Excuse my too many questions but let me just ask a few. Are you living in your own house or are you in a rented apartment or house? For the majority of us, it is the latter. If you belong to the former, you probably do not know what the latter category means. Or may be not! You have, probably, rented out part of your property.
For those of us in the latter category, when last did you go house-hunting? I bet it was tough for you. Tougher than job-hunting in a country where more than two-thirds are out of a gainful employ. Greedy house-owners and mean estate agents who rip you off unpardonably are all too familiar customers.
It was with this in mind that when news came through last week that former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had joined his successor and current president Ernest Bai Koroma to turn the sod on a building project by the country’s social security scheme, NASSIT, I smiled and nodded.
I nodded both for the good of the combined effort of the two men at Waterloo to prioritise this, a basic human right that remains a luxury for the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans – housing, or call it shelter. But I also nodded and smiled because despite promises by then-president Kabbah that building materials would be subsidised for the ordinary people who lost their homes in the aftermath of the January 1996 rebel invasion of Freetown, the price of cement, zinc, nails, paint, etc shot up the roof during his regime.
The high cost of building materials has become an excuse for landlords and landladies to shoot up their rent even when some of these houses were built with money that can hardly buy a bag of rice today. They lord it over us as if they are God’s messengers on earth. Consequently, we all now want to own a house. But with the high cost of everything, you almost certainly have to be corrupt to be able to own one. A politician, a businessman, a customs official, or somehow someone involved in money-laundering or drug-trafficking.
Even owning a plot of land is a headache. Government-owned land is bought largely through backdoor moves. Land owned under statutory declaration is sold at unreasonable and unchecked costs. Forget about the questionable authenticity of ownership by the “owners”, they sell it at exorbitant prices with absolute impunity with no-one giving a hoot to ask questions! The implementation of the laws is very clay-legged with law enforcers working in cahoots with criminals and other law breakers.
Those who sell land hardly pay any form of tax at all to the revenue authority. Despite the cut-throat prices they sell for, they pocket everything as if telling government to go to hell and the buyer to roast in purgatory.
But back to renting a house in a country where the mix cannot be worse for the tenant. Greedy landlords plus mean agents. Some landlords hate seeing their tenants grow in status, and the rent is shot up almost without prior notice on seeing you park a car of your own. They build houses without regard to a car park for the tenant. If you are a tenant, bring beautiful furniture into your house today (Friday), let the landlord or landlady see it tomorrow, your rent in increased in Sunday or Monday effective end of the year’s rent. Let the aroma of your sumptuous meal travel beyond the four walls and forecourt of your apartment, you’ll pay with an increased rent, for stimulating the landlord’s diaphragm. You want to get argumentative? Well, an eviction order awaits you.
As for the real estate agents, they are disorganised by their mere nature, but also because they do not have any statutory powers. Callous and sometimes parlous they have become.
In Senegal, for example, where I rented a house, it is amazing the level of organisation and powers estate agents wield. There, a landlord/lady who asks a tenant for more than one month’s rent is prosecuted. A property owner does not directly rent his house out to a tenant. He goes through an estate agent who asks for three months rent money.
One month’s pay goes to the agent, the other is collateral and the third is advance rent for the last moth of the tenant’s stay in the house. This means a tenant only pays after the month is spent in the house and not in advance of a whole year as is the norm here. A tenant does not pay for the last month of their tenancy. They also get a month’s rent reimbursed them if nothing was damaged in the house or if no bills are owed.
I rented a house in Dakar and never set eyes on my landlord. The agent was the person I would call if I had any problem. A colleague of mine had to go through an estate agent to rent the house whose landlady she was friends with.
The agents are so well organised that they have billboards all over the place advertising apartments and houses for rent or lease. With detailed specifications and telephone numbers, you simply put in a telephone call and discuss with the agent. And the agents pay tax to the revenue authority too!
Here, you pay to bogus estate agents who will take a quarter of your money and still not deliver you a house. This is why the NASSIT housing initiative is particularly laudable. But they have to make their mortgage scheme a bit soft for ordinary people to afford it. After all what is the use if it is for the rich who can afford to buy the houses when they can afford to build theirs anyway? They also must ensure cronyism does not become the yardstick.
It is sad that housing remains a luxury for the majority of Sierra Leoneans in this day and age. The other day I drove on the streets of central Freetown around 1:00 am and it was shocking the number of people sleeping on the streets along Wilberforce Street, Rawdon Street, Garrison Street and their environs. Gallingly, they include women and children. And all of this has not occupied the attention of successive Ministers of Housing, and Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.
These ministries should meet with property owners and real estate agents to lessen the pain and anguish tenants are going through. They should strengthen the capacity of the agents to set themselves up into registered businesses. Give them the baldy-needed statutory powers. Those hustlers who parade as estate agents will consequently be weeded out. Then those of us who do not own a house can breathe a sigh of relief and reprieve. By Umaru Fofana