Reporter: Rakia Selmi
After 16 years, Sabri is still waiting to rent a state-subsidized apartment in Tunisia. A dedicated public servant for more than 45 years, she is eligible for an apartment available only to citizens and public servants whose income does not exceed $500 a month.
But being eligible and actually getting a flat are very different things.
“Every time I apply my request is rejected with a claim that there are no available apartments, even though I meet all the requirements. Every time they say no my hopes are gone and I feel that I have been wronged,” she said.
Though the subsidized housing project of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Retirement and Social Protection Fund was intended to assist middle-class families, this investigation found problems with how registration seniority and urgency are handled. One single female employee waited just six months to get a flat after she joined the public service. Others have had the opportunity to exploit apartments for many years, contrary to the five-year period mandated by law. These tenants gave apartments to their children or sub-let them to friends.
Sabri and Salwa have shared similar experiences. Salwa, a widow of 50 years and a mother of four, has waited for 15 years. Salwa states that she has not missed one meeting, set by the committee in charge of allocation, in 10 years. The committee meets whenever it has three vacant flats that can be assigned. It is responsible for examining the lease requests and assigning housing to eligible applicants according to the date of registration, income level, and social status.
A check for this investigation of 2,854 homes found that 100 tenants had far exceeded their lawful stay. Flats also went to retirees, ministers, directors, and owners of other real estate properties in violation of selection criteria. The lack of follow-up, tenants violating leasing terms and weak legal proceedings to implement court orders has allowed this to continue.
Nearly 500 Applicants on the Waiting List
Sabri and Salwa resemble hundreds of applicants who have waited for apartments for years. In 2015 alone, the department received 484 applications for rental in Greater Tunisia and the Governantes of Tunisia, Ariana, Ben Arouss and Manouba. Those applications had been validated and ranked according to priority. The allocation committee only had 20 vacant apartments to fill.
According to Farid Sirsar, an official with the Retirement and Social Protection Fund, the essence of this project has been lost. The fund organized it in the 1970s to house residents based on fair criteria.
Ibrahim Al-Baraki, the assistant to the fund’s director, said the fund was not created by a ministerial or legal ruling. It was set up by the fund’s board of directors to provide decent housing to government employees whose work forced them to travel and move frequently.
Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of the Board of Directors draft resolution failed due to recent administration changes. Al-Baraki explained that the stipulations had not changed from the outset and that the five-year maximum and rotation should be respected.
The fund is aware of irregularities and abuse of stipulations. However, officers responsible often fail to inform Fund officials, leaving those like Sabri hopelessly waiting.
The reporter prepared a questionnaire to identify families living in these houses illegally because she could not get access to information due to privacy protections. She wanted to measure the extent of compliance with lease terms.
She distributed 100 questionnaires among randomly selected tenants across Tunisia, using the criteria for renting out these flats as a baseline. The results revealed that most had been living in these apartments for 15 years. The results also showed that 5 percent of the tenants obtained their apartment from the original tenant or a relative — a clear violation of the lease.
Kamal Shouykh, a fund director, acknowledged the abuses, stating it to be illegal and has aggravated many families on the waiting list. He said growing demand for apartments was due to the tenants’ need to find low-maintenance and fair-priced apartments.
The reporter found that 40 percent of the residents who responded to the survey were from the same area, another violation of the lease terms, which stipulate that beneficiaries must be from other towns.
Most Apartments Do Not Mention Terms of Lease
A candidate for a subsidized apartments must have been enrolled at the fund for at least two years and have been a direct government employee not a contractor. In addition, family status and date of application are taken into account along with the candidate’s health and social situations. But the journalist found that tens of occupants had reached retirement age and were not members of the fund.
According to the housing project’s target set in 1979 by the President of the People’s Congress Mohammed Nasser, the survey revealed that currently, less than 26 percent meet the lease criteria of earning less than 1,000 Tunisian dinars a month. More than 34 percent earned more than the minimum salary.
Nasser, who was minister of social development when the fund was launched, said that this housing experiment targeting the 166,000 state officials who are members in the fund, was to help low-income officials live in decent homes.
These flats were owned by the fund and were built during the French colonization. The number of these flats has risen from 52 to 2,800.
Behind the Abuses: Poor Oversight and Lack of Human Resources
Although appointing more officials to oversee these apartments and speed up the changeover of tenants has been discussed, Shoykh admitted that administrative efficiency is needed to stop abuses. He also said the fund plans to employ five new officers, raising the number to 18, to supervise 25 areas.
The Fund launches five annual inspection campaigns to see who is observing tenant rules. Tenants are required to provide proof that they or their spouses do not own other private property. Violators are referred to court. According to the head of the Fund, Mohammed Sharif, since the 2011 revolution, these inspections have ended the illegal residency of two ministers.
The Directory of Disputes reviews 60 cases every year. But since the revolution, inspections have been drastically cut to 20 cases a year. In 2015, 18 tenants were ordered to leave their flats, mostly in the capital, compared to 16 in 2014 and 26 in 2013.
The official in charge of disputes at the fund said that continued violations necessitate “stricter control over tenants to check the changes that are constantly occurring.” He claims manpower shortage is the reason for lack of follow up.
In addition, there is little coordination with other departments such as the Land Registration Department and the Central Bank which can identify tenants who own property or have taken residential loans.
According to Director General of the Fund, Mohammed Sharif, the fund is currently setting up a new program to reduce these abuses and end decades of offenses. It will verify tenant compliance with the terms of their contracts. The fund will insist on closer coordination with both the Central Bank and the Land Registration Department. In the past, many violations were tolerated to avoid taking politically sensitive decisions during the country’s transitional phase. Mohammed said this cannot continue.
Sabri, Salwa, and hundreds of others continue to wait.
The investigation’s results surveying 100 residents:
Terms of Renting Social Housing
A memorandum issued March 19, 2013, updated the qualifications for assigning and distributing government controlled apartments. Under new regulations, the tenant must be a participant in the Retirement and Social Protection Fund. They must not own another home, and neither can their spouse. The spouse must also not contribute more than 40 percent of their shared monthly income nor make use of pension funds for their own interests.
The rent for these apartments ranges from 210-850 Tunisian dinars depending on the size of the apartment and the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, service fees range from 160-600 Tunisian dinars.