Thursday, May 27, 2010


My husband and I have been landlords for nearly five years. We have gone to great effort…and expense…to provide our tenants with a decent place to live at a reasonable rent. We spray for insects regularly, have a professional builder on call for maintenance, have installed solar water heating, new carpeting, and were honest with them about the property and its advantages and disadvantages at the time we showed it for rental. We have a “code of conduct” for our tenants so that they know what we…and their neighbours…expect from them in terms of behaviour (and actually evicted a tenant who was making life miserable for the others) and a nice, tight lease that is written to fairly spell out the legal obligations of all parties involved.

When general maintenance and repairs are needed, we always let the tenants know. The last thing we want is a tenant to die of fright upon seeing a stranger climbing up onto her roof, or a maintenance worker shot as he begins taking out a cracked window! We generally put the maintenance person directly in touch with the tenant who needs work and allow them to schedule work at their mutual convenience…then there is no concern for anyone’s safety or peace of mind.

For the past five months we have been tenants and, sadly, our experience has been one that illustrates the old saw “no good deed goes unpunished.” For as good a landlord as we have been, so our landlord is as bad.

As you all know, I am laid up with a broken foot. I saw the doctor two days ago and she declined the cortisone shot and told me “more anti-inflammatories, more pain meds, more elevating that foot.” The good news is that I am allowed to walk around some…the bad news is that I still have to spend the lion’s share of my time in bed with my foot propped up. It was from this position this morning that I heard a lot of strange mechanical noises outside my window and, when I went to check…at the insistence of my barking Yorkchop…that I discovered a man propping a tall ladder against the side of my house!!

After a moment of panic…the maid has the day off and she has gone shopping and my husband is out of town until tomorrow night…I looked down to see a drop cloth spread across the grass with a paint roller on it. In the grass nearby, however, was a hammer…why do you need a hammer to paint?? No arrangements were made with me or my husband for maintenance work to be done on the house and when the man with the ladder moved into my line of sight, I did not recognize him. He might have been the regular maintenance guy from next door, but from my angle on the second floor, I could not really tell.

Our landlord lives in Cape Town but this is a reasonably modern country and there are both conventional and cell telephonic communication between here and there. Even in the best of circumstances, I expect to be notified when people who do not live here are coming onto the property…I don’t live in an apartment building with a maintenance crew, I live in a private house with elaborate security systems…should I not be alarmed when a man I don’t recognize and am not expecting, props a ladder against my house?

So I called the landlord and said “Who is this person outside in my garden with a ladder propped up against the house near my bedroom?”

And he said “I don’t know.”

Which just freaked me out even more. Obviously the gardener let the guy in, but nobody knocked on the door, called me on the phone or even hollered up through the window to let me know there was work going on. Nope…my Yorkie starts barking like a loon, I go to check out what is fretting her, and find a ladder propped against my house where someone can peer in through the bedroom window and see me, in my skimpy nightie (I am still running my A/C during the day) with my foot propped up on the bed. And my landlord didn’t send the guy??

“I have a broken foot and I am laid up in bed,” I tell the landlord. “I am here alone…the maid has the day off. And this ladder is propped right where someone can see through the only uncurtained window in the bedroom and look right in at the bed. Nobody called me, nobody told me there was going to be work going on today!”

“Maybe it is Leo,” the landlord says, mentioning the handyman from next door.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t tell from up here. But if it IS Leo, he needs to make an appointment with us to come over to do work, and when he does, he needs to keep the appointments he makes. We kissed off an entire Saturday a few weeks back waiting for him and he didn’t show.” What I didn’t tell the landlord is that Leo told me that he works for our cantankerous neighbour as a man-of-all-work from Monday through Friday and can only do maintenance work here on Saturdays…and today ain’t Saturday.

The landlord tries to call Leo but there is no answer. He calls me back. “Try the gardener,” I suggest. “He’s here today.” The gardener is here on alternate Thursdays at the landlord’s behest, since our maid does the gardening for us and we refused to pay two people to do the yard work or to reduce the maid’s wages by cutting her gardening day. I wait a while, but the landlord does not call me back…I don’t know what is happening, if the guy outside is Leo or not, if he is authorized by the landlord to be here or not, if my growing fear for my safety is groundless or not.

