Time to Hit the “Pause” Button on Evictions?

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. COVID 19 (the proper name for coronavirus, as this is just one of many coronaviruses) is making everyone anxious for their health. Although the vast majority of patients recover, in South Africa we have a very vulnerable population and a weak health system, so widespread infection will wreak havoc in families and communities. Furthermore, those who have recovered describe the illness as extremely unpleasant, leaving them very weak for a considerable time. It’s to be avoided at all costs, hence the severe restrictions we are all living under. 

Beyond the literal threat the virus presents to health, up and down the country businesses are closing, particularly in hospitality – but closures will spread. Malls are open for now, but for how long? If a shutdown is mandated and employers can’t afford to pay wages, employees will be sent home with no income. How, then, are they meant to pay their bills, including rent?

Some lenience on loan re-payments

As of today (23 March), all the major banks have announced some provision for hardship caused by COVID 19. Standard Bank has announced a three-month payment holiday for small businesses with a turnover of less than R20 million, and for full-time students with student loans, to start on 1 April and run until 30 June. For other loans, including mortgage bonds, customers are urged to contact the bank. The other major banks are also assessing the situation and either inviting customers to contact them individually or waiting to see if they need to take more radical steps.

What about tenants?

Homeowners with bonds can hopefully expect some mercy, but what about tenants with rent to pay? In places where the pandemic has a tighter grip, legislative measures have been put in place to protect renters. Around the world, cities in the US and countries including Spain have temporarily halted evictions in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

In England and Wales, the Housing Secretary has said, “Emergency legislation will be taken forward as an urgent priority so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period.” Up in Scotland, similar action is proposed. The Housing Minister said, “No landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to coronavirus and we are actively considering how best this can be addressed.” 

A spokesperson for a tenants’ association said: “Up and down Scotland, tenants are facing not just a major health crisis, but the prospect of destitution and homelessness too. As their workplaces begin to shut their doors, it is hard to see how tenants who are already struggling to make ends meet will be able to pay their rent. It is unconscionable that anyone should even have to worry about being evicted from their home at this time.”

The situation here in South Africa is similar, and arguably will be worse, given our levels of poverty and disadvantage. At SD Law we support the 31 NGOs who have come together to appeal to President Cyril Ramaphosa, his Cabinet and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to follow in the footsteps of our international counterparts and forbid evictions during the current crisis. After all, if a lockdown is enforced, it makes no sense at all to put people out on the streets.

Stop the “ejectment” if not the eviction

We understand that there may be situations where the eviction is not only legitimate, but long overdue. Perhaps a tenant has significant arrears with rent or has damaged the property. We’re not advocating for the entire eviction process to be overturned in these circumstances. A fair and just procedure can be resumed in due course, when life returns to normal. But this is not the time to execute a warrant of ejectment, i.e. to put the tenant out.

Look after good tenants

We would also urge landlords to exercise leniency in the case of good tenants who suddenly cannot pay their rent because they have lost their jobs or income due to COVID 19. If a tenant has a history of timely payments and full compliance with the terms of the lease, they should be treated compassionately and a repayment plan worked out when the crisis is past.

From a purely commercial perspective, even if the appeal to our shared humanity is in vain, evicting a good tenant because they can’t pay their rent is unlikely to result in replacement income. No one is looking to move right now. And a property could sit empty far longer than the time it takes for the existing tenant to recover. Good tenants are worth looking after.

Contact Eviction Lawyers for help

We are eviction lawyers in Cape Town and Johannesburg. We act for both landlords and tenants and uphold the rights of each to a fair and satisfactory tenancy. In these uncertain times, we appeal to everyone to act with empathy and compassion. If you are worried about your tenancy or your tenants, contact Simon at Cape Town Eviction Attorneys on 086 099 5146 or email   sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za.

Time to hit the “pause” button on evictions?