Job Ogenche was elated when he got a job in Nairobi. Mr Ogenche, 25, was working in Kisii and had just about a week to move, so he had to act fast.
He was expected to report to his new office on Monday of the following week, so in order to save time, he decided to house-hunt online.
By a stroke of luck he found a house in Kahawa on the outskirts of Nairobi that seemed tailor-made, so he contacted the letting agent.
“I travelled to Nairobi on Friday evening and headed straight to the letting agency, where I signed the lease and paid a Sh25,000 deposit. The agent told me I could move in on Sunday, when I would be required to pay the first month’s rent,” he recalls.
However, when he arrived at the house on Sunday afternoon, the landlady told him he could not move in after she discovered that he would be living alone.
“She told me that the letting agent had made a mistake, and that she did not rent out her houses to bachelors,” Mr Ogenche recalls with exasperation. She then ordered him out of the compound, leaving him stranded with a truckload of his possessions.
Mr Ogenche is just one of the latest victims of such discrimination which, according to the secretary-general of the Urban Tenants Association of Kenya (Utak), Mr Ephraim Murigo, is rife across the country.
“We receive many complaints from our members, who claim that they have either been denied housing or evicted on account of their religion, tribe, nationality or marital status,” he offers.
But does a landlord have the right to deny housing to a bachelor or single woman?
The legal position is no, according to an advocate of the High Court and property law expert, Mr Robert Mwangi Gacuca. Commenting on Mr Ogenche’s case, Mr Gacuca says that the landlady’s actions were illegal and can be challenged in court.
Quoting Article 27 of the Constitution, he says that the law expressly prohibits anyone from discriminating against another on any ground, including race, sex, marital status and religion, among others.
“In Mr Ogenche’s case, he was discriminated against on the basis of his marital status, which is common among landlords. I was also denied housing on similar grounds several times when I was a bachelor,” the advocate reveals.
He adds that the landlady in Mr Ogenche’s case committed another illegality by violating the contract he had signed, noting that he can sue her for breaching it. And were he to sue, Mr Ogenche could further ask the court to compel the landlady to compensate him not only for the expenses he incurred transporting his household goods, but also for the time he had wasted and the psychological trouble the move had caused him.
Condemning any form of discrimination, Mr Murigo explains that many landlords perceive single men and women as irresponsible and always partying.
“Bachelors are notorious for disturbing other tenants. They come home late at night, sometimes drunk and raucous. They bring many girlfriends, who often fight and disturb neighbours sessions,” Mr Murigo observes.
Also finding it tough to get housing are students at institutions of higher learning. Ms Joyce Auma and her roommate, both fourth-year students at Kenyatta University, are a case in point. “Since it is our final year in campus, we wanted to live away from the university so that we could launch our professional lives after school. We’ve been looking for a house to rent for three weeks now in Membley but most of the landlords refuse to rent to us because we are students,” says Ms Auma.
Asked why Ms Auma says that most of the landlords fear that they might not be able to pay the rent. However, she says that is just an excuse.
“I neither smoke nor drink and I have no intention of hosting any parties. I already have a part-time job which gives me a regular income. I am not a criminal and I am ready to provide a certificate of good conduct from the police to prove it. How can they judge my character based on the fact that I am an undergraduate? Does that mean that if a 40-year-old decides to go back to university they’ll deny them housing?” Ms Auma wonders.
Mrs Dorcas Wanjiru, whose agency manages property in Ruiru, Rongai, and Naivasha, says some landlords have given her express instructions not to rent out to students because “they drink, smoke illegal drugs and party most nights.”
She adds that landlords prefer renting to families since they tend to live in a house for years, thereby reducing vacancies. In contrast, students live in a house for only one or two semesters. This is costly for the landlord, who has to deal with frequent vacancies and also paint the house every time a new tenant moves in.
Ms Agnes Sikuku, a teacher in Lokichogio, blames landlords for fuelling religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in the area. “Many houses in Lokichogio are owned by Christians, who deny housing to Muslims citing security concerns. Even though I am a Christian, I feel that this should stop because it threatens harmony in the community,” she avers.
