So here I am with a ludicrously large wad of cold cash in my bag, 30 grand to be exact. As far as I’m concerned, every person on this local train has x-ray vision, and every ‘accidental’ brush is an attempt to grievously assault me while grabbing my bag and making a run for it. It’s been two years since I first moved to Mumbai to, you know, do ordinary things people tend to do when they hit 21—become a writer, make a living, find a (temporary) home; the usual. In the past year, I’ve had to grudgingly make my peace with several things that make me squeamish about this new found independence, but none quite as much as the dreaded monthly repeat of the above-mentioned ‘cash/train’ incident. One of my landlord’s many insidious demands, and part of the reason why number 3 on my ordinary girl checklist, ‘find a home’, proves to be more difficult everyday in this city.
When it comes to house-hunting in this city, it’s like you’re always calculating a vague trade-off in the back of your head. For the thousands that move into the city every year, there are several questions to contend with: do I want to live close to office in a cell-sized place and pay through my nose? Or do I want to live in a spacious flat that’s 2 hours away and deal with the commute like millions of other Mumbaikars?
Many shuttle from house to house at bi-yearly intervals in the pursuit of ‘the one’, entangled in an inherently flawed system.
When we reached out on social media a couple of weeks ago with a request for others to share their experiences and horror stories to do with renting out a place in Bombay, we didn’t anticipate the volume of responses we received. 30-odd young individuals who are similarly trying to make their way in the city, having migrated here, responded with their own particular brand of stories, ranging from shocking to straight-up absurd. From single men and single women, individuals living with their partners, siblings/friends staying together and prospective tenants with pets… it would appear that no demographic has been spared the trials and tribulations of the house hunting process.
Barring the odd smart alec who would helpfully send over the addresses of haunted places in the city, the horror stories ranged from devious landlords and the false promises of certain brokers to the ghettoisation of Mumbai; ingredients to a twisted adventure in the city of dreams that no one particularly wanted to undertake.
Here are some excerpts from our conversations:
I. The Outsider Life Chose You
“Why are tenants treated as being subordinate to the landlord, and how does it turn into such a power struggle?” Syed Amir Abbas Rizvi, writer, visual artist and founder of the Facebook group ‘Flats Without Brokers in India’ says. “There’s an assumption that all tenants create a nuisance and wreck the peace in a society but most tenants, aware of these assumptions, are actually more careful about these things because they know they need a roof above their heads. Regardless, most of them are treated like outsiders until the day they vacate.”
Ranked the 12th most expensive city in the world to live and work out of, renting in Mumbai’s already got its fair share of roadblocks. Even as the tenant, struggles to make the exorbitant rent amount, there is a far more insidious machinery at work that they only discover much later.
While the cultural fabric of Bombay eventually assimilates us all into its folds, it’s not always an easy process. Tenants are constantly subjected to a suspicion that often stems from personal prejudices, with some even having been driven out of their flats through shockingly brutal methods. This is better illustrated with this 32-year-old Sion resident’s story.
“Two friends of mine living together in Sion were literally bullied out of the apartment by their neighbours,” an editor of an online music magazine shares. “They used to shut off the electricity at 3AM, send cops randomly to her apartment in the middle of the night under mysterious ‘noise’ complaints. One day, she came back from work to find a used condom tied to her doorknob. Her landlord was completely unsympathetic, urging them to leave ‘if that’s what they wanted to do’. When the girls enquired about the strange power cuts, the electrician told them that it had just been shut off from the fuse box downstairs. They finally just packed their stuff and left the house.”
This underscores a dangerous habit of permanent residents of a society feeling as though they are more entitled to a space than a tenant, feelings they’re all too comfortable expressing through harassment that end in some sort of banishing.
Other incidents that we came across include incessant knocking and doorbells being rung in the middle of the night before the perpetrator disappears, and verbal and physical assault. As someone who enters into an agreement with a landlord and pays for every square inch of space that they’re renting out, do tenants really deserve to be driven out like they’re a bunch of squatters? Societies also charge extra ‘maintenance’ fees from tenants.
“Ideally, the society cannot charge extra from the tenant because the latter does not deal with the society, just the owner,” says Ravi Goenka, advocate, Goenka Law Associates.
II. All the Single Ladies (Single Lads Share Your Problem Too)
Living as a single woman in the city has come to be treated almost a crime in itself. Even as you navigate the terrains of a new city and avoid lecherous gazes in public spaces, the stakes are even higher when you’re trying to rent a house. This is when single-hood suddenly begins to leave you open to unwarranted character assassination and suspicion based on factors like the length of your skirt or your marital status. There’s one instance that we could relate to that’s far more commonplace than it should be.
“The guards in the society, that my sister and I were living in, used to give us very uncomfortable glances, and subject any visitor to our place with many unnecessary questions,” Shikha Makan, filmmaker of ‘Bachelor Girls’, a documentary focusing on stories of single women living on rent in Bombay, tells us. “We couldn’t understand the meaning of such ‘policing’ until one night upon returning from work, I was stopped by the security guard and the society chairman. They left no stone unturned in character assassinating me, asking us to vacate the house and threatened to call the police. All because I came home late at night?”
Much like us, Shikha was driven by many of her personal experiences, when she decided to take on a personal project by way of the documentary ‘Bachelor Girls’, elaborating on the growing housing discrimination in Mumbai focusing on stories of single, independent women.
“After being denied several homes, and harassed into leaving one, I got prompted into probing the issue further. I met women from different professions, hailing from different Indian cities and abroad, and witnessed extreme cases where some Housing Societies, have passed official notices completely banning single people from renting homes, which violates fundamental human rights.”
