Access to an affordable apartment and a regular payment of rent is gradually becoming a nightmare to many people in The Gambia. The loopholes in The Gambia Rent Act as well as the wild speculative business of house renting have paved the way to a rapidly emerging category of businessmen in the sector. In their much lucrative activity, they have little regard for the crippling living conditions of tenants in The Gambia. As a result, prices of house rent continue to skyrocket while squabbles between landlords and tenants have become the rule and no more the exception in a context of economic hardship in the country.
Dussu Diane is a refugee from Liberia. She arrived in The Gambia 15 years ago and stayed in Basse for over a decade. According to her, rent was really affordable in URR but she had to come to Ebo Town, the suburb of Serrekunda, to hustle and enroll her three kids in a good school.
For over four years, Dussu was paying a room and a parlor for D1, 000 per month until last month, when her landlord suddenly decided that Dussu’s rent payment will increase by 70 percent. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain that the increment be rescinded, Dussu has now sought redress at the court.
The Chronicle met Dussu at the Rent Tribunal in Bundung where she has lodged a complaint against her landlord for trying to forcefully evict her and her children. “My landlord wants to throw me out because I’m unable to pay for the house rent he has recently increased from D1, 000 to D1, 700. I find it very difficult to pay such an amount since my low income has dwindled because of COVID-19”, Dussu explained. Asked why she has opted to file a complaint at the court, she said “I came to the rent tribunal to be safe because my children and I have nowhere to go or no one to turn to. That’s the reason I am at the tribunal today.”
The 2014 Gambia Rent Act specifies that “A Landlord or tenant may terminate a tenancy by notice in writing, specifying the date at which the tenancy is to come to an end. In the case of a yearly tenancy, the notice is given not less than three months”.
But to Dussu, her landlord only gave a verbal notice to vacate the tenancy in only one month. Since then, Dussu went everywhere looking for a house but couldn’t find one in line with her straining budget. “My landlord wants me to leave the house immediately. He is evicting poor people like me for new tenants that can afford his new rates.”
Unfortunately for Dussu, the Rent tribunal did nothing on her case, the day The Chronicle met her in Bundung. Instead, the court asked that she comes back with a written notice of eviction from her landlord. But such a document was never given to Dussu by her landlord who asked her to leave verbally. To her utter disappointment, the Tribunal required that Dussu claims the written notice from her landlord before it gets involved in her case.
A labyrinth of flaws in the Law
Until 2014, municipal councils had a rent control office that handled landlord-tenant disputes, if the tenant cannot get legal assistance and seeks redress. With the creation of the Rent Tribunal, landlords are required to register rented properties through a process duly described by the Rent Act. Not registering a rented property is an offence. In this vein, house owners would not be able to dodge paying the requisite rates to the municipal/area council, and taxes to the Gambia Revenue Authority from the income they receive. The government also hoped to get the registered house owners to charge a “reasonable” rent, as originally intended in the Rent Control Decree.
Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the intentions and the reality. Non-compliance with the law by landlords is a common occurring because non-enforcement of the law by the State is recurrent and as such, it opens the gate to many flaws. With the booming of house renting in the Gambia, conflicts between landowners and tenants kept rising. Backlogs of case continue to pile up. In 2019 alone, the Bundung Rent Tribunal presided over 768 cases and is still counting more in 2020.
To correct the loopholes in the Rent Act 2014, an amendment was brought in 2017 to remove the administration of the Act from the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and place it within the remit of the judiciary. The 2017 amendment also offered the power to appoint judicial officers and court staff to the Rent Tribunal that will be solely presided over by a first class magistrate as chairperson in an attempt to tackle the considerable backlog of cases before the tribunals.
But the 2017 amendment to the Rent Act lacked the courage to address the concerns about the flaws that allow overpricing and extra service charges by middle men and landowners. Ba Tambedou, the then Justice Minister, said that the relationship between landlord and tenant “is an economic matter and that the Ministry of Finance should be responsible for economic policy”.
Unfortunately the ministry of Finance is yet to define any new policy with regards to house renting.
Landlords and middlemen set the rules
There is a fairly strict set of rules and inspections for privately owned compounds with “guest house” status. But the other rented property, it is landlord to tenant private negotiation arrangement. As the enforcement of the law on rent remains weak, the landowners continue to surf on the vacuum to the great joy of middlemen also called “Agents”.
The hybrid combination of landowners and “agents” are essentially the reason why rent continues to skyrocket in The Gambia. Where a landlord can charge a price to rent his property, the “agent” would spot a potential customer and put extra cost to the initial fee set by the landlord to earn a kickback. It happens because it’s not the Rent Tribunal, through a Rent Officer that decides the amount payable for that particular property based on the standard of the house and facilities available, like stipulated by the law.
Bakary Jammeh is a self-proclaimed “agent”. He said showing houses to interested tenants in return for some extra charges is his way to make a good living. “I have been in this business for years now and am making a lot of money from it. The landowners want fast money, so they prefer people like me who can bring those tenants faster than rental agencies. We charge D300 for a person see a place set for rent and if the person likes the place, we charge the individual D1, 000. This is how we make fast money on a daily basis. I didn’t want to reveal our secrets to you but I have to because sometimes I feel sad for poor people looking for houses but I have to do my job as I need to survive as well.”
Bakary is aware that the flows in enforcing rent control in The Gambia have enabled his activity to prosper. “We are not to be blamed but the responsible authorities who are handoffs with the issue of rent. Either they are not tenants or are not affected by it. I can tell you that we have lot of agents like me who are making big money from tenants and landowners.”
“Sillah Trust” in Tallinding is an agency for home rentals. One agent of this agency said often, landowners do not know anything about the Rent Act and would claim to get deposits of six months prior to accepting a tenant. “We make them understand that they cannot demand for more than 3 months because the act prohibits that. In as much as the rent act is not enforced, rent in this country will remain a nightmare and rental agencies cannot do anything about it because it is beyond us”.
Sweat and unending burden on tenants
The hardship endured by tenants seems not to end soon. There is little done to support civil servants to bear the brunt of rent in their meager salaries. Not every civil servant or worker in the private sector in The Gambia has a rent allowance. With an annual Purchasing power parity of 2,570 dollars (2018) and a Gini index value of 35, 90, many Gambians reach their retirement age without ever having a single plot of land. They are condemned to be eternal tenants.
Pa Demba is a civil servant, married to two wives with four children. He rents a two room and a parlor apartment in Kanifing. “I have been working my whole life as a civil servant in this country and I have nothing to show for it. Sometimes I feel ashamed of myself and betrayed by the government who is supposed to help people like me.” He added that in Senegal and other countries, government workers are well taken care of. “But the situation happening in The Gambia is what those countries have avoided to their workers. Who did we offend to deserve such” he asked.
The situation is worst when tenants come across a difficult landowner. Emil (Not his real name) rents in a two bedroom apartment he pays for 30, 000 dalasi, each 6 months. He said his landlady decided to raise the rent by 15% when COVID-19 came in The Gambia, and after her tenants challenged her to fix a water pump that will ensure a sufficient water supply in the compound.
“We have a tank to adjust the water pressure in our taps but barely no water comes. For a year, it only comes 3 to 4hrs in a day. When I approached the Rental agency to intervene the landlady threatened to take the rental contract from the agency saying they are encouraging us and she won’t compromise about it, anyone who can’t pay can leave.”
Initially Emil wanted to involve the Rent Tribunal on the matter and he was told by folks not to waste his time it will yield any result. “I ended up paying for another 6 months for 30 thousand dalasi”