Meanwhile, Mr Ekwow Gabriel Afeku, a Ghanaian who runs a business in Nairobi, says he has had unpleasant experiences while house-hunting. “There’s a misconception that West Africans don’t pay rent on time. If you go to Kileleshwa or Roysambu, the landlords there tell you that Nigerians and Ghanaians are drug peddlers, and that we are all criminals,” he laments.
But perhaps the most egregious form of profiling is when landlords turn away individuals from a tribe seen as a political enemy. This ignoble stance, Mr Gacuca says, has probably increased during the current, highly-charged season of political intolerance.
“Tenants should not take such matters lying down. They should endeavour to report such forms of discrimination to the police and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC),” he says.
The lawyer also urges that, for speedy dispute resolution, tenants should seek help from their local rent restriction tribunals when they feel aggrieved.
Mr Murigo concurs, saying that no landlord should profile potential tenants. “Such profiling is discriminatory, and hence illegal. Unless one has a proven criminal record or an inadequate credit rating that might affect their ability to pay rent, there is no reason to deny them housing,” he says.
The situation is worse for those seen as not conforming to societal norms
Gays and lesbians in the country experience high levels of discrimination when house-hunting, and not just in Nairobi, but throughout the country, Mr Denis Nzioka, an LGBTI rights activist who focuses on highlighting the experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transexual, intersexual and sex workers countrywide.
He says a former landlord evicted him when he came out as a gay during a series of TV interviews about a decade ago.
“Being the first gay Kenyan to come out on television, I gave Kenyans a face onto which they projected their homophobia. Immediately after that, my neighburs started pressuring the housing agent to kick me out. They claimed that I had become a bad influence on their children, and that my coming out as gay had affected the “purity” of the area. The agent had no option but to give me a month’s notice to move out,” he says.
As he looked for a new home, Mr Nzioka soon discovered that his sexual orientation was a big issue. “Many landlords turned me down outright, telling me to my face that their faith did allow them to let their property to a gay man,” he says.
He notes that many gays and lesbians experience discrimination not just at the hands of landlords and housing agents, but also at the hands of fellow tenants who are averse to their sexual orientation.
“I once came home to find a note that had been pushed under my door ordering me to move out of the premises the following day or else I would lose my life. I had no option but to pack up and move out immediately,” Nzioka says.
“Just recently, a lesbian couple in Nairobi was rendered homeless after their neighbours threatened them with rape to ‘straighten them’,” Mr Nzioka reveals, adding that he receives such complaints regularly.
As a result, he says, gay couples have been forced to keep their relationships a secret or to claim to be siblings or cousins when renting a house.
In some cases, tenants noticed a man “walking or speaking like a girl” or a woman who “dressedlike a man” and concluded that the tenants were gay, and gave them an ultimatum to move out or face eviction.
He singles out Dandora, Kayole, Umoja and Kariobangi South as the most dangerous areas for gays and lesbians to live. Such mapping is key in ensuring the safety of the lives and property of gay and lesbian persons who are looking to find a home or place to settle. “Locations where one can be safe, whether openly gay or not, are becoming more crucial in our decision making,” he says.
Mr Nzioka argues that according to the law, it is illegal to evict a tenant without reasonable grounds. “There are cases where gays have been unlawfully evicted in the middle of the night. However, when such cases of are reported, the police usually ignore them.”
However, some landlords use clauses in the landlord-tenant agreement to circumvent the law while evicting gay tenants.
“Most letting agreements specify that a landlord can direct a tenant to vacate after receiving a month’s notice from the landlord. If the landlord suspects that a tenant is gay, such a tenant is usually given a notice to move out the following month,” Nzioka says. He adds that such housing agreements can be fact-checked with the help of lawyers, who are available to prevent tenants from being “walked all over” or having their hands tied.
He also notes that some housing establishments have become “aware” of the need for privacy and protecting tenants.
“What we see is the introduction of estates and rental buildings that are keen on protecting the privacy of tenants and their houses, and this, surprisingly, is a factor that we can, and should, pursue as gay and lesbian persons, when seeking long-term housing solutions,” he says.