A Busy Couple of Weeks: Part I

The last two weeks of work have been quite educational with a sharp learning curve. The variety keeps things interesting, but I think sometimes the people that I work with forget that I have not been doing this for years like them.

The big items filling my work time over the last week and a half have been a housing dispute, ZSP applications issues, additional appeals for individuals denied refugee status, and an informational meeting at one of the other non-profits regarding the roll out of a new program designed to better integrate recent refugees into South Africa.

The housing dispute occupied much of my time over the last two weeks, as I filled the alternating roles of therapist, legal advisor, and kindergarten teacher in an attempt to resolve a quite contentious dispute. What started as a simple request for me to write a letter to the new owner of a property on a man’s behalf asking for the owner to give the man until the end of the month to move out, quickly devolved. The man was a pensioner who had been living in the house for the last nine plus years. The owner of the house apparently had passed away a couple of years ago, and the property was recently sold to new owners. The new owners gave the man, along with all of the other tenants (and there were several), notice to vacate the property. The man was first of all disputing whether the people were the new owners. He also was saying that notice was given to the other tenants when he wasn’t around, so he heard it from them. He went on to chronicle all the other ways that the owner had wronged him—originally agreeing to let them stay but then increasing the rent exponentially in order to drive them out; getting the man to agree to move into a building he would construct behind the premises, but then supposedly providing inadequate conditions; not giving the man enough time to move out; changing the amount of time that the man had to move out; turning off the water on some of the other tenants; breaking down his door; and the list went on. Not to mention just going on and on about how tyrannical the owner is being.

I talked with him at length, trying to find out what his ideal outcome would be. And we reached an understanding that I would write a letter to the owner requesting that the owner give the man until the end of the month to find alternate accommodations and move out, and informing the owner that if he was looking to make the man leave before then, he would need to go through the proper legal channels. Though part of me questioned how effective a letter would really be, considering the landlord had already gone so far as to break down doors, I sent the man on his way with the letter.

The next morning I got a call from the man telling me that after giving the owner the letter the day before, he went out and then got a call to come back to his house because the owner had broken down his door again, and wanting to know what to do. Clearly I am ill-equipped to deal with this and Bernard was not there to ask questions of, so I advised him to go to the police and file a complaint. There is nothing as an organization that we can do, as that is taking it outside the realm of a rights violation and into something more legal. I told him to file a report, find out what the police have to say, and then depending on that, we will see if there is anything we can do or if we can refer him to another organization that represents people in court.

Things did not improve over the weekend, and Monday morning Bernard got a call from the owner of the property airing his grievances about the tenant. According to him, the current occupant is being completely unreasonable, they offered him alternate accommodations in the back, etc. etc. Before I can call the owner back and try to work out a solution, the owner calls back and proceeds to go over again with me how accommodating he has been and how unreasonable the occupant is being, etc. etc. and wanting to send me pictures to show me the condition of the current room and the place he put in the back for the guy. I find it challenging sorting out who is in the right and who in the wrong—I’ve decided they are both right and wrong—when they both sound rational and I have little independent evidence of what is going on other than he said-he said. Granted, the pictures do show what a deplorable state the room is in, but that also doesn’t really change the current state of matters (or make breaking down doors or turning off water excusable). After much back and forth, I manage to get the owner to agree to let the occupant stay in his current room (not have to move out to the back shed) until the end of the month. He wants it in writing, and I tell him I will need something in writing from both of them—this way the occupant has a guarantee that he has until the end of the month, and the owner has a guarantee the occupant will move out then. I tell him I will talk to the occupant and get back to him.

Calling the occupant, I explain that I got the landlord to agree to give him until the end of the month, asked him if that is still what he wanted, and told him I will need it in writing from both of them. He informed me that yes, that is what he wants, and also tells me that he got a protective order against the landlord. Arranging for him to come in the next day to sign the contract I would draft up, I called the landlord to tell him I would send him the contract for his signature. After the landlord sent me a few minor changes to what I drafted, I was starting to feel good that this was going to be resolved favorably for all. (Clearly I was getting ahead of myself…)

Tuesday, though I was supposed to be gone from the office most of the day, I got to the office early so that I could print out the contract for the parties to sign should I be gone when they come in. Of course neither came in or called. This housing issue gets more annoying by the day. Not because of the issue itself, but because both parties are acting like fighting kindergarteners and I feel like I am the teacher trying to keep the peace. Neither of them want to sign the agreement first; they keep insisting that the other sign it and then they will. So I told them they would each sign their own copy independently, send it to me, and then I would combine them. But still, I keep getting emails and calls about did he sign it first. And then the landlord sent me another email where he wanted me to get the occupant to sign a document acknowledging the sale etc., to which I wrote back no, we are not getting involved in their other legal matters. I am only here to help facilitate a mutually agreeable move out date, not to act as a go between on any matters where they don’t want to deal with each other.

