Woodstock woman faces eviction from home of 75 years

Property developer wants tenants out by August

Photo of a woman

Brenda Smith, sitting at home, 128 Bromwell Street, where she has lived for 75 years. Photo: Rejul Bejoy

By Rejul Bejoy

22 June 2016

The residents of 120-128 Bromwell Street are facing eviction. An order of the Western Cape High Court has given them until 31 July to move out, with evictions authorised from 1 August.

Brenda Smith is 75 and has lived her whole life in No.128. Eighteen people live in her three-roomed house. She does not know what they will do if evicted. “We won’t get places, the rent is simply too high,” she says.

According to the Woodstock Hub, which took the tenants to court, they have not paid rent.

Residents concede that they have not paid rent for two years, but maintain that since the property was bought by the Woodstock Hub they have had no contact with these new owners. The first time they ever heard of the Woodstock Hub was when they received the first notice to appear in court.

Residents also say that unnamed people came to them in the past year offering substantial amounts of money if they moved out immediately.

The residents say they tried to reach the new owners, but were unable to find any contact information. They tried to find out from their local subcouncil, but were informed that service connections were still in the name of the previous owner. Because of limited resources, the residents gave up trying to make contact. Meanwhile, they have been footing the bills for maintaining the building.

The Woodstock Hub has no website or contact information. Trematon Capital Investments Limited, a large investment group based in Cape Town, lists The Woodstock Hub as a 50% joint venture. In its 2015 Investment report, Trematon notes “The Woodstock Hub continues to acquire properties in the Woodstock area in Cape Town with the intention to redevelop both residential, commercial and mixed-use properties.” No individual property is named.

The company registration names the directors as Trematon Capital CEO Arnold Shapiro, and chief financial officer Arthur Winkler. Another director of Woodstock Hub, Jacques van Embden, is the founder of Prime Residential Properties, a property developer that also owns “The Hub,” (not directly affiliated with The Woodstock Hub), a new apartment complex a block away from Bromwell Street.

Under South African housing law, tenants are entitled to the entirety of their lease agreement, regardless of any change in property ownership in-between. That means The Woodstock Hub would have to honour the terms of the original lease agreement.

Residents suspect the Woodstock Hub of deliberately avoiding contact with them in order to evict them and avoid dealing with the long-standing lease agreements.

Woodstock remembered

Smith fondly remembers the Bromwell Street community and Woodstock as a vibrant place, even under apartheid. Woodstock was one of the few neighbourhoods in Cape Town that escaped complete segregation. Due to its classification as a coloured community, people of all races were able to live close to the economic opportunities in the city.

Today, property listings and urban travel blogs often describe Woodstock as an untouched, historical neighbourhood with a “gritty charm”. However, the 2006 opening of the Old Biscuit Mill weekly market has spearheaded new and expensive developments in the area with little economic benefit for the long-standing residents.

Over the years, dozens of residents in areas such as Gympie and Cornwall Streets have been evicted. In September 2014, families on another section of Bromwell Street successfully challenged attempts to evict them.

Tenant say they didn’t agree

The Bromwell residents say originally they hired an attorney named Lyle Hendricks to stop the eviction. They say Hendricks repeatedly told them that the Woodstock Hub had money and they didn’t stand a chance; and that if they fought the eviction, the new landlords would immediately demand all the rent owing for the past year. Regardless, they instructed him to fight the eviction.

Resident Charnell Commando says, “We wanted to fight it, since there is nowhere else for us to go. Besides, I wanted to pay rent, but the owners were nowhere to be found. The previous landlord had always collected our money in person.”

In an email on behalf of Hendricks, Marcello Stevens attorneys said residents had agreed to a proposal submitted by attorneys representing The Woodstock Hub.

The 31 March court order claims to be an agreement between both parties. But the residents say that they had no warning and can only imagine that their lawyer made an agreement without their approval.

The closest thing to a concession to the residents is that the developer “abandons any claims for arrear rental … up to and including 31 July 2016”.

But the residents say they will fight the evictions and are planning to hire a new lawyer. The larger community of Bromwell Street has been holding public meetings to discuss options for a way forward. Reclaim the City, a Cape Town based housing rights organisation, has also mobilised to help the residents.

The Woodstock Hub declined to comment on the issue, saying it was an ongoing legal matter. Attempts to contact its attorneys at Marlon Shelevew & Associates were unsuccessful.

Photo of a buildingThe houses of 120-128 Bromwell Street. Photo: Rejul Bejoy