It’s 24th December… Going Nowhere (4)

No Evil

With no numbers to prove, I dare say, in a global ranking of the world’s greediest private sectors, Ghana would rank very low. Countries like USA, recognising this inevitable insatiable thirst of private individuals/businesses tries to institute laws and follow through with institutions for the enforcement of such laws; although sometimes the nation completely leaves the private sector to their devices. But that is a topic for another day.

That being said, I did not intend this ‘24th December series’, an indictment of the nation’s landlords. The Ghanaian landlord is no devil. They are just businessmen/women ‘blessed’ with a whole lot of wiggle room—courtesy of problematic law enforcement mechanisms.

The human race, worldwide, easily turns savage in the absence of law or the enforcement thereof. I mean, why at all should there be a law for the protection of a person’s own head, literally, like in the case of traffic regulations regarding helmets. And why should a person, knowing that such law is directly for their own good, break them in the absence of law enforcement?

Take yourself, a businessman/woman who has ventured into the local manufacturing, or import of say, spices. You acknowledge—your law-abiding self—the duty to get your products through the Food and Drugs Authority’s certification; and you want to—really want to. But take that the situation around you is this: people get away with non-compliance. All around you, you see such products on the market sans the mark of the FDA. And you have lying before you, with the FDA, an entire process of submission of documentations, of payments: licensing of food premises, food product registration fee, licensing of food storage facilities, site verification fee, etc. You are tossed about endlessly as you navigate this bureaucracy. Tell me, how quickly would you forgo this process in favour of joining your ‘uncertified’ peers? You will soon realise that in the absence of a law keeping watch, following the law begins to make less and less ‘business sense’.

Such is the landlord’s dilemma. In a developing country such as ours, where the housing deficit remains still a grave national concern, we cannot afford to team up against these private individuals who are doing their part to provide homes for a vast majority of Ghanaians. Even as early as the late 1950s, post-independence, when state involvement in the provision of housing was at its peak, a large chunk of the nation’s housing was provided by the private sector—around 80%. And even now, six decades later, the private sector contributes about 90% of the nation’s housing stock.

The Problematic Saviours

Any proposal for the alignment of the law with the facts on the ground—for the changing of the rent advance provision from the six months maximum stipulated by the Rent Act, 1963 (Act 220) to one year would be in principle, perhaps sound. After all doesn’t it make for a good legal regime if societal circumstances go on to directly influence the law? Yet, such an amendment would be missing the point. It may mark the beginning of the succumbing of the law to the harsh conditions the laws of demand and supply has created in the country’s housing sector—conditions which arose out of the non-enforcements of the law, in the first place.

Admittedly, a tenant cannot deny the one year or so of peace they get after paying such advance rent. But for many, such peace is a luxury they cannot afford—thus a monthly burden (or at worst a six-month advance burden) seems like a more off-loadable burden.

Any proposal for the amendment of the six-month maximum rent advance provision stipulated to just one month, may just be overreaching. This is, I dare say, a funny/uninformed leap. Because for many years, even this six months maximum stipulated by Act 220 has not been complied with. The Rent Control Department has been unsuccessful enforcing it. It would be pretty misguided to make matters worse by further stripping down the bulk of money a landlord may require of a tenant. This history of non-compliance makes such a leap outrageous; an outrageous law is prone to breakage. This may only serve to further alienate the law from reality. In a nation where the demand for housing far beats supply; in a nation where the private individual has been and still remains our best bet at closing this gap, such a law may only serve to discourage investment in housing by the private individuals.

More Power To Rent Control?

It would make great sense to further expand the power of the Rent Control Department as an equaliser, a mediator in ensuring fair dealings between landlords and tenants—if the institution had a staunch record of getting things done. But sadly, that isn’t the case. Hence, any policy recommendation that suggests giving the institution even more power than it has now is undoubtedly cause for great concern.

Like the suggestions that the institution may, per new legislation, have the ‘sole responsibility of drafting tenancy agreements’; and that it will ‘shift power from landlords to the Rent Control Department’—all sound great on paper, but in actuality what can easily be envisioned is not a Rent Control Department as ‘mediator’ but as further ‘middlemen’. The institution may end up—if extreme supervision and accountability is not required of them—adding to the tenant’s burden of ‘ad-hoc agents’; more palms for desperate tenants to grease towards the attainment of apartments. And this concern is not necessarily directed at present managements of the Department, but to future administrations too.

What measures will be set in place to prevent the Department from exploiting desperate tenants? They sure have been of scant help to tenants up till now.

Perhaps the nation ought to first test and perfect its enforcement prowess by ensuring full compliance to the law as it is now—to Act 220 and PNDCL 138 before it wantonly jumps into re-legislating. Because those provisions have the potential to bring enormous relief to the Ghanaian tenant, without—arguably—causing unfair discomfort to the landlord.

See, because you have been to the Rent Control Department before, and the best response you got was a smirk and an ethnocentric inquiry, “Why are you an—?”  You respond no, and this on-looking rent officer, finding out that you, in fact, belong to his tribe devolves into a tirade of how pathetic it is that his tribesmen are no longer teaching their children their language. All the while, you see, at the corner of your eye, someone signalling at you, it is the lady rent officer taking your complaint. Does she want further details? “Oh no—I was just asking if you could show me pictures of the apartment and give me the landlord’s number. I am searching for an apartment, myself.” “Huh?!”