Somewhere in a suburb of Accra, one property-owner triples the size of his or her house in three years, with new construction work underway – all to the detriment of the tenant – and this isn’t an isolated case.
A practice that started among a small section of property-owners in Ghana almost fifteen years ago has escalated into a trend – especially in the big cities – where demands for accommodation continue to exceed supply.
To rent a house in Ghana today, a prospective tenant typically must be prepared to pay a two to three year rent advance. Landlords and landladies have made it the norm for tenants to pay these exorbitant amounts that not even those considered well-to-do always have in their coffers – blaming inflation – which have for the most part of the last four decades remained in double digits.
This behavior has brought untold hardship on renters, rendering some people homeless and making others’ dreams of owning houses unfeasible.
For the average Ghanaian, renting a house or apartment is virtually impossible without borrowing huge sums of money to pay property-owners. While those who are reliably employed are fortunate enough to secure bank loans, others – if not the majority of renters – are left completely without aid from any financial institution.
Making things worse, most tenants say, is the emergence of real estate agents whose influence on property-owners they have described as a nightmare.
Since real estate agents came to being, landlords and landladies have changed completely from the sometimes compassionate people who could go out of their way to help tenants, to strictly business minded ones who can’t even afford to smile to the tenant – the latter has observed. Real estate agents in Ghana are mostly unlicensed, untrained, and their activities highly unregulated.
“I have given up on ever building my own house,” said 38 year old technician, Emmanuel Aidoo, a father of two who lives in a two bedroom self-contained apartment with his wife and children. He has been living in rented apartments in Accra for the past 14 years.
“All I do every two to three years is go for another loan from the bank to make an advance payment for another two to three years’ rent,” Aidoo said bitterly. “By the time I’m done paying the bank for the loan with all those high interests, it’s time to renew my rent agreement with my landlord again,” he lamented.
“The part that kills me most,” according to Janet Owusu, a 25 year old administrative secretary, “is that, I can pay my rent every single month without any problem if I had that option, but for some reason, I must cough out a minimum of two to three years advance,” she said dejectedly.
“But the unwillingness of government to intervene on behalf of the everyday and hard working Ghanaian is what makes the issue even more disturbing,” said Stephen Anti, a former news editor of Joy FM – an Accra based radio station.
Anti, whom himself has been ‘victim’ to this vicious-cycle of borrowing from the bank to pay property-owners has vowed to lead a crusade against the practice.
Landlords and landladies have not been silent in the outburst against them in recent times.
“When you cry for the chicken, you must cry for the hawk too,” said a 57 year old landlord who thinks their side of the story is being ignored by everybody. He had changed the lock to the apartment of one of his tenants and prevented her from entering it, while threatening to evict her. The tenant had protested against an increase in her rent.
“If building a house is that easy, why aren’t they in their own houses,” asked one landlady, of tenants. “Let them go to the market and ask about the price of a bag of cement and see how much we spend on building these houses before they try to dictate to us what rent they should pay and how to pay them.”
National housing strategies in Ghana have left much to desire and government housing hasn’t fared well. The Ghana National Policy and Action Plan of 1987-1990 acknowledges this shortfall – stating that – “Our housing problem is one of a national development crisis.”
The sale and privatization of most state housing projects in the early 1990s in Ghana, according to government, was part of a plan to solve the housing problems in the country. Sadly, the very people for whom such housing projects were originally created were the ones who could barely afford the units that were eventually sold out to the public.
In subsequent developments, when new state housing projects funded by the tax payer and social security administration – dubbed affordable and improved versions of the old system – were developed between the 1990s and 2000s, a chunk of them were reported to have gone into the hands of the well-to-dos and people who had no immediate need for them. The new owners quickly rented them out under the same old unreasonably high terms.
The ushering in of a new government in 2001 brought high hopes to renters as the administration of former President John Agyekum Kufuor made a firm promise to enforce the tenancy law, but the practice by property-owners has rather worsened over the years.
Among the hardest hit are people living in the cities and big towns where rents are exceptionally high – and low income earners – who are increasingly moving out of their average places of rents to slums if not the streets.
In a not so strange twist, many landlords and landladies who continue to complain about “the bad economy and high prices of building materials” have increasingly become owners of multiple properties.
Nonetheless, some people have viewed the plight of the Ghanaian renter partly as a result of lack of education, misinformation, and hard-held cultures.
“There are other ways for people who want to own houses to do so,” said real estate businessman, Daniel Mensah. He sees no reason why qualified Ghanaians won’t take advantage of the services of mortgage institutions in the country and channel funds they are able to secure into paying mortgages and eventually owning houses and apartments they live in, instead of paying such monies to landlords and landladies.
As to how long it will take for the idea of mortgage to completely sink in with the average Ghanaian, one can only wait to see.
“I don’t think I can even sleep at night, knowing that the house I live in can be taken away from me at the slightest breach,” said a 60 year old retired primary school teacher, referring to mortgage houses. She recently moved into her partially completed four bedroom house which she has been building since the past 15 years. Only her retirement benefits sped up the process.
“But it’s a shame,” said the former Ghana Education Service employee. “I know too many hard working Ghanaians who never lived to enjoy the fruit of their labors. By the time they finish building their houses, they are too old, too sick, or dead.”