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Tenant: rules on low-cost housing not enforced

File photograph by Blaire Simmons

Properties that should be under rent control have been rendered “completely out of reach” to lower-income residents because regulations get little attention, a tenant has claimed.

The tenant whose landlord was unaware that she should have been charging less — and agreed to drop the monthly charge when it was pointed out — claimed illegally high rents were far from uncommon.

The tenant, who requested not to be identified, also highlighted cases where she “strongly suspected” the properties advertised were breaking the rules, including a 500 sq ft apartment up for rent at $3,250 a month.

She said: “There were four cases I was willing to give the Rent Commissioner information about — two where I knew the rent being charged exceeded the registered rent.

“The first was the one I am in now, and there was another tenancy I was in briefly right after I sold my home, where the landlord had the rent certified by the commission, thought it was too low, and decided to charge me more.”

She said she had taken the accommodation because she was “desperate”.

The woman added that she had flagged up two other instances where properties advertised appeared to contravene the Rent Increases (Domestic Premises) Act of 1978.

She claimed the Rent Commission failed to follow up on her case, although her landlord agreed to drop the monthly rent from $1,600 to $1,300 to bring it under compliance.

“Rent control applies to any house with an annual rental value of $22,800, which is very high. There must be thousands of residential units with rent control.

“The scope of this legislation is huge. That makes it all the more traumatic that it is not being enforced.

“The place where I rent, the ARV is much less than that. I knew it was under rental control. There was no reason to charge more.”

Although charging rent above the rent control threshold is an offence, there was no response from Consumer Affairs to queries from The Royal Gazette last week on how many times a landlord had been referred to the courts for overcharging.

The threshold was lowered in 2016, when an amendment approved by Parliament brought it down from an ARV of $27,000.

At the time there were roughly 17,000 rent-controlled residential properties on the island.

One realtor told the Gazette that noncompliance was widespread.

“I know a lot of people do this. They are supposed to be under rent control and the landlords ignore it.”

However, the realtor said the onus was on tenants to flag the issue with their landlord first and then take the matter to the Rent Commission if it continued, adding: “They cannot enforce it if it is not reported.”

The tenant maintained that the commission had failed to act on her matter, and that unchecked breaking of the rules put affordable properties “completely out of reach”.

“People complain about tenants, but landlords are just as bad. Maybe if the rent commission acted on it, there would be less people refusing to pay their rent. It cuts back ways.”

The tenant said that enforcement of rent control should be made a priority with the island’s “crisis” in affordable housing.

“It’s so galling. They have rules in place, but nothing happens.”

Recourse for overcharged tenants

Under the Act, residing tenants can ask the landlord to show them the rent Commissioner’s Certificate, which states the lawful rent approval.

The residing tenant who believes they are being overcharged must go into the Rent Control office with their lease which clearly states they are the tenant and what they are paying monthly.

The file will be pulled for that property, which will provide historical background and reveal the lawful registered rent at that time.

If the file indicates that the tenant is being overcharged, the residing tenant can ask Consumer Affairs to investigate, using the tenant’s lease as evidence.

An investigation letter is sent to the landlord who will thereafter meet with the Rent Commissioner.

The residing tenant may recover from the landlord the excess rental fees charged, up to two years from the last payment, and rent will revert to the lawful rent.

The website for the Land Valuation Department states that the ARV figures shown are “current on or about the valuation date of July 1, 2014 and not current levels of rental value”.

Once a property’s ARV goes beyond the scope of rent control, it falls under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1974, allowing landlords to set the rent at any rate they wish.

A spokeswoman for Consumer Affairs said yesterday that the Rent Commission’s main function was “to grant or deny rent increases, and to ensure proper notifications for evictions are followed”.

“Rent Control landlords generally tend to be compliant once they meet with the commissioner.

“The Act falls under the jurisdiction of the courts and the main use of the courts, under this Act, is for civil matters, such as requests for evictions and property damage by tenants.”

The spokeswoman said realtors as well as the Department of Financial Assistance “usually enquire as to the lawful registered rent before they accept what the landlord has quoted as the approved rent”.

“Rental inspections are carried out when a landlord files an application with the Consumer Affairs section of the Ministry of Legal Affairs headquarters for an increase of rent.

“The rental unit inspection is very comprehensive, and reports are given to the commissioner who takes the findings under review when considering a rent increase application.”

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Published May 29, 2024 at 7:59 am (Updated May 29, 2024 at 7:44 am)

Tenant: rules on low-cost housing not enforced

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