My World

September 5, 2020

The house that ‘Mrs J’ sold

The house that ‘Mrs J’ sold

File: A building in Festac town

File: A building in Festac town

By Muyiwa Adetiba

We were next door neighbours physically but he was actually more than a neighbour. He was like a senior brother. When my then pregnant wife had labour pains around midnight, it was to his wife a matron, we turned.

That was our first real contact. Until then, we merely exchanged polite greetings whenever we met. The place was Festac Town and the year was 1981. We were two of a kind – quiet, unobtrusive and unwilling to intrude into each other’s space. The birth of our first child changed that somewhat.

His wife, already a mother of four, visited often to offer professional and personal advice. That brought us closer. It was then the wife confided that she often prayed after they got their allotment papers – it turned out we attended the same church- for a good neighbour that would be like family. The prayer must have been answered. We were Mrs and Mrs A to them while they were Mr and Mrs J to us.

Their much older children reached out to mine as our children came into the world. Over time, ours became the only duplex in the close that had the same external colour of paint as whoever was painting their side also painted the external walls. This gesture was first started by Mr J. and it caught on. At a time, we thought of getting a big generator that would power the two wings. That was the kind of relationship we had developed.

Stuff happened over time as it always does. He retired from the multinational oil company he was working at and died not too long after. His children got married and flew the nest. Most went abroad. The wife started going from one child to the other doing ‘omugwo’, the Igbo traditional name for helping baby rearing children that has caught on with almost every tribe.

That was the situation until we left our own wing of the duplex and moved on after three decades. We turned our wing into flats and let them out. She took a cue and did the same. The frequency of our contacts reduced over the years as she was mostly abroad. What with five children based across three continents.

Then this Wednesday, we got a frantic call that our Festac neighbour was doing a major overhaul and parts of the roof had been removed. Why were we not told? This ran against the relationship we felt we had built over the years. We immediately tried to reach her because an open roof at this time of the year was asking for trouble.

Fortunately, COVID 19 had kept her in Nigeria longer than normal. To our surprise, it turned out she had just sold the property. She had been forced to. It was not because she needed the money. She had a tenant who had not paid his rent for three years and the case was taking forever in court as usual.

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Meanwhile, he had the temerity to report her to the police when she took the water pump out. Her children might have told her she didn’t need the hassle. So what should have been a family house; a house that holds emotional memories of marital and family life, had to be let go because it was looking to be more trouble than it was worth.

We too have a similar problem of a tenant who had been in default for five years. Our frustration has not yet forced us into letting go of the house with all the memories it holds for us and the children. But for how long?

Lagos State government has to do something about sit tight tenants. Many of them dare the landlords. Many landlords are resorting to extra judicial actions to get their property back from tenants who won’t pay and yet won’t leave. Some tenants stay long enough to contest the ownership with the landlords. Some stay long enough to acquire their own property. Some intentionally vandalise their space so badly that it would take a small fortune to put it back to shape. It does not matter whether the property is the only asset a widow has.

It does not matter whether the proceeds are meant to help the children complete their education or pay loans. Some deliberately sit tight knowing the law by its tardiness is on their side. Such was the case a close friend of mine encountered a few years ago. He is a lawyer.

A client had approached him to defend her in a case with her landlord in Ikoyi. She paid good money. It turned out the case had dragged on for years and she had changed many lawyers in order to keep dragging the case.

Meanwhile, the proceeds from the property which is in a prime area in Ikoyi, were supposed to help the deceased owner’s children to complete their education.

My friend, a senior lawyer, gave his word to the presiding Judge and the prosecuting lawyer that he would settle the case amicably by getting his client to pay. Neither the Judge nor the lawyer was impressed. He thereafter got his client to issue post -dated cheques.

A week before the first cheque was to be presented, she called to ask that it be deferred. In the same breath, she asked whether my friend knew about the property law in Dubai because she was interested in buying property there.

My friend was so upset that he tongue lashed her and promptly resigned from the case. If she could afford to buy a property in Dubai why couldn’t she pay her rent? There are many like her in Lagos unfortunately.

Nowhere in the civilised world would anybody treat the conditions surrounding their accommodation with so much levity bordering on disdain. Nowhere would they ignore their contractual obligations without fear of dire consequences. Nowhere would they owe for three years without their possessions being legally thrown out into the streets.

Nigeria, or Lagos State should not be different. Many tenants are getting away with blue murder. Many landlords are having to use any means at their disposal to reclaim their properties. It seems the more decent you are as a landlord, the more some tenants take advantage. Rent contracts, like all contracts, should be respected. The likes of Mrs J shouldn’t have to sell their houses because of difficult tenants.