By Rakia Selmi
Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 31, 2016 (TAP) – After 16 years Sabri is still waiting in line to rent an apartment from Tunis’s Ministry of Social Affairs’ Retirement and Social Protection Fund. A dedicated public servant for over 45 years, Sabri was eligible to receive an apartment available only to citizens and public servants whose income does not exceed $500 a month.
But getting a subsidized flat has been an uphill struggle.
“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 dashed and I feel as I have been wronged.”
Though this state-subsidized housing project was intended to assist middle-class families, this investigation has documented otherwise. It has exposed loopholes in renting criteria such as registration seniority or urgent need along the lines of what happened to a single female employees who only waited for 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 set in the terms of the law. Other tenants gave the provided apartment to their children or sub-let it to a friend.
The act of waiting has been a shared experience for both Sabri and Salwa. Salwa, a widow of fifty years and a mother of four, has been waiting for fifteen years. Salwa confirmed that she did not miss one meeting of the committee in charge of allocating these flats since ten years. The committee meets whenever it has three vacant flats that can be assigned. This committee is responsible for examining the lease requests and assigning housing to eligible applicants according to the seniority of the application registration, income level and social status.
Among other things, this investigation revealed abuses such as exceeding by three times the legal five-year limit for renting each flat. Out of 2,854 homes investigated, a hundred homes had far exceeded their lawful stay. Flats also went to retirees, ministers, directors, and owners of other real estate properties in violation of the criteria. All this is allowed to continue because of weakness in follow-up mechanisms, tenant’s disrespect of leasing terms and weak legal proceedings to implement court orders.
Nearly 500 applicants are on the Waiting List
The situation of Sabri and Salwa resemble those of hundreds of applicants waiting for years to obtain an apartment. In 2015 alone, the department received 484 applications for apartment rental in Greater Tunis and the Govern orates of Tunis, Ariana, Ben Arouss and Manouba. Those applications had been validated and ranked according to priority. The allocations committee only had 20 vacant apartments nation-wide for the total applicants.
The clear contrast between free apartments and demand for such apartments, according to Farid Sirsar, an official involved in the decision making within the Retirement and Social Protection Fund, shows that respect of the principle of apartment rotation, the essence of this project, is not being respected. The fund organized this project in the 1970s.
Ibrahim Al-Baraki, assistant to the Fund’s director, pointed out that the Fund was not created by a ministerial or legal ruling. It was set up by the board of directors of the Fund to provide decent housing to government employees whose work exposed them to constant movement and travel within Tunisia.
Despite repeated attempts to obtain a copy of the Board of Directors draft resolution, this reporter failed to get it due to recent administration changes. Al-Baraki explained that the stipulations had not changed from the outset, and that the five-year term of lease and rotation should be respected.
Between vacant apartments and others inhabited by the wrong beneficiaries, or by persons who have exceeded their lease terms, applicants seeking flats and officers working for the Fund to inform the Fund of these irregularities remain aware of these abuses. But these officers are often not informing the Fund officials of the violations they have monitored, leaving those like Sabri waiting in vain while other violating tenants are not followed up on.
The reporter prepared a questionnaire to identify families living in these houses lawfully and illegally because she could not get access to information to protect the secrecy of privacy. She needed to measure the extent of compliance with lease terms.
She distributed 100 questionnaires among a random sample of tenants in those across Tunisia, using the criteria for renting out these flats as a baseline. Most have been living in these flats for 15 years, the poll showed. The results also showed that 5% of the renters obtained their apartment from the original renter or a relative in clear violation of the terms of the leases.
Kamal Shouykh, a Fund director, acknowledged these abuses and explained it largely as “illegal”. He said these excesses have aggravated the suffering of many families on the waiting list. He added that the growing demand for these apartments was due to their privileged position in key cities and the capital, especially with low maintenance and leasing fees compared to prices offered on the free market.
The reporter found that 40% of the residents of these flats are residents of the same area where these flats are based in violation with the terms that stipulate that beneficiaries have to come from other towns.
Most Apartments do not mention Terms of Lease
A candidate for one of these apartments is required to have been enrolled at the Fund for two years and have been a direct government employee rather than a contractor. In addition, family status and application seniority 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.
However contrary to candidate requirements and the goals of the housing project as were announced by the President of the People’s Congress Mohammed Nasser at it’s inception in 1979, the survey has shown that currently less than 26% of polled occupants are earning less than 1,000 Tunisian dinars a month, thus meeting the lease criteria. Over 34% earned more than the minimum salary.
Parliament President Mohammed Nasser, who was minister of social development when the fund was launched, said that this “housing experiment” targeting the over 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 to 2800 from 52 at the onset of the project.
Behind the Abuses: Poor Oversight and Lack of Human Resources
The continued abuse of these flats is caused by weak follow-up mechanisms and a limited number of officers in charge of reporting abuses to the Fund.And though here have been discussions to appoint more officials to oversee these apartments and speed up the changeover of tenants, Shoykh admitted that further administration efficiency is needed to challenge the existing abuses. He also said the Fund would soon employ five new officers, raising the number to 18, to supervise 25 areas.
Despite the fact that there is follow up such as daily check up on the tenants by these officers and on complaints registered with the Fund ,“the violators are there and we cannot only count on those officers,” he said.
He said that the Fund launches five annual inspection campaigns to see who is observing tenant rules. During these campaigns, tenants are asked to provide proof that they or their wives do not own other private property. Violators are referred to court, he said. Since the 2011 revolution, these campaigns have ended the illegal residency of two ministers, said the head of the Fund, Mohammed Sharif.
The directory of disputes looks at 60 cases filed against violating tenants every year. But since the revolution, the inspection process had 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 blamed difficulties in follow up on shortage of manpower, including control officers.
In addition, there is lack of 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. This is impacting the Fund’s role in surveillance.
According to Director General of the Fund Mohammed Sharif, the fund is currently in the process of setting up a new program to reduce these abuses and end decades of offences under a campaign to be launched soon. The campaign will verify tenant compliance with the terms of contracts signed.
The Fund will insist on closer coordination with both the Central Bank and the Land Registration Department as the data they possess can allow the Fund to cancel the lease contract of violators. In the past, many violations were tolerated to avoid taking politically sensitive decisions in a country in transition. But this will not continue, he said.
While waiting for the Fund’s new campaign to take effect, Sabri,Salwa and hundreds of others must cope with a decline in the purchasing power of most Tunisians in the hope that the Fund will break some good news.
The investigation’s results from field research into a hundred residents:
|Irregularities recorded by the survey results||Terms of the Contract|
|Results proved that the overall sample of people interviewed resided in their housing for more than 15 years, or 5 times the allowed period. Overall, the survey showed that:
Clause 2 of the lease contract provides that “the agreement between the two parties shall last for two years initially and run for a maximum of five years from start to end. At five year’s end, the tenant relinquishes and loses any rights to the housing, after which the Fund may remove them in favour of other applicants.”
||Clause 7 of the lease contract states that “The tenant is not permitted to pass on the property to their children or delegate or loan residing rights to a third party, even on a temporary or free basis.” It also states that “The tenant bears all responsibility for compensation regardless of justification if he assumed the housing ahead of a more deserving applicant or undertaken any action to keep it.”|
||Clause 21 – This Contract will be unconditionally terminated in the following cases:
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net and coached by Dr. Mark Hunter and Bahija Belmabrouk.