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Sh117,000 a month? Someone is making a kill from “service charge fees”

HousesinaRow

When Sam purchased an apartment in 2006 in the Lavington neighbourhood of Nairobi, paying monthly service charges was not part of the bargain. So the shock he got when he received a note to pay Sh3,000 at the end of the first month was understandable.

The caretaker committee told him the Sh3,000 would cater for security, garbage collection, and general cleaning and maintenance services within their gated community.

That was in 2006, and today Sam, who requested us to use the alias for fear of reprisals by his estate’s management committee, is no longer a happy man. Despite paying diligently at the end of every month, he believes that he is being conned, and there is nothing he can do about it.

“I was one of the first people to enter the units,” he says, “and they told me the money was needed to fumigate the area, secure it, and cater for common water and electricity bills. When I asked why the charges were so high, they told me they would reduce them after more people take up the apartments.”

It was not to be. The 38 apartments were long filled, and every tenant now pays a mandatory Sh4,500 for the aforesaid charges. That translates to Sh171,000 that the management committee takes to offer the services.

The committee has outsourced the services of a security firm that dispatches a lone guard during the day and two watchmen overnight. There is a gardener who spends most of the day, not trimming hedges, but washing residents’ cars for Sh200 apiece and mopping staircases because there is neither a garden nor any greenery to be tended.

The most that the landlord can use to pay for the services, according to Sam, is Sh70,000 a month. How the remaining Sh100,000-plus is used is left to speculation.

Sam is not alone. Gated communities propped up to secure the privileges of the well-to-do who find comfort in solitude, away from the prying eyes of nosy neighbours. They also offered better security because visitors are required to verify their identity before penetrating being allowed in.

Areas like Lavington, Muthaiga, Runda, and Karen birthed these dwellings in the country before the average middle class resident sought the same services at an affordable price. The demand drove property developers to initiate gated areas in second-tier locations like South C and B, Lang’ata, Buruburu, Kahawa Sukari, and Mombasa Road, among other residential zones.

In Nairobi, tenants are being fleeced in the name of paying for service charges. In some areas, landlords give the service providers authority to directly take their contingency fees from the tenant.

For example, in South C, the average security fee is Sh1,200 while the garbage collector takes Sh400 per month. A gated community can have more than 200 units, which translates to hundreds of thousands of shillings in monthly charges despite the minimal services offered. And you either pay or pack up and leave.

Few ever leave because the utopic attraction to the gated communities in Kenya is not just aesthetic, but can be attributed to the appeals of security and exclusivity. A middle-class consumer can now afford a house at the urban locale, and the property developer has gone an extra mile to offer more for less.

The home owner can share a swimming pool, a gym, a shopping centre, or even a school, often called an academy. It is a serene existence where lawnmowers come to life, hedges are immaculately trimmed, and pathways are dustless.

Those seeking such a life want to be around neighbours who mirror their aspirations in terms of class and lifestyle. No wonder, then, that Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu are today characterised by six-foot brick walls and iron fences circling the enclaves of luxury homes, bulky gates, and 24-hour security guards to keep outsiders away. Even friends and relatives have to call in advance before visiting or risk being denied entry.

Controlled development within the gated communities enables the centralised management of common facilities such as street lighting and paved roads, as well as paid-for services such as waste management. The initial purpose was to allow optimal use of resources by residents and make them affordable to households.

Thika Greens Limited chief executive Charles Kabiru explains: “The value and uniqueness of such premium products goes down when homeowners are compelled to comply with payment of the service charges that sustain the look.”

Service charge is what maintains the fully independent and self-contained infrastructure, and tenants are usually bound by a contract to fulfil this obligation before being allowed to live in the area.

The Local Government Act gives the local authority the mandate to make by-laws from time to time in respect to matters necessary for the maintenance of the health, safety, and wellbeing of the inhabitants of an area.

This is further cemented by the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, which says that every Kenyan is entitled to a clean and healthy environment and has the duty to safeguard and enhance that environment.

The Act mandates the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to undertake measures intended to integrate conservation and sustainable utilisation of ethics in relation to diversity in existing government activities and those of private individuals.

