NMI law offers no protection for tenants

Bearing witness to numerous cases of homelessness brought about by the onslaught of Typhoon Soudelor, Commonwealth Outreach Recovery Efforts leader Mami Ikeda has expressed concern for the housing shortage and rising rental prices on Saipan.

Ikeda, along with a Kannat Tabla resident who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, stated that a Chinese investor has been checking out their apartments in the last few months and the deal may have already gone through as they’ve been given notices to move out.

“I felt like something was going on,” said the Kannat Tabla resident. “My landlord hasn’t spoken to us about it but I see [representatives of this foreign investor] coming around and my landlord cleaning up the property to make it look nice for them.”

It’s just a matter of time, she said, but she’s hoping that they don’t get chased out.

“There are no other places to go and I’m a single mother. Every place already has up to 50 people waiting and the places that are available are either $800 or $900,” the Kannat Tabla resident said. “You know I see many homeless people who are still looking for a place and they can’t find anything. I don’t know what to do so I’m just hoping.”

Ikeda herself was told to vacate her apartment in 45 days or before the end of December. “I didn’t even find out first from my landlord. I found out from my coworker who was to move into the vacant unit under the same landlord. She was to move in by end of October but two days before that, she was hearing from my neighbor that [our landlord] was going to be selling the property to a Chinese company.”

Just days before her coworker was to move in, Ikeda said her coworker was told that only a 45-day contract was available, despite the thousands of dollars they’ve already spent to improve the unit, not including the security deposit that Ikeda’s coworker paid to secure the apartment.

“They stopped right there and pulled out and this was just two days until the expiration of their other apartment…so they begged their landlord to stay a few more days,” Ikeda said.

She said her coworker is now planning to take the landlord to court. “There’s a broker that came just recently because our landlord can’t face us and [the broker] is telling us that [the landlord] will only pay what the [landlord] wants to pay.”

That same night, the landlord knocked on Ikeda’s door and finally disclosed what she already knew. “I asked her about the terms and conditions and she said I don’t know, it’s not my problem.”

Her landlord told her to talk to “them” but did not reveal who the new landlord was going to be. “She wouldn’t let me talk to whoever it was. I didn’t even get a chance to look over the terms and conditions. My contract was supposed to be renewed in August but because of Soudelor it was postponed…so my landlord has been trying to negotiate a deal with the Chinese investors for four months and I only get 45 days,” she said.

The broker who served as the middleman between the current landlord and the Chinese investor kept trying to convince her to be thankful for getting at least a 45-day notice.

“We’re in an emergency disaster situation right now and you don’t know how many families I’ve seen without a house, without a roof, who have been looking and they still can’t find a house for the last three months. How can I find a house within 45 days if these people can’t even find one in three months?” she asked.

“I don’t have a problem with the new landlord but I haven’t been able to find a house… The broker tried to convince me to sign the new contract so later I went to the [Attorney General’s] Office to file a complaint. They said the law only requires a 14-day notice to vacate and that they’re sorry there’s nothing they can do,” she said.

Ikeda said she knows of many others in the same predicament.

“There was one girl, right in the middle of the storms that followed Soudelor. She had three dogs with her and she was literally being kicked out or she was going to be homeless. She was asking for my help because [CORE] was also looking for homes for families,” she said.

Ikeda laments that her situation may be legal “and my landlord knows that but there’s no assurance for me. There’s no law that protects a tenant.”

The last time that the government addressed tenant and landlord rights was in 1996, under Public Law 10-67 or the Holdover Tenancy Act, for the purpose of protecting landlord assets and interests.

Under Section 2 of the Act, “The outright sale of real property being restricted as a matter of public policy and as a constitutional mandate, the leasehold transaction over real estate has become the most common economic activity that spurs investments from both foreign and local sources. It has been observed, however, that lessors encounter delays in evicting holdover tenants after the termination of the lease or breach of the lease agreement. Currently, an action for eviction of a holdover tenant must be filed as a breach of contract complaint, in which the landlord or lessor incurs court costs and attorney’s fees. This legal remedy can take months and even years, before a tenant is evicted from the leased premises and the landlord or lessor is restored to possession. These prolonged proceedings are an unfair denial of the landlord’s right to possession and result in considerable court costs and legal fees, which are borne by the landlord. The purpose of this act is to provide for a prompt and fair summary procedure for the eviction of a holdover tenant from the leased premises.”

During a Commonwealth Advocates for Recovery Efforts meeting last Tuesday, workforce recovery chair Matthew Deleon Guerrero said the government is working to address the issue of tenant/landlord laws.

Just recently, the government conducted a study called the Analysis of Impediments, initiated by the Northern Marianas Housing Corp., to analyze impediments in finding fair housing in the Commonwealth. It found that there is a lack of fair housing complaint activity and a lack of legal avenues for Commonwealth residents who believe they have experienced housing discrimination.

This comes only weeks after the Nov. 1 declaration of major disaster and state of significant emergency for the Commonwealth. Despite this, the increased pricing of housing and the price freeze declaration to prevent price gouging only states that prices on such items as food, clothing, generators, and tools are to remain at pre-storm numbers and nothing has been done to address housing rates.

So far, many local properties aside from the properties of the two individuals in this story have been leased by Chinese investors: Miller Estates, Flametree Terrace, Mango Resort, Vestcor Village, and other locally owned inner village apartment properties to house workers that are being brought in for their projects, leaving existing tenants scrambling to find homes or at the mercy of increased rental rates.

Daisy Demapan | Reporter

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