Heavy clouds of uncertainty hovered at the weekend over the newly signed Lagos State Government tenancy law, as legal practitioners geared up towards taking up arms against the state government by initiating a court action soonest.

The grouse of the lawyers is hinged on the constitutional rights to property by homeowners.  Another action is also expected from the members of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers (NIESV) as the regulation outlawed estate agents taking commission on rental income from tenants, which has been the mainstay of agency practice globally.

Really, the court action is not coming from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), but some of its members, who have described the law as an affront to contractual rights of the Nigerian citizens, said to be guaranteed by the 1999 constitution.

Only last week, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola signed the controversial bill into law.  And until otherwise stated, the law would henceforth be regulating the contract between landlords and their tenants in the state. The law, among other provisions, restricts landlords from demanding more than a year rent from their tenants and guarantees the right to reasonable privacy of the tenants.

Signing the law last week, Fashola said by the provisions of the tenancy law, any landlord that collects rent in excess of six months for a sitting tenant and one year from a new tenant would either be jailed for three months or pay a fine of N100, 000. According to the new law, forceful ejection of tenants, which involves the landlord going to remove the roof or doors to the apartment, attracts six months in jail or an option fine of N250, 000.

The governor, however, revealed that his administration would soon embark on a mass housing programme to bridge the yawning gap of housing deficit in the state, adding that the new development requires the few privileged landlords to make some sacrifice to help the poor and less privileged members of the society. He added that landlords ought to comply with the present economy predicament in the country, adding that employees don’t receive two years’ salaries or more in advance.

His words: “The issues at stake in the new laws are serious moral issues that require voluntary compliance rather than strict enforcement from government. The problem of corruption cannot be fought in the country with this kind of situation that requires a tenant to pay two or more years rent in advance. How many employees get two years salaries in advance to make such payments? Does the landlord lose money if he collects his money as at when due?”

He therefore explained that the law protects both the tenants and the landlords, noting that the law does call for panic from the landlords and their tenants, adding that there are provisions in the law that makes it impossible for tenant to be elusive and shy away from their obligations to the landlords.

Although all the lawyers who spoke to The Guardian, after Fashola endorsed the legal instrument, agreed that they were yet to get a copy of their law, that would have given then vantage position for thorough analysis, most of them at the time decried the law, saying it is unhealthy for a stable polity.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Alex Izion, who said he was yet to read the law, said it is wrong for the state to be interfering with a valid contractual relationship, asking how will a justified and agreeable relationship between two parties, without breach from either of the parties become a criminal offence?

“The relationship between tenants and landlords is contractual and I am afraid, at what stage has collecting a rent in excess of six months from a sitting tenants hat become a criminal offence?  This to my mind is an interference in the citizens’ contractual right”, saying it was unimaginable for anybody to legislate on a commodity it does not possess.

Izion, said rather than alleviating the burden of the masses, the said would aggravate it, as some landlords would capitalize on the law to astronomically increase rents, just to still operate within the law.

To a human right lawyer, Messrs Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, the law was illegal, saying the constitution grants right to property, saying he would challenge it in court.

“The new tenancy law of Lagos State is illegal and unconstitutional and I will challenge it in court.  Government cannot legislate on the amount or method of rent under the constitution.  The owner of property has a right to determine his rent because the constitution grants the right to property.”

Adegboruwa said what the government should do was to first provide mass housing for the people, before talking about legislating on other people’s property. “Without first providing affordable housing for the masses, government cannot purport to legislate on houses built by individuals.”

He accused the state government of insincerity and hypocrisy. “The Lagos State government is being hypocritical with the tenancy law.  The land use charges and the cost of obtaining certificate of occupancy and building plan approval from the state are so astronomical to landlords that government cannot at the same time muzzle them, after exploiting them.”

However, another senior lawyer, Mr. E.A. Adebanji, said the law would stand but it would remain a paper work that would be violated with impunity.

“The law will stand as the law of a state assembly and the merit is that it will curtail the excesses of landlord and the demerit is that the law will be a piece of paper that will be violated with impunity.  Unless the state can develop mass housing, landlords will continue to be king.”

Editor Nigerian Weekly Law Report, publication of late Chief Gani Faweyinmi (SAN), Mr. Oluwole Kehinde, said the law would create artificial scarcity of accommodation, making tenants to bend to landlords, tasking the state to build more affordable houses for the people.

“Everything depends on enforcement.  Bt the government will have difficulty enforcing the law because there would be artificial scarcity that would make tenants to bend to landlords; problems will only come for landlords when they want to recover premises.  In all, the best approach is for the government to build more houses to meet increasing demands.”

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Source: The Guardian