Joburg City's neglect allows slumlords retake building

Planned evictions keep hitting snags

11 September 2023 - 07:14
By Mpho Sibanyoni
A dilapidated  Vannin Court is among several buildings hijacked by syndicates collecting rent from desperate residents.
Image: ANTONIO MUCHAVE A dilapidated Vannin Court is among several buildings hijacked by syndicates collecting rent from desperate residents.

Officials of the City of Johannesburg’s property company failed to secure a derelict building they had wrestled from the control of hijackers four years ago, leading to its recapture by the syndicate.

This emerged as the metro intensified crackdowns on the city’s hijacked properties, including Vannin Court in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, where its occupants were told to vacate it as it was unsafe for human habitation.

The campaign to rid the city of bad buildings gained momentum over the weekend, with inspections on rundown properties fueled by the disaster in Marshalltown, where more than 70 people perished in a fire inside a city-owned hijacked property.

However, Sowetan has established that Vannin Court, which was visited by city officials last week and described as a disaster waiting to happen, had in fact four years ago been earmarked to be turned into low-cost housing units as part of a project to redevelop hijacked and dilapidated buildings in the city.

The city carried out evictions of the building’s occupants in June 2019, but according to ward councillor Cabral Mmbengwa, its occupants moved back in within days.

The eviction happened just four months after then mayor Herman Mashaba announced plans to redevelop buildings across the city.

“The council and the municipality have tried numerous times to shut down this building but each time nothing happened. Either the residents didn’t want to leave or there would be threats. It’s better to find an alternative for the residents and demolish it or else this will just happen again,” he said.

An architect who was a part of the project told Sowetan that the building designs were completed but there were no funds.

Savage Dodd Architects, one of the subcontractors,  redesigned large units into smaller, affordable self-contained units.

The company’s partner, Heather Dodd, said Vannin Court had existing tenants when they were awarded the contract.

“The JPC were unable to unlock or provide [the main contractor] with suitable options to develop [or provide] suitable … alternative accommodation options,” said Dodd.

“We completed all the planning and design work. The projects were submitted for finance and then stalled.”

Dodd said she was hopeful the project would continue as Vannin Court had been in a bad state for almost 18 years.

“It is sad to see the city this week scapegoating their inability to manage buildings by them focusing on the same buildings that have been problematic … over the years,” she said.

Joburg Property Company (JPC), which is responsible for the city’s buildings, said the project failed because it was hijacked and because the developers did not have funds.

Spokesperson Lucky Sindane told Sowetan: “It must be noted that the property is hijacked. This slowed down the development process. Eviction of unlawful occupiers requires provision for alternative accommodation. This requires funding, which is not readily available. To date, alternative accommodation has not been provided for,” said Sindane.

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He said Vannin Court was awarded to a property developer on June 2019 following a request for a proposal process to redevelop the building.

Sindane said Vannin Court was not the only project where the development had stalled.

“Other properties awarded to other developers also stalled for the same reasons as stated above. The purpose of the request for proposal was for developers to redevelop the properties into affordable and/or social housing units.

“The role of JPC included preparation of a council report for council to determine whether the properties were needed for council’s own use. In terms of the council approval, the JPC would follow the supply chain management processes for the appointment of a developer for the development.”

Residents of the dilapidated building along Pietersen Street said they paid between R1,200 and  R1,700 in rental to slumlords who had taken over many buildings in the CBD over the years.

The residents have to live in squalid and hazardous conditions and are required to walk a 1km distance to get water.

Despite MMC for public safety Mgcini Tshwaku promising that the residents of Vannin Court would be evicted and taken to shelters, this had not happened by Sunday afternoon, according to Mmbengwa

Following the fire in Marshaltown, the city said non-governmental organisations were preventing it from conducting evictions.

However, Nomzamo Zondo, the executive director at the Socio-economic Rights Institute of SA, said the city was conducting raids on properties even though it characterised these as inspections.

She said they had requested information pertaining to the warrants used to conduct the raids as required by law.

sibanyonim@sowetan.co.za