The drama continued on Wednesday, and by the time I got off the bus and into my office, I had five back-to-back missed calls on my phone from the owner. We connected on the sixth, and the owner finally sent me back the agreement with his and his wife’s signatures. After some initially difficulties with downed internet and the inability to open files, I had half the agreement in hand.  Well, of course the owner then asks me if the occupant has come in yet and what I am going to do about it. I tell him that no, the occupant has not come in yet. He was supposed to come in yesterday afternoon, but he never showed. Well, when is he coming in? I don’t know. I tell him I will try calling him one more time to find out, but that is it. He needs to come in on his own, I cannot force him. He tells me that if the occupant doesn’t sign, he is moving the guys stuff out. I tell him that he can’t do that; he needs to go through the court to have the man evicted. No, I don’t understand, it is his house. Yes, I do understand that, but legally he is not allowed to remove the man’s stuff.

I try calling the tenant, to no avail, but shortly after, he arrives in the office. Very happy to see me, he couldn’t make it in yesterday, yada yada yada. I tell him that the landlord sent me the signed copy, and pull it out for him to look over and sign. But first, let him tell me his concerns. First, he wants to know why the man broke down his door after receiving my initial letter. I say I don’t know; I didn’t ask him. Anything having to do with breaking into the room is beyond the scope of what we can help with. He then starts chronicling all the ways the owner has wronged him, including breaking down his door, people he hired to work on the house taking beef and ostrich steaks from his freezer, and moving another tenant’s bed out back. He shows me the protective order, and tells me how he laid out the events and claimed damages. Now he is concerned about signing the document I drafted because the landlord can then use it against him in court and he wants to know if signing it will affect the protective order. I tell him that the point of drafting the agreement was so that each party would have a binding document that they could rely on—so he could use it against the landlord if the landlord tried to kick him out before the end of the month, and so that the landlord would have a guarantee that he would be out on the agreed upon day. As for the protective order, I told him that this agreement only had to do with the move out date. It had nothing to do with damages; for that he would have to go through the courts. He also keeps telling me how he doesn’t want to sign because it isn’t right how this man is treating him and the other tenants. I explain to the man that I appreciate the fact that he is looking out for the other tenants and I think that is very kind of him, but that the protective order as well as our help only covers him. If they are having similar problems, they need to come to us or to the police/courts in order to be protected themselves. So while I appreciate what he is doing, we should focus on how it relates to him. Really what the upshot seems to be is that he is concerned that he won’t be able to find other accommodations by the end of the month. In the nicest way possible, I remind him that when he came in a week ago and we discussed the matter and I asked him what he wanted, he said he wanted to the end of the month. So that was the negotiating platform I started from. And it took quite a bit of convincing on my part to get the owner to let him stay, and more than let him stay, to let him stay in the same room and not be moved to the back building. And I got the owner to agree. And when I told him on Monday he agreed as well. I told him that at this point, it is not possible to go back to the owner and ask for more time. (I mean, when you get exactly what you ask for, you can’t turn around and up the stakes.) I told him that if he chose not to sign, and that is his right to do so, we wouldn’t be able to assist him anymore (We were only there to help facilitate a mutually agreeable move out date.) and he would need to go through the courts to resolves the move out date and the damages. He understands, and after going over all the terrible things about the owner again, says that he will rely on the protective order, thanks me and leaves. By this point I am ready to pull my hair out, as I watch all of my hard work from the last week going down the drain. Worse, I must now call the owner and tell him that the occupant won’t be signing.  Let’s just leave it at that conversation did not go so well….

It was a challenging and enlightening week, and though things did not turn out quite how I hoped, I learned a lot in the process.