Finally, Hubby calls me. He has called the landlord on my behalf and the news is 1) the guy with the ladder is Leo, 2) the landlord did not send him over here today, 3) the landlord has told him to leave, and 4) I, gimpy foot, nightgown and all, am supposed to go down the stairs and make an appointment with Leo to return to do the work, whatever it is (even the landlord doesn’t know!). I decline this last bit because 1) I am in my night clothes (I am in bed, after all), 2) my foot hurts and I have just taken a pain pill, 3) the last time I did this, Leo simply didn’t show up at the appointed time, and 4) I am not even sure he understands my American-accented English…or if he is particularly sharp with any brand of English at all.

I don’t want to deal with all this confusion. I barely slept last night and this insomnia and its aftermath are very new to me…I have never EVER had trouble sleeping before this foot thing and in the past two months I’ve had only two or three nights of more than 4 hours sleep at a pop. I’m tired, I’m getting cranky, and the last thing I need is strange men climbing up ladders to my bedroom window and scaring the willies out of me! I just want to sit here with my foot propped up and wait for my pain pill to work, and not have to worry about strangers propping ladders up against my house and climbing in through a window or over the balcony railing.

Most of all, however, I want my landlord to get his act together and behave responsibly and with concern for something more than having the rent arrive in a timely manner (which it always does). We were mislead about this house from the beginning: it is smaller than we were told (sorry, but the patio, balcony, and garage are not part of the square footage of the house), it was infested with vermin when we moved in and the landlord knew it, the front security gate malfunctions regularly, something else the landlord was aware of (revealed to us by the gate repairman on one of his many, many visits). The landlord knew that the electricity supply to this street was unreliable…the neighbour across the road told us it was notoriously unreliable and the landlord lived in this very house until just this last December. We’ve had the exterminators out here more than once but we continue to have evidence of rats, I’ve seen fat, happy cockroaches gambolling in my cupboards, and if you want to have meat in this house, get out the Raid and lock all the doors and windows because the minute so much as a piece of lunch meat comes out of the refrigerator, the flies show up in swarms…even after the house and grounds were sprayed.

I would not allow my tenants to live this way, and I go out of my way to make sure their homes are comfortable, clean, safe places to live. When our hot water heater went on the fritz, the landlord would not even take our phone calls after the first one! Steaming water poured down the chandelier in the stairway and cascaded down the stairs like a water fall, a sheet of hot water poured out of the eaves and blocked access to the front door , scalding the plants on either side of the door, and our landlord would not respond to our SMSs or voicemails. We had to call his mother , who authorized a plumber to come out.

Add to this the local infrastructure problems: five water main breaks in four months, each one leaving us without water; two trash collector’s strikes; weekly power outages; and last Friday night someone set the vacant lot behind my street afire, menacing the entire neighbourhood, and the fire brigade, when my husband tried to call to report the fire, put him on hold!

Joburg is no fun. Aside from movies, one casino, and malls, there’s pretty much nothing to do here, and the infrastructure is totally unworthy of a city that thinks it is the be-all and end-all of Western civilization on the continent of Africa. There are pot holes in the posh sections of town you could easily lose a wheel in (no exaggeration!), the traffic lights are so notorious for not functioning that one of our car insurance companies has hired and trained “pointsmen” (non-police traffic directors) to put in intersections when the lights aren’t working to reduce traffic accidents…apparently it is cheaper to train and pay these pointsmen than to pay for collision damage! Street lights don’t work, malls shut down at 5 or 6 pm on weeknights, and few are open after 2 on Sundays or at all on public holidays.

I still don’t like it here…it is a crappy place to live…but it would be improved if I wasn’t stuck with a landlord who is barely one cut above a slumlord. This guy cares about the property looking good, but seems not to give a fig for its functionality or the well-being of those of us who must live here.

I want to go back to Cape Town. I really, really, do.

1 comment:

  1. Oh SV, your Joburg is my Modesto. Not much fun for similar reasons, too. So, you do have my empathy. I've noticed that good behavior certainly doesn't motivate or control other peoples' behaviors - no matter how good we are. We just have to be good for ourselves. I hope that foot is taking a rapid healing position. It sounds like one of those slow recovery situations, however. Take care, Norine


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