Tensions rose on Wednesday morning in a rundown apartment building near Ohi roundabout in Nicosia when a group of tenants – mostly people from Balkan and African countries, and among them a woman with a month-old baby – tried desperately to convince the landlord not to evict them.
Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou said none of the people who had been left high and dry after being asked on short notice to leave the flats where they had been left without running water or electricity the past three days, would be left without shelter.
The tenants argue that the owners had no right to kick them out since their rental agreements do not expire until next year. The directors of the company, J.E. Investwise Ltd, maintain that they were forced to take the decision to evict for financial reasons as many tenants failed to pay common expenses and utility bills for long periods, and because some of the persons living there were causing public unrest in the area.
The issue came to the fore after news reports that some 100 people living in the building were being given only eight days to find another place to stay causing despair to several tenants who could not afford accommodation elsewhere or who said they were not given enough time to find a new place to live.
The owners of the 24-apartment building, who declined to be named, told the Cyprus Mail that most of the tenants – around 80 per cent – have been reimbursed and handed over their keys. Some of the tenants who had been consistent with payments have been given accommodation in other buildings owned by the company. This, they said, concerned eight cases.
Another three to four tenants, one of the directors said, were told they could remain at their current apartment until they were able to find another place to stay. “There are also two cases where there is a complaint,” he said.
The two company directors said that they had informed the tenants seven to eight months ago that the building had to be vacated and renovated.
They also said that some of those who refuse to leave are people who used to stay in flats that were rented by other people.
“There were cases where a person who had the lease contract handed over the keys and left but there would still be another seven to eight people there [when they’d gone],” they said. Due to such practices, the owners said, the 24-apartment building was housing as many as 200 to 250 people.
The directors said they cut the water and power supply to those who failed to pay their utility bills, paid directly to the owners, and that they had no problem restoring supply as long as all the dues were being paid in full.
“Any legal tenant who has their rent and utilities paid will be allowed to remain in the building [for now],” they said. They added that unpaid utilities and the common expenses of some tenants had reached thousands of euros.
The company directors also said that they did not force themselves into anyone’s apartments and throw their belongings outside, as per reports, but that the furniture and other items that had been thrown into a pile outside were items left behind by tenants who have already moved out and will be collected and be disposed of.
But the tenants who remain at the building claim that they owe no money to the company.
Many of them say they cannot afford to go elsewhere as the meagre allowance they receive as Minimum Guaranteed Income (GMI) beneficiaries, or their low salaries make it impossible to pay rent deposit or even higher rents. Rents have also risen in Nicosia of late.
Some said the fact that they were African was another obstacle.
Angela, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who has been in Cyprus for the past six months, lives with her partner and one-month-old baby boy in one of the apartments.
“It’s been three days we have not had any electricity or water,” she said. “Had I known this two months ago, it would have been easier to find other accommodation.”
She said that she had to rent as there was no place at the Kofinou reception centre for asylum seekers and it wasn’t easy for African people and asylum seekers to find accommodation in Cyprus.
To bathe and feed her baby, they have to heat water they bring in buckets from other buildings on a gas stove. “He’s cold,” she said. “I’m confused, I need somebody to help me.”
Hawa Ahmed from Somalia who has been living there for five years with her three children, two of them underage, said the same.
“It is a problem finding another house, they don’t rent to black people,” she said. But even if she did find another place, the low GMI allowance she receives is not enough to cover a higher rent, utilities and food, she said.
Other tenants said they felt they had been treated like animals.
“With no running water, I did not shower the past three days,” said a woman from Bulgaria who has been living in the building the past four years. She said that this was a problem as she still had to go to work and was afraid she would be reprimanded for poor personal hygiene.
Senior official of the social welfare services, Maria Kyratzi, told state broadcaster CyBC they had responded as soon as they were informed of the situation and that, when social workers arrived at the building on Tuesday evening along with police officers, there was no one there who wished to seek assistance.
Two social workers went back to the building on Wednesday noon.
Emilianidou said that the social welfare services were recording the needs of all the people still living in the apartments in cooperation with other state services as well as with the police.
“The aim is to ensure all the basic needs of these individuals, particularly those in vulnerable and sensitive situations,” she said.
She added that no one would be left without shelter and would be transferred to other accommodation according to their needs and situation.
On site were also members of the Akel affiliated Pancyprian Federation of Women’s Organisations (POGO) who spoke with tenants and heard of their problems. They also made calls to mobilise authorities.
The building, according to the owners, after being evacuated, will remain vacant until they decide how to utilise it.