NGO leasing Usindiso lost it when it couldn’t pay rent of R499 a year

The custodian of the Usindiso building, the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), has laid the blame for their inability to evacuate the occupants and hijackers of the building on a lack of alternative accommodation, criminality and legal barriers.

Helen Botes, CEO of JPC, told the commission of inquiry into the deadly Usindiso fire that the building was captured in December 2019 after the owners of the shelter lost their funding and their contract could not be renewed.

“Our experience of hijacking in the inner city has criminal elements. They can break a lock if you put one on. The minute it’s known that it’s a government building, it’s open to invasion, that’s the reality,” Botes said.She testified that the Usindiso ministries was funded and monitored by the department of social development during its lease period, which was nine years and 11 months from July 2003.The lease was R499 a year, payable in advance every year. She said that the rationale for the rate was that it was meant to uplift the community.“We were supporting an NGO supporting vulnerable women and children. It’s not a commercial operation, that’s why we would enter into that value. It’s changed since then. In the agreement they would be responsible for maintaining and paying for electricity and water.“We pass on the responsibility of maintenance to the lessee. We don’t then rely on city funding to maintain the building. We need to ensure they have funding, we hand over the property voetstoots.“It’s to reduce rental and allow them to maintain the property,” said Botes.In 2018 they could not extend the lease agreement as the ministry was a bad payer and they lost their funding.“They had no mechanism, so had no way of paying the lease; let alone if we had to renew the agreement with them. They  would not have been able to pay the lease because you can see from [the] payments,” said Botes, who explained that the tenants were labelled as “not good tenants”. “The NGO was no longer receiving their grants from social development, which means that if they had to do any repairs or maintenance as per the lease,  they would have the inability to do that,” Botes added.
She said that as part of intervention they approached the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco) and offered to buy the building, but could not do so because of a lack of funding.In the meantime, there were still occupants in the building.“They could not acquire the building as they did not have sufficient funding and other priorities in the inner city, as Joshco is responsible for providing social housing, so the Joshco initiative falls away.“So those attempts didn’t yield any results. Then what were left with was the building with occupants. We could not evict them because we would have to provide them with temporary accommodation.” In 2018 they received complaints that the building was no longer being used for its intended purpose.They followed up by sending their officials to the building.“The security personnel of the NGO denied access to JPC officials. Law enforcement accompanied them, they inspected the building and some of the women were still occupying. The complaints were about activities in the building and not necessarily the structural integrity.“In the lease we said they cannot sublease without our permission. Some of the women who were left in the building started inviting people from the Maxhoseng informal settlement to move in. We realised the building had vulnerable occupants.“Social development was also roped in to do an assessment of the occupants, not all of them pitched up and 19 people were interviewed, though about 80 people were occupying the building. There were also single mothers living in the building despite its uninhabitable condition.“These people would not be able to afford a social housing unit. In December 2019, we were unable to access the building.
She apportioned some of the blame on the city’s lack of funding, “It’s the responsibility of the JPC, but if the shareholder is not giving the support there is no way to manage. I told the shareholder (CoJ) that I could not manage the building. The shareholder didn’t give a direct response. It’s the same scenario as with a house — you still have to give them the money to do the maintenance,” she said. She made an example of one of the city’s architectural jewels, the Rissik Street Post Office, which was hijacked and neglected.“In the process of trying to redevelop the building in line with its heritage status, it was put out on tender a number of times and during the process of fixing it up it was invaded. We couldn’t evict the tenants.“It’s not a residential building. One of the NGOS took us to court and stopped the eviction,” she said.Another building that she said was not safe for human habitation was Wimbledon Court in Wolmarans Street, Johannesburg.Botes testified that in three weeks’ time they should have the certificate for demolition of the Usindiso building.More than 70 people were killed when it caught fire last year. Scores of people were injured.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *