Hope for a city in crisis

An opinion piece by Angela Rivers published on BusinessLive on 25 July 2022

Ebrahim Harvey’s analysis of the state of Johannesburg (“The fall of the once great city of Johannesburg” Business Day, 19 July”) touched a nerve for those of us who are heavily invested in the city. The Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA) was established nearly 20 years ago, in 2003, to represent credible landlords, managing agents and property owners active in the inner city, and over the years grew from four to 58 members with over 40 000 affordable housing units between them, housing over 200 000 tenants at this time.

Collectively our members pay the City of Johannesburg over R80 million per month. We know the inner city, care deeply about its welfare, and we’ve been working hard for two decades in an effort to maintain reasonable standards for those living and providing homes for tenants here.

This task is becoming harder by the day, with a disproportionate percentage of time spent on trying to unravel nightmarish billing issues and attempting to penetrate a hostile bureaucracy whose generally obstructive attitude belies COJ’s claims of being investor friendly.

City officials claim in media interviews that they are reclaiming the inner city and like to paint a picture of a world-class city. Member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for housing, Mlungisi Mabaso, claimed recently that they had acquired “a lot of” buildings through the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco) and that he himself had opened “quite a few” that had been converted into residential buildings. We did the homework, but we have been unable to find evidence of even one such success story.

Instead, we are inundated with urgent applications from managers of buildings neighbouring several hijacked, government-owned Joshco buildings, whose residents fear for their lives as a result of the lawlessness that prevails. One example, Casa Mia in Soper Street, Berea, has been the subject of numerous complaints, from gunshots being fired from the building – a resident in a building across the road provided evidence of having been hit by a stray bullet – to muggings right outside, and sewerage draining into the street; and no action forthcoming from COJ despite numerous urgent appeals.

JPOMA members are voluntarily paying an estimated R12.5 million rand annually to private companies for supplementary services such as cleaning and security, which the City should, but has failed to provide for years.

Meanwhile COJ has just increased its municipal rates this month, amid a great display of supposed transparency and accountability. This while disputes about backbilled tariffs are still in court, and despite breaking its own promises that the City would stop illegally disconnecting buildings that are involved in court disputes.

Business owners who maintain electricity infrastructure for their tenants, which previously qualified for a discounted bulk rate to recoup costs, noted that this month’s bills indicate that they now pay more per unit of electricity than regular business rates, instead of less. This without any notification of a change in a policy that was hard-won and meritorious.

Inner city buildings that were previously converted from commercial into residential zoning as part of the urban development zone (UDZ) have to wade through red tape to reapply for residential tariffs every four years, usage applications lapse and COJ starts billing at commercial rates again. Why this waste of time and resources? Because, the City argues, a landlord “might decide” to change a building back into commercial use. This when millions of rand have been invested to convert properties into affordable housing, which is fully occupied by residential tenants. It is nonsensical regulations such as these that suggest that it is easier to punish those ratepayers who abide by the law, than to sort out the systemic inefficiencies that plague the City.

The picture painted by Harvey in his op ed makes it all seem hopeless, but those of us who are truly invested in Johannesburg refuse to give up hope. There are solutions to the problems, and there are those in the private sector with the expertise and the will to stop the slide and start turning this wagon around. There are also senior COJ officials who make all the right sounds in meetings, and who agree on proposed solutions.

Now if only we can get to the consistent execution of those plans, to a place where our City officials own and drive the change that is needed.

The new increased rates bill begs the question: what exactly are our municipal rates paying for in 2022? As ratepayers we are entitled to answers from our city council. We should not stop asking the difficult questions. Our City’s survival depends on it.

Angela Rivers, GM, JPOMA