, there was no reply on the telephone numbers listed or we were informed the number did not exist.
We will continue to try to find direct numbers, however, the best point of contact appears to be the provinces’ main customer call centre or the department of human settlements. It is concerning that such an important resource such as the Rental Housing Tribunal is so underresourced.
National department of human settlements: 080 014 6873 / 012 421 1915