Bellona Street stalemate

Community Safety MEC Dan Plato listens to complaints about the problem building at 6 Bellona Street, Bridgewater, Somerset West, at a public meeting on Monday November 21.

The fight over the problem building at 6 Bellona Street, Bridgewater in Somerset West is stalemated. Concerned residents in the area, who maintain that it is a haven for prostitutes, drug dealers and criminals, have been fighting for over six years for the City of Cape Town to deal with the matter.

The City has managed to secure a demolition permit in terms of its Problem Building By-law, which permits it to appoint a demolition contractor to demolish the building, but that process will take between four and six months to come to conclusion, according to mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith. “We have to adhere to the City’s supply chain management processes. The tender advertisement will close on December 8.

“Following the receipt of bids, the City will have to adjudicate each one and then make a decision around the preferred bidder. After the preferred bidder is announced, there is an appeal period. Once the appeal period passes and no objections are received, the work can go ahead. Should there be objections, these will have to be dealt with first. All of these things take time.”

But the community is up in arms, insisting that the City take steps to remove the people squatting on the property, who they allege are the source of criminal activity in the area, and then appoint a private security contractor to prevent further illegal squatting until the building is demolished.

Resident Bronwyn Mason, who has been robbed twice by people alleged to be squatting on the property, said: “Since the tender process will take four to six months, I firmly feel that the City should have the site cleared of squatters, and pay for a 24/7 private security presence until the building is demolished, and thereafter to keep squatters from re-occupying it,” she told Bolander during a visit by Western Cape government MEC for community safety, Dan Plato.

“If a bank repossesses a property for sale in execution, it will secure the property and appoint a security company to keep it clear of squatters until it is sold. Why can’t the City do the same here? I understand that processes must be followed, but it is going to take time, and time is something we don’t have.”

But Mr Smith says this is not possible: “The City may not remove persons from the site. 

“This is prohibited by the Prevention of Eviction from and Illegal Occupation of Land Act (Act 19 0f 1998) and would constitute an illegal eviction. The by-law cannot override a national act in this regard – we have gotten legal opinion on this.”

On the question of securing the property to prevent illegal squatting, he said: “There are a couple hundred problem buildings across the city. The City could never afford to pay for security guards at all of them.”

Speaking to concerned residents on Monday November 21, for the second time in two weeks, Mr Plato, suggested that since the SAPS cannot police the property 24/7, residents should take responsibility for keeping squatters off the property, by engaging the local Neighbourhood Watch and private security companies, a suggestion which was universally rejected by residents.

Although Mr Plato agreed to continue to engage with residents, he made no undertakings about addressing their concerns, save to acquire a copy of the demolition permit from the City of Cape Town, which apparently permits residents to appoint a demolition contractor at their own expense, a course of action also rejected by residents at this, and the previous meeting with Mr Plato.

Mr Smith made it clear in his email statement to Bolander last Thursday, that the City has done all within its power thus far, to address residents’ concerns about the Bellona Street property: “The City cannot take responsibility for what is done with private property. The City’s powers extend to legislating around environmental health, illegal building work and fire hazards.

“If the property is not transgressing these issues, the City has little ability to fix the problems relating to serious crime and illegal occupation of the property.”

However, Mr Smith said the City was looking at a new strategy to deal with problem buildings. This involves applying for evictions or demolitions on behalf of a third party.

“The most recent attempt at trying something new to see if it will be legally supported and if these steps will assist to resolve the problem, involves approaching the court for an order to demolish the building and evict the occupants. 

“This is precedent-setting, as the City has not previously approached the court to apply for evictions or demolitions on behalf of a third party and many in the City still dispute whether this is legal or within the City’s powers. We will attempt it nonetheless.”

Mr Smith also said the City’s efforts in dealing with problem buildings are ground-breaking, having achieved many firsts, and are emulated elsewhere, but that sometimes, as in the case of 6 Bellona Street, despite significant effort and expenditure, the outcome is less than satisfactory.

“Bellona Crescent (sic) has been the beneficiary of many of these firsts, including fencing, twice.

“The interventions did not resolve the problem, but that is mainly due to the fact that alleged criminal elements are allowed to continue operating from the premises without being arrested by the South African Police Service.”