By THE PENINSULA TEAM
A move by the authorities to strictly implement a law (No. 4 of 1985) that bans partitioning of villas and other residential premises has made hundreds of expatriate families jittery.
Despite their safety hazards, partitioned accommodations remain the only option for many low- and middle-income families and single workers in the absence of affordable housing units in the country.
The reported move has caused panic among many tenants, who are wondering when they would be asked to vacate their small, often ramshackle, partitioned houses.
The news has also sent shock waves through greedy middlemen who have been thriving on this illegal practice. Industry sources say that the decision could worsen the housing crisis in the country and cause a further rise in house rents.
Official sources indicate that the municipal authorities have already started inspections across the country to detect violations of the law.
Quoting a legal expert at the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Development, a local Arabic daily reported on Thursday that legal action would be taken against property owners and middlemen found responsible for partitioning villas illegally.
Tenants affected by such action can claim compensation from real estate agents or landlords if their tenancy contracts are still valid, he said.
“It is not true that the law has been ignored. But partitioning of villas has increased manifold. Therefore, there is a need to take measures to stop this practice because it is posing a major threat to the lives of people (in terms of safety),” the daily quoted Dr Ahmed Abu Mustafa, a legal consultant at the office of the Minister of Municipality and Urban Planning, as saying.
The monitoring sections of all municipalities are going ahead with inspection campaigns at villas to detect all types of violations, Mustafa said.
Partitioning is not the only violation of law in such premises. There are villas and other residential spaces used for commercial activities, as well as those converted into labour accommodations, which is also against the law. Safety and hygiene in such accommodations are also being checked during the inspections, he added.
The expert said that partitioning of villas was a clear violation of law No. 4 of 1985 and its amended provisions. The law does not specifically mention villas but encompasses all types of buildings, including flats and traditional houses.
As per the law, it is not allowed to construct or demolish a building, do maintenance work or make alterations in the structure or features without prior approval from municipal authorities.
The law bans any engineer, contractor or worker from carrying out any work in a building, if the owner fails to produce the approval letter from the municipality concerned. Simple maintenance work is exempt from this rule.
As per the law, a fine of QR250 to QR500 is to be imposed for every square metre where the law has been violated, and a fine of QR200 to QR400 would be levied for every linear metre of violation. In addition, the alterations would have to be rectified.
Municipal inspectors are not allowed to enter an accommodation without permission from the Public Prosecution and without accompanying policemen.
“However, to detect a violation related to partitioning, the inspectors don’t need to enter the house. It is easy to identify a partitioned villa by observing it from outside, looking at the number of air conditioners, cars, materials used in the premises, sewage connections etc,” said Abu Mustafa.
When the inspectors are sure that the villa has been partitioned illegally, they start legal procedures against the owner.
If the owner proves that he rented out the property as a single villa and the one who sublet the villa is responsible for the partition, the latter will face action.
When the violation is proved, the one responsible is required to undo all alterations in the building and restore it to its original condition, as shown in the licence, said the expert. The inspectors have judicial powers to confirm a violation, in collaboration with the minister of municipality and urban planning.
The authorities will take punitive action against the violators only after it is announced through the media. In such cases, the tenants have the right to seek compensation from those who rented out the premises if their contracts are valid, said Abu Mustafa.
Several expatriates The Peninsula spoke to expressed concern and surprise over the new move, saying it could worsen the housing crisis in the country.
“How did they (the authorities) think of implementing such a law when the problem remains unaddressed? It’s a known fact that house rents are very high here and most middle-income families are depending on partitioned accommodations,” said a Filipina bank employee living in a partitioned villa with four other families.
Instead of imposing a blanket ban on partitioned villas, the authorities should take measures to ensure the safety of such accommodations, she said.
“It is true that some partitioned accommodations are not safe. I think the government should impose strict regulations for villa partitioning and ensure the safety of people who stay in such places, instead of completely banning them. They can even conduct regular inspections to ensure safety,” she added.
Many single workers are also worried by the move.
“We live in a partitioned villa in Al Azizia area. Five of us are staying in two rooms, each costing QR600. Our salary is low and the company doesn’t provide accommodation. We only get an allowance. If the authorities ban such accommodations, we don’t know where we will live,” said a Sri Lankan working in a popular restaurant at Villaggio shopping mall.
An Indian who has been involved in subletting partitioned villas for many years and manages more than 30 such properties said it would not be practical to implement the law.
“I am saying this not just because I am subletting houses, but because I know the category of people who rent houses from me. If they can afford to rent an apartment, they won’t come to us. This law will create problems for middle-income families. The authorities should first find a solution to their problems,” he said.
“This law will affect many middle-income people. Someone paying QR2,500 for a partitioned accommodation will be forced to pay QR4,000 for the same space in an apartment. Most middle-income expatriates draw an average monthly salary of QR10,000. If they spend half of their salary as house rents, it will be difficult for them to run a family. Maybe then people will be forced to send their families home,” said an Indian living in the New Salata area with his wife and two children.
An industry insider involved in villa partitioning for several years said the government would succeed in implementing the ban, but it will create a different set of problems.
“Banning partitioned villas will create an acute crisis of affordable housing very similar to the situation we faced pre-Asian Games. It will send the rentals for apartments skyrocketing. A flat worth QR6,000 per month will become costlier by at least QR2,000, while, on the other hand, rents for villas may come down significantly (by 20-30 percent),” he said, seeking anonymity.
“I believe a large number of expatriates with monthly salaries between QR6,000 and QR8,000, who live here with their families in such accommodations, will be forced to send their families back home. And many of those who do not prefer to live alone may look for jobs elsewhere,” he added.
Many tenants share this view, even though they are not happy with the condition of their partitioned houses.
“The news has created so much confusion among families. We have adapted to these houses over many years, although we face a lot of problems. We have no other option. The new move will increase the rentals for residential units because of the gap between supply and demand,” said Omar Mostafa, an Egyptian.
“If they implement the law, what is the alternative for thousands of families? At least they should give a grace period,” he added.
“The government should force private companies to provide accommodation to their employees. This is the only way to stop partitioning of villas,” suggested another Arab expatriate.
He said the partitioned house he was staying in offered no privacy because the inner walls were made of gypsum, which is not sound-proof.
“We are forced to opt for this because the rents are continuously going up,” he lamented.
He said many real estate agents hired villas under construction and later made alternations in the structure and sublet them.
A Bangladeshi real estate agent involved in partitioning and subletting of villas also expressed the view that implementing the law would be nearly impossible.
He alleged that through this decision the authorities were trying to help big real estate companies get occupants for their residential properties, many of which are lying vacant.
An Indian expatriate said he had rented a house in a dilapidated old villa in the Al Murra area at a monthly rent of QR2,800.
“There are five families staying in this villa, besides some 20 labourers. In summer, electricity outages due to overloading are a routine problem. I want to move to a better house but I cannot find one that suits my financial situation,” he said.
“There should be some rules to curb greedy middlemen minting money from partitioned villas, but this should not be at the cost of hapless expatriates,” he added.