x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Residents sit it out in condemned apartments

Their Salam Street surroundings are falling apart and they have rats and lizards as neighbours, but flat dwellers say they have nowhere else to go.

The building on Salam Street has a demolition notice on it but tenants say they cannot afford rents elsewhere.
The building on Salam Street has a demolition notice on it but tenants say they cannot afford rents elsewhere.

ABU DHABI // Some residents are refusing to leave a Salam Street apartment block that is marked for demolition, saying they have little choice but to remain living in squalor because they cannot afford rents elsewhere. Despite plans to topple the tower within six months as part of Abu Dhabi's urban renewal, the tenants are staying put - even after the property owner stopped maintenance, cut air conditioning and pulled down walls in neighbouring flats.

The stragglers say conditions there are worsening, and have complained of an infestation of rats and lizards in hallways. However, they add that they have little choice but to stay as long as rents at other blocks are so expensive. According to Abu Dhabi Municipality, building owners can request demolition permits for buildings older than 15 years. If a licence is granted but the demolition is delayed, tenants are entitled to stay.

But some building owners are apparently driving out tenants simply by letting the buildings decay, a policy that could endanger the occupants. While the Salam Street building owner claims that residents are squatting rent-free, the tenants refute this. Some say they have paid rent until September to live in a building that is falling apart. "The lift is not working, there is no air conditioning, no maintenance and no cleaning," said Mariam Balkelme, 42, an Ethiopian tenant on the seventh floor.

She said there was nothing else in the capital that was within her means. Although Abdulla Ghareeb, the former head of property management at the Department of Municipal Affairs, was not aware of the situation at the Salam Street apartment building, he said such situations were common. "Especially in Abu Dhabi now with this rapid development, they need to do this demolition," he said yesterday. "The problem is for the people who rented from the owner because usually these buildings are not maintained. The people are given notice, one year or six months before, for evacuation."

Abu Dhabi Municipality issued 260 demolition permits last year, up on 2007 when 162 were granted. In the first six months of this year, 170 demolition permits were issued, surpassing last year's first-half figures. Mr Ghareeb, who now works in municipal affairs support, said: "The Government compensates people and makes arrangements because the residents have schools and commitments." He did not elaborate.

Lula Mohammed, who shares the flat with Mrs Balkelme, said they had lived together in the Salam Street building since 1999. Rent then was Dh14,000 a year. "We have been here a long time and it is good if we stay," she said. "But they will demolish this, so we will have to search for another." The 12-storey apartment once housed hundreds of middle-income families, but most moved out in the past year, according to remaining residents.

Rubble and children's toys litter several empty flats and glass has been removed from the window spaces. "If you look at the building from the outside, it appears like ghosts are living here," said Hanan, 21, who rents a unit on the eighth floor with her family from Lebanon. Hanan believes fewer than 13 units in the high-rise are still occupied. She said the building's owner "told us more than a year ago they were going to knock down the building, but it never happened.

"We moved in in October 2007. Three months after, they told us they were demolishing it. It was a shock to us because of all the expenses we had to move from one house to another. Now it's been two and a half years and we still don't know where to go." Her father, Hussein, added: "There are rats and mice and lizards running around and the watchman is doing nothing." Their annual rent is Dh60,000 (US$16,335), but the family of six has not yet found anything in the city to match that price.

Hussein expects to stay until at least September as he has already paid his rent to the Abu Dhabi Committee for Settlement of Rent Disputes, which arbitrates disputes between landlords and tenants. Al Harif Demolition, which is contracted to perform the demolition, said last week that the building was owned by Khalifa al Fahad Property, and was scheduled for demolition in six months. The building owner, who gave his name as Osai, refused to discuss the reasons for the demolition. Tenants suggested that a new apartment could replace it, with landlords able to charge higher rents.

"We had the notice last year, August 2008," Osai said. "We have stopped the rent already. We don't want anybody to pay, we want them to go. They have to go within four months." But Nathaniel Ubaide, 49, a third-floor resident since 2003, said he had heard nothing about an eviction date. "I don't know when it will happen. There is no notice," the Filipino said. "The manager, since 2007, has been saying every six months that they will demolish this building."

Bryan Mercado, 29, a Filipino neighbour, also doubted the demolition would proceed soon. "People are moving out anyway," noted Mr Mercado. "The lift is not working well. "We want to leave this situation, too." "I think there are a lot of cases there," said Khaled al Menhali, the head of the development projects section. He said: "When there are these disputes because the owner wants to evict and he doesn't demolish within a certain time, the tenants have the right to go back with the same rent."

Mr al Menhali said structural engineers would normally be sent out to verify whether buildings were beyond saving. "We don't want the owner just to kick people out if the building doesn't need to be knocked down," he said. "Sometimes we don't agree with the owner." Khalfan al Nuaimi, the municipality's construction permits director, said the burden should be on the building owner to prove that any given structure had to go.

"The owner has two things to consider - the quality of the building and the people who live in that building," he said. "But first he has to convince us that the building is not worth being a building anymore." The rent disputes committee could not be reached for comment. mkwong@thenational.ae