Landlords Beware

06/07/2016 15:21

The whole world came crashing down for Ramesh, a salesman when one fine afternoon, his landlord asked him to vacate the two-bedroom flat he had been renting for a while.

Being the breadwinner, sustaining cost of living for his two children, wife and an aging mother was already a struggle. The consolation he had was the $200   rent which he could easily afford. But with an eviction notice hanging over his head and that too one which was not even a full month’s notice, caused added stress to him. The landlord had taken a step ahead and disconnected both the water and electricity even though the utility bills were up to date. Unfortunately, there was no tenancy agreement in place. A frustrated Ramesh filed a complaint with the Council seeking the Council’s assistance.

The Council has handled complaints from aggrieved tenants regularly who are harassed and blackmailed by their landlords. Just in the last three months, 70 landlord/tenancy cases have come before the Council with tenants seeking redress.

Unfortunately, many of these complainants are low-income earners or are from middle-working class who cannot afford to buy a property but rely on tenancy.

These cases range from unjustified eviction, unwanted or unjustified rent increase despite a Rent Freeze Order on residential tenancy, no proper tenancy agreement and receipts not issued, non-refund of bond, disconnections of utilities, invasion of privacy, substandard and poor condition of the premises with no repair works and ongoing quarrels between the two parties.

For substandard housing, the matter is referred to the respective municipal council for inspection. If the premises are in poor condition, then a defect notice is issued by the municipal council. The property in question has to be sealed unless it is repaired by the landlord. In such cases, tenants are asked to vacate to the property as health and safety of tenants remains a priority.

Rent increase is still a problem despite the rent freeze order. Any residential increase in rent from the period March 2, 2007, and December 31, 2016, will be deemed illegal and penalties including on-spot fines ($1000 natural person or $3000 body corporate) can be imposed by the Fiji Commerce Commission (FCC). The matter can be taken to court if fine is not paid within 21 days. The landlords are also required to keep the records (tenancy agreements and receipts) of the tenancy for three years.

As per Section 56 ((2)  of Commerce Commission Decree 2010 , the Commission may, by notice in writing, direct any trader to keep such other records and accounts as are specified in the notice.

And, as per 56 (3), no trader shall, without the consent of the Commission, destroy any document whatever relating wholly or in part to any business carried on by him or to any goods or services until a period of three years has elapsed since the documents originated.

There are times when tenants rent lean-to-house in squatter settlements and are asked to vacate overnight, in such circumstances - our hands are tied as renting out premises in squatter settlements is prohibited. 

Invasion of privacy remains a burning issue as some landlords have a habit of keeping duplicate keys to the premises rented out and when tenants are away, they enter the flat. Some landlords show up after hours to carry out repair works at the premises without giving prior notice to the tenants.  

 The FCC can investigate such cases under Section 76 or 90 of the Commerce Commission Decree 2010 or a private civil action can be instituted by the tenant. Similar action can be taken when landlords disconnect water and power supply.

Section 76 covers unconscionable conduct while Section 90 deals with harassment and coercion.  As per Section 90 (1), a person shall not use physical force or undue harassment or coercion in connexion with the supply or possible supply of goods or services to a consumer or the payment for goods or services by a consumer.

All these complaints reflect tenants often feeling cheated and that their expectations are not met. 

Some landlords also seek help from the consumer agencies over rent not being paid on time, abusive tenants not taking good care of the property, overcrowding and unwarranted behaviour shown by the tenant.

Both, tenants and landlords can seek advice from the Council or contact Fiji Commerce Commission for clarification regarding tenancy.