Building maintenance generally refers to all efforts made towards ensuring that a building is fit for occupation and maintains its character. These efforts are geared towards certain benefits that accrue to both owners and tenants. By keeping their houses well maintained, owners reap big in rental monies as well as complying with statutory requirements within their cities or towns. Well maintained houses do not degrade quickly and their structural integrity remains guaranteed for a long time. The character and performance of buildings is enhanced and sustained by proper maintenance. All these aspects place the owner on the path towards recouping their investment with ease. On the other hand, tenants residing in well-maintained houses have peace of mind and their health is fairly assured. Their productivity is indirectly affected by the condition of the houses they occupy. The assurance of the safety of both person and belongings is a motivator for hard work to any tenant whether in business or other forms of employment.
But all these considerations tend to melt under the heat of disaster. Disaster comprises events that yield unfortunate consequences. Disaster might take the shape and form of a pandemic, catastrophe, famine, floods and many more. When prolonged calamities or pandemics strike, they present an invitation to both owners and tenants to reconsider their priorities regarding occupation or ownership of buildings. Among the considerations that owners have to make is whether the priority of maintenance makes sense at a time when returns are not assured. Disaster significantly diminishes the owner’s priority for maintenance and shifts attention to strategies of securing other non-monetary benefits such as tenure. Enduring disaster to the end with little or no returns becomes the priority. Tenants help the owners in shifting attention from maintenance because their quest for better living conditions suddenly goes off. They take advantage of a disaster to bargain for lower rents and some might even propose to live without paying until disaster gives way even if that means living in poorly maintained houses.
This conversation brings the owner to the dilemma of cost versus occupancy. What is the importance of having tenants during a prolonged disaster with the possibility of not receiving any rental monies? Well, from an investment viewpoint it makes zero sense. But owners have a different worry. What would be the size and magnitude of the risk of having vacant houses during a disaster? What would the weight of vandalism be as viewed against free occupancy? During a disaster, owners would rather have their houses occupied for lower rental monies or even for free with promises to make up as opposed to having them vacated. Vacant houses tend to degrade naturally faster with some components such as plumbing collapsing after long periods of being unoccupied. But should owners allow free or subsidized renting during a disaster while they continue to meet their statutory obligations to the state? During the Covid 19 pandemic, for instance, many owners sought to lower rent to cushion their tenants from the adverse effects of Covid 19 on their individual economies. This might have been based on the assumption that the pandemic would not last long enough to erode previously registered profits. But it did. Owners are still conflicted and shocked with demands for land rates and other levies. With such demands and largely vacant houses, owners aren’t thinking about maintenance as a matter of priority.
The notion of investment for profit is severely challenged during a disaster. One has to trade-off certain key aspects of investment such as profit with the security of tenure and the mere fact that one owns something. As time lapses, owners begin to get more worried about how firmly they hold the ownership of their landed investments. If the disaster is prolonged, it might assume political dimensions and spiral out of hand. A population that is largely hungry and angry is somewhat radicalized against those considered affluent in the society. A little pointer to the semblance of anarchy might cause owners to regret having put their monies in real estate. But they aren’t alone because even the stock market melts in the sight of disaster. Prolonged disasters might diminish respect for the rule of law and property owners are targeted for repossession and dispossession. Ultimately attention shifts to securing tenure and basically holding property for social purposes and not as an investment for profit anymore.
Disaster might also signal the beginning of lots of litigation. Tenants and owners scramble for justice in the courts of law. Owners might want to get commitments from tenants for payment of rent in arrears when disaster gives way to normalcy. Tenants might not want to give such commitments in the wake of uncertain economic realities. Even when things brighten up, some may want to continue enjoying the lower rates of rent and threaten to move out if they are invited to return to pre-disaster levels. All this time, owners are struggling to pay for services such as water and electricity to avoid disconnection which would have far-reaching effects on investment including health and safety concerns. Defaulting on such payments might provoke government agencies to declare the premises unfit for the occupation which presents a different problem altogether.
Government demands for well-maintained houses within various jurisdictions may also come to hurt the owners. Poorly maintained houses become an eyesore and disincentive for investment by other potential business people. Arguments between state and owners for a balance between statutory obligations and maintenance may take long. In the end, defaulting owners may be dispossessed or auctioned for outstanding rates.
The path to recovery from disaster is long and often convoluted. Disaster disorganizes investors in the building maintenance sphere making their priorities mixed up. Building maintenance is easily sacrificed during a disaster because of the numerous challenges that come with it. Profits cease to be the driving force. Occupancy becomes a burden rather than a sign of good returns. The aesthetics and character of the building become something that can be considered in the future. Owners and tenants alike get worried about different aspects of survival leaving maintenance less thought about. Planned and scheduled maintenance works are suspended. Environmental matters are forgotten as well as compliance to the city and municipal requirements. While all these could be explained sufficiently, it probably shouldn’t be used as an excuse for poor maintenance and degraded living conditions. Innovative ways of ensuring adequate maintenance are realized even during a disaster should be prioritized. The creation of sinking funds for maintenance could be one of those options for cushioning owners from adverse effects of the prolonged disaster. Clarity of law regarding obligations of both owners and users of buildings during prolonged disasters should be sought.
By BS Mulinge Kimuyu
The writer is a Building Surveyor and a member of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya.