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The case of Fattis Mansions: Resisting the displacement of the urban poor in inner-city Johannesburg

At four in the morning of Wednesday 19 July 2017, 275 low-income residents were forcefully evicted from Fattis Mansions, a residential building in inner-city Johannesburg. Over the course of a couple of hours, hundreds of security guards hauled the residents’ possessions out into the middle of the street. 

The vast majority of residents owned their apartments in the building, which was governed as a sectional title scheme. At mid-day, the residents approached the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) to assist them in overturning their eviction. They had been evicted on the basis of a court order granted on by the Johannesburg High Court on 25 April 2017. The order had been handed down after the administrators of the sectional title scheme, Jan van der Bos and Fairvest Property Two (a management company that owns ten apartments in the building), approached the court on an urgent basis to have the building declared a “destroyed building” in terms of the Sectional Title Schemes Act and to authorise the eviction the residents living in the building. They claimed that the building was a “death trap” and that it was in the interests of the occupiers to grant the eviction. Although the building requires cleaning and various infrastructure upgrades, it is structurally sound.

It was immediately apparent that the residents at risk of being evicted are desperately poor and, if evicted, they would be rendered homeless. Before the judge granted the eviction order, the court called on the City of Johannesburg (the City) to provide information about whether it could provide temporary alternative accommodation to the residents to ensure that they were not rendered homeless as a result of the eviction. On 14 April, the City filed a report informing the court that it had no accommodation available. In spite of this, the court granted the eviction and ordered residents vacate the building within 45 days.

Hours after the eviction, SERI approached the Johannesburg High Court on an urgent basis asking that the residents be reinstated in the building pending a rescission application (which will invalidate the eviction order). Judge Van der Linde heard the matter at 7 o’clock in the evening, a mere seven hours after the residents had approached SERI. The judge ordered the City to provide accommodation to the residents that evening pending his judgment which would be delivered the following morning. Despite this order, the City failed to provide any assistance to the residents. As a result, they had to spend the night on the street.

The next morning, the judge dismissed the application for reinstatement on the basis that he believed that the building was a “death trap” and ordered the City to provide alternative accommodation to the residents by no later than 27 July 2017 (even if that meant tented accommodation). On 21 July 2017, the residents were forcefully moved to Wemmer shelter at gun point while the City scrambled to procure tents.[2] Late in the night, two tents were set up. The City provided no cooking facilities and has no plan for where the residents will go next.

Jan van der Bos intends to renovate the building at a cost of millions by raising a special levy that will be applied against the owners of the sectional title units in the building. As many of the residents will not be able to afford these high levies, this rehabilitation process will likely lead to owners being forced to sell their apartments in order to avoid growing debt and loss of equity or, if they are unable to do this, losing their apartments through sales in execution. The situation is likely to render the residents vulnerable to exploitation by property speculators. The administrator recently bought units from three elderly women at R10 000 each, a fraction of what these units cost the provincial government in the mid-90s.

Fattis Mansions is prime real estate and it would be shameful to see it taken from the poor and sold to the rich. This seems likely if there is no state intervention. In 2014, the City promised to intervene when it informed Fairvest Property Two that it would expropriate the building and renovate it. However, the City never delivered on its promise and now attempts to avoid its constitutional obligations. If the City does nothing, the Fattis Mansions residents are likely to lose the apartments that they have lived in for over 20 years are be left with no alternative accommodation.

This case illustrates troubling dynamics around urban regeneration, gentrification and displacement, and highlights how gentrification is pushing the urban poor out of the City even when they have rights to property. The case also emphasises the need for state interventions to address the negative impacts associated with gentrification by ensuring that the poor retain their homes, combatting displacement and addressing apartheid’s legacy of spatial injustice.

 The case also highlights the need for legal representation; despite the Constitutional Court’s progressive housing jurisprudence an eviction was granted against people who had a right to occupy the building they were living in and who would be rendered homeless upon eviction. The immediate issue remains the City's failure to provide alternative accommodation that afford people a measure of dignity. SERI is also seeking an order to ensure that the Gauteng provincial government and the City takes steps to renovate the building and place it back in the hands of its residents and owners.

For more on this case, refer to the following media articles:

 

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Sharing the common goal of promoting participatory, effective, accountable and pro-poor local governance, the network strives to provide an interface for civil society organisations to network and share information towards strengthening local democracy in South Africa.

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