New owner breaks down house with tenants still living inside

Three Woodstock families are battling in court to be allowed to stay in a house where some of them have lived for more than 30 years.

Shariff Alexander, his girlfriend Nicole Puterson, and their one-year-old live in one room at 23 Gympie Street, Woodstock. They share the three-roomed property with eight other people, including children. Alexander moved in with his grandmother, who is the primary tenant, in 1980.

"My family has lived here for over 30 years. This is why I'm trying my best to fight for this place," he said.

Alexander told GroundUp that residents' troubles started a few months ago when the property was sold after the death of the owner. He said that since January, the occupants had been harassed by police. A resident, who lived in the lounge, had been forced off the premises when the new owner began renovating the space.

On Monday, Pilland Property Investments – the estate agents handling the sale of the house – brought an application in the Cape Town Magistrate's Court to evict the three families. The families, represented by Ndifuna Ukwazi Law Centre attorney Jonathan Cogger, are opposing the application.

The residents say in documents before the court that Alexander received a letter from the estate agents telling him to vacate the property by January 10. He said the letter was dated December 20, but he only received it on January 8.

Building unsafe and dangerous

On February 6, he was served with a notice of the eviction application. Two days later, representatives of the agents came to the property to tell the residents to leave, and on February 9, the agents, accompanied by a team of police officers, raided the property. The residents were asked if they paid rent. They were told to leave the property immediately, the residents said in an affidavit.

The same day, construction workers began renovating the inside of the property, without the occupants' consent. The back door and some windows were removed, and plaster was stripped from most of the walls. An interior partition erected by the occupants was dismantled, and belongings of former occupants were thrown away, according to residents.

The Gympie Street house is being stripped
The Gympie Street house is being stripped while three families are living there. (Barbara Maregele/GroundUp)

The families then sought help from housing activists, who referred them to Cogger.

When Cogger visited the property on February 17, a representative from the construction company told him the building was unsafe and dangerous. Puterson and her baby were inside at the time. Renovations inside the property were stopped later that afternoon.

According to the occupants' affidavit, most of them make a living as informal traders or do piece work in the Woodstock area. None of the residents earn more than R1 500 a month.

"The occupiers submit that the ejectment from the property, without the provision of suitable well-located alternative accommodation by the City of Cape Town, would render us homeless and/or become a considerable burden to our families," they said in their statement.

'The place has also been vandalised'

When GroundUp visited the house, some items of clothing, a bath and rubble were scattered on the front stoep and on the adjacent plot. The front windows were taped up with cardboard and plastic. Inside, most of the wooden flooring in the lounge area had been removed. There was a large hole in the roof and most of the walls had been stripped.

Alexander said electricity and water had been switched off three weeks ago, without notice.

"Since the construction people were here, the place has also been vandalised." Thieves had removed the wiring and cables in the roof, he said.

The case was postponed to September 4 for argument.

Attorney Anthea Pienaar-Julius, who represents the agents, is expected to argue that the property is no longer habitable.

Cogger, who is opposing the eviction application, is expected to argue that it is not "just and equitable to grant the eviction because the occupants have already been deprived of peaceful and undisturbed possession of the property".