• How Landlords Exploit Ineffective Tenancy Law
By TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA,
Assistant Lagos-City Editor
It’s already 18 months since the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, signed the Tenancy Bill into law. However, to some Lagosians, the law has not made the required positive impact on tenants in the state. They told The Guardian in separate interviews that the law had not achieved its objective of alleviating their sufferings from landlords.
The law prohibited a landlord from demanding or receiving rents in excess of six months from a sitting tenant paying monthly and one year rent from a tenant paying yearly, irrespective of the nature of the tenancy held.
One area of contention is the restrictive application of the law. Apapa, Ikeja GRA, Ikoyi and Victoria Island are exempted from the application of this law. The rationale behind the exemption appears to be that tenants in these areas are predominantly corporate bodies and high net worth individuals. The assumption is that these categories of tenants are better able to define the terms of their tenancy with their respective landlords.
Mr. Yusuf Bolaji, a resident of Okota, said he was made to pay two years’ rent with high commissions to secure his new apartment. “Three of us were negotiating to rent the place; it would be stupid of me to offer to pay one year rent when the two others were ready to offer more,” he said.
“Some people were lucky to meet law-abiding landlords that accepted one year rent, but not all the landlords are complying with the law and it is frustrating securing a decent accommodation without dancing to the tune of the ‘almighty’ landlords.”
A prospective tenant in Surulere area, Femi Olayinka, also noted that the tenancy law has not made the much-needed impact. “I have been trying to settle down with my fiancée for months now, but this is being delayed due to my inability to secure an apartment. The landlords I have been meeting are not complying with the law and this is limiting my choice of where to stay,” he said.
In Agege, a prospective tenant simply named Okechukwu, was shown a two-bedroom flat, but after paying, he was given keys to a self-contained one-room apartment by the agent with the explanation that the two-bedroom flat had been taken.
“After three weeks of dragging the matter back and forth, I was advised even by the policemen, who I reported the case to, to take the available flat offered me or forfeit my money. I discovered that my money was trapped because the agent will refund some and withhold a certain amount, while about 15 percent of it was being demanded by the police for intervening in the matter,” he said.
The above scenario is the picture of what prospective tenants go through. But this is just a tip of the iceberg compared to what sitting tenants endure from some landlords for fear of eviction notice.
A man was recently given a quit notice because his landlord does not want a married man in his house. The young man travelled to his home state for Christmas and came back with a wife. After introducing her to his landlord, he received his congratulations accompanied with a verbal eviction notice.
The newly wedded sought the assistance of some elders in the neighbourhood before they were allowed access to their apartment, however, with a condition that they would vacate the house at the expiration of their rent later in the year.
In Itire area of Lagos, a landlady opened a bank account late last year and instructed each tenant to pay N5,000 monthly for electricity bill, which none of the tenants had set eyes on. When the tenants requested to see the current PHCN bill, the landlady responded with a quit notice and threats to disconnect them from power supply.
Sitting tenants in Lagos go through a lot to keep their tenancy and the situation is not better with the introduction of the tenancy law. Prospective tenants, in their desperation, accept all manners of conditions, some written and many others unwritten.
The fear of quit notice is enough for tenants to forgo a lot of things that ordinarily should be demanded for. Many ascribe the exploitation of tenants to the scarcity of accommodation, which makes demand to surpass supply.
Some landlords have devised a method around the provisions of the tenancy law. They have jacked up the rents of sitting tenants by over 50 percent to compensate for the six-month rent they are allowed to collect by law. They collect rent of a year and six months from prospective tenants but issue receipt for a year, or collect a year’s rent and three months into the tenancy, request a six-month rent.
A visit to the Citizens’ Mediation Centre, an arm of Lagos State Ministry of Justice, which handles landlords/tenants matters through mediation, did not produce any result. The director was unavailable at the centre at Motorways, Alausa. An information officer in the establishment ‘reminded’ The Guardian about the new rule in the state, which forbids officials from speaking with the press without clearance.
In a bid, however, to bring respite to affected Lagosians, the Landlord-Tenant Dispute Mediation Centre, Ojota, has promised to eradicate the problem of unlawful ejection and other forms of maltreatment of tenants by landlords and their agents in Lagos State.
The centre was established in 2008 by public-spirited lawyers for the purpose of promoting amicable settlement of tenancy disputes. In a chat with The Guardian, the national coordinator of the centre, Mr. Abali O. Abali, said the NGO is out to ensure both landlords and tenants abide by the contractual relationship between them.
According to him: “It is the practice by some landlords to secure a court injunction, using Jankara method to eject a tenant and recover their premises. Some tenants are very ignorant of court proceedings and usually don’t know how to act when confronted with such situations. This was why we came up with the idea of the NGO, basically to protect tenant’s rights. We also stand in for landlords when the situation arises.
“Some tenants would be given a seven-day quit notice when the proper six-months notice had not even be served. The centre has had to take up issues with lawyers, who indulge in such unethical practices. You can’t because of the money a landlord will give you as a lawyer and go ahead to carry out unlawful instruction without educating your clients.
Abali said there are also situations, which are so rampant, where a landlord sells a property without informing the tenants and the new property owner would simply issue the tenants notices to quit in days. “When we get such cases, we don’t waste time; we immediately file for an injunction, restraining the new landlord from taking possession until the six months stipulated by the law is observed,” he said.
Abali, however, countered the belief, held by many people that the law has been ineffective. “The fact that some landlords devise ways around the law shows that it is having an effect, even if psychological,” he said.
“Today, there is no landlord that will issue receipt for two years’ rent, even if he collected the money because he knows the receipt is an evidence against him that could land him in jail or pay a fine of N100,000. But the problem with that aspect of the law is that both the payer and receiver are guilty and liable to the same fine,” he said.
“The law is not being realistic because there is no way a tenant can prove that he paid an excessive rent or the landlord demanded excessive rent from him except he pays; so, he can have evidence. Otherwise, if it is just an oral allegation, it will be his words against the landlord’s.”
Abali’s suggestion, whenever the law would be amended, is for a provision to be made, stating that any landlord, who knowingly lets out his apartment to two or more tenants for the available space of one, should be asked to refund the money with interest, in addition to paying a fine.
“It will become easier to enforce, because right now, when tenants fall victim of this situation, they run to the police and wait until the police detain the landlord or agent and intervene to retrieve the money. There has to be an express provision in the law covering this situation, so that any victim can go to court and seek redress once he is denied possession of a property,” he said.