Most of these dwellings have committees that look at the grievances and needs of the residents and propose concessionary fees. The committees are composed of selected residents, the landlord, a caretaker and some of the property owners. They meet regularly, say monthly or quarterly, and make recommendations that will affect the living atmosphere of the dwellers.

When Sam bought his apartment in Lavington, the residents’ meetings happened monthly and were quite involving. But the last time this took place was in February 2010, when the service charges had risen to Sh4,500. Miffed, residents asked for an expenditure report of their finances.

“It has been three years and we have never received any annual accounts,” says Sam. “Every time we ask for the meetings, we get snubs, which is really depressing.”

And therein lies the problem. Leonard Ithau, the group CEO of Petu Properties, says some developers do not provide information on service charge when an investor is signing the sale agreement.

“When a homeowner parts with money he or she had not planned for when buying the property, they will feel cheated and this may be the reason some default on payments,” he says.

Other residents commit to pay a certain fee, say Sh2,000, for the charges, only to be slapped with a 100 per cent increase within months of moving in. Tenants and owners of residences in gated communities have no choice but to pay the charges, albeit half-heartedly. Those who question the exorbitant fees are always met with sceptical glances.

“You no longer feel secure. There are furtive glances that make you feel odd in your place. My children have claimed harassment by the guards and other children… the shouting and everything,” says Sam. “It’s really embarrassing, but there is nothing we can do.”

My Space Properties CEO Mwenda Thuranira says a resident who contravenes a by-law — say, the payment of the monthly charges — risks civil action by the caretaker committee or the landlord. The penalty can be up to Sh25,000.

To the uninitiated, it seems these high charges are what residents are required to pay to live in these exclusive zones. The law does not seem to cater for the tenant, instead appearing to protect the interests of the landlord.

For Sam and his neighbours in Lavington, then, the monthly pain may continue until they take action and demand accountability from the managers of their funds.

Prisons of affluence

Despite the pain of monthly charges, gated communities offer people a discreet lifestyle, which is one of the reasons they have mushroomed recently at the behest of improved purchasing power and the increased rate of insecurity.

Under the arrangement, developers buy plots for which they are provided with architectural designs of the houses they should build, mostly targeting the upper and middle classes.

The designs are full of current attractions, including shopping malls, schools and golf courses. The whole idea is to have a serene dwelling with a whole package designed for the resident.

Post-apertheid reports show South Africa saw the rise of such estates due to security needs.

In Saudi Arabia, establishment of such estates increased as Europeans and Americans sought protection in the 1990s, when they increasingly became targets.

Argentina, Mexico and Colombia also house the high and the mighty in gated communities.

But critics have found fault in these societal exclusions in the name of living in upgraded areas. Barbara Ehrenreich, an author, thinks that when one retreats into a big home in a gated or exclusively high-income community, he or she is devoid of other cultures that define existence.

“Common knowledge suggests that being exposed to different people and experiences is how we broaden our horizons,” she asserts.

According to her, living in gated communities risks one becoming culturally malnourished as they shut out difference and diversity for a predictable fantasy-land that has no connection to reality.

“In these residences, owners do not involve themselves in little daily things like volunteering because society’s problems are no longer your problem, and all you need for pleasure is there for you to passively enjoy,” argues Barbara.

Nairobi’s population is growing annually, thus the sporadic growth of such communities that offer safety, prestige, privacy and exclusivity.

Rural-urban migration has given rise to sprawling slums that are quickly taking over the city. But critics argue that attempting to escape the grim realities of these societal maladies instead of contributing to their elimination is not the answer.

Gated communities, like the sprawling slums, are a threat to the creation of authentic and vibrant communities. Here, residents enjoy a false sense of security, which essentially bursts open when the utopic bubble is pricked by a pin of reality.

The first years are okay and jovial, until a lagging sense of solitude and loneliness come knocking. This is followed by harassment by the property owners and landlords years later when you need plumbing and rectification of other defects.

It is a good thing to live with the confines of comfort. But the little tag games between landlords and residents have a heavy toll, both financially and psychologically.

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