Unconstitutional though it might be, the law of the land is often nothing more than a law that the majority in the society agrees upon. And then, there are the cases where things get really absurd.
“Ten days before my sister and I were supposed to move into a flat we’d finalised, the society passed a new law stating that unmarried/single, and only families would be living there from now,” Rounak Ghosh (name changed), in his late 20’s, shares. “Single individuals occupying an apartment there would be asked to vacate their apartment once their leases expired. Everything was proceeding smoothly until this point, when everything went for a toss.”
Rounak and his sister were summoned by the society body to be told about this new ‘law’ and when they argued that they were siblings, and thus, family, they were told that they were still each single and hence, might abandon the other by vacating. In hindsight, of course, Rounak is glad that they didn’t move there but just the fact that a situation this ridiculous arose is bound to leave you with your palm glued to your face. This society’s story was even covered by media in October last year after actress and activist Konkana Sen Sharma Tweeted about her friend not being allowed to live here on account of being a single woman. It’s perturbing to think that this might not even have received the media attention it did had it not been her taking such a firm stand.
My friend harassed, not allowed to live in this building Pearl Heights because she’s single! No equal rights for working unmarried women?!
— Konkona Sensharma (@konkonas) October 20, 2014
Abhinandan Shah (name changed) is another young professional in his 20s, who tells us about his society’s sudden decision to lease the rent out only to families or girls. While the owner is on his side, and no complaints have ever been registered against them (the neighbours testified to the low profile they had kept over the years) the society remains obstinate in having female tenants. Abhinandan remains hopeful about finding a new place, but is running on a timer as they are about to lose the flat in less than a week. He sincerely hopes the chairman of the society trips over himself naked and lands on a cactus.
“On one hand we are talking about building world cities and on the other, in the heart of Mumbai, the iconic ‘liberal’ city of India, we’re facing this kind of discrimination,” we come back to filmmaker Shikha Makhan’s thoughts on the matter. “My film questions the ironies of ‘individuality’, ‘freedom’ and ‘sexuality’ in 21st century India that continues to uphold the patriarchal idea of marriage above all things, even in matters of letting out homes to working women. As a filmmaker I had to use my tools to raise this voice.”
Whom you have over, the clothes you wear, your marital status and curfews – unless otherwise stated in the agreement, the tenant should be at liberty to do as they wish as long they aren’t making a nuisance or causing harm to anyone; that’s something that no one should be able to take away from you.
III. Running On A Diet of Discrimination
Religion, always a tricky issue, has acquired a renewed meaning within the recent political climate of the country. Reaching out to people for their stories for this piece shed light on how much it has actually permeated our society on a day-to-day basis.
We found that tenants who are Muslims, in particular, have had a really hard time in finding accommodation, and face rejection solely on the basis of their religion.
“I have felt very strongly about racial and communal chauvinism exclusion,” Anil Kably, owner of the erstwhile Zenzi, tells us. “This one goes very deep. Right from the deceptively benign salsette society to the open hostility that Muslims face. There are also the vegetarian mafias dotted all over the city, but none as repulsive and regressive as the relatively recent fuck ups with Muslims… There is however one heavy one stacked against the Muslims, and that is that they sometimes slaughter goats on Bakri Eid in building compounds.”
“But Bombay’s ghettoisation became impenetrable only after the blasts and riots of 1992-1993. The issues of not allowing Muslims happened only after the incidents. Bombay was infinitely gentle before that.”
Sana Shaikh (name changed) shares her story, “I had almost finalised a house and I come from a mixed marriage; Hindu and Muslim, but I follow Islam. I okayed a house in Andheri West and was standing outside the agent’s office when I heard the azaan and covered my head. The moment the agent saw me he went pale and ran inside to tell his partner, ‘Muslim chhe’ and suddenly, the house became mysteriously unavailable. The landlord didn’t want to lease out the flat to me anymore. I entered his office and told them straight up – don’t judge people by their religion. Judge them by their habits and conduct.”
Conversely, there’s also exclusively Muslim and Catholic societies that don’t accommodate tenants of other faiths, a troubling dichotomy that has festered into a deadlock.
The ‘vegetarian mafias’ Anil Kably mentioned on the other hand have created their own monopolistic communities that can sniff out a meat-eater within the circumference of the housing society and will be rejected without any further enquiries. There are areas in Santacruz, for example, that those who love their meat just don’t bother with anymore. The Maharashtra beef ban is a recent development that takes a troubling step towards drawing lines between communities based on diet, with certain kind of meats – and consequently, those who consume them – likely to be stigmatised further.
Along with the countless logistical challenges, prospective tenants also have to deal with blatant discrimination – and unwritten rules based on these – that limit our options based on everything from the faith we choose to follow to the food that’s on our plates. Will no aspect of our life be left undissected?
IV. Occupational Hazards
“They don’t want you if you have anything to do with Bollywood!” Shreya Mukherjee (name changed) says. “They shake their heads as if you were the most scandalous creature even if you’re standing there in your dusty tracks and awry bun, tired after a day of running around.”
Actors and models are often subjected to an unfair amount of suspicion on the basis of their professions, which many landlords consider controversial and generally problematic. People are often afraid of what they don’t understand, and the reflexive reaction is something that all of us have become familiar with: bans. Unofficial bans have been announced in several societies, especially in Versova and Lokhandwala, and unsurprisingly, it’s the women in the industry that this has affected the most.
“The landlords suspect that they will bring in boyfriends, host late-night parties and, basically, create a ruckus,” a broker told Daily Mail. “Single men are allowed, provided they furnish details of proof of identity and workplace.”
The secretary of a building in Oshiwara, agreed, “Some models and actresses are involved in prostitution. We don’t want to get into trouble with the police if they decide to raid our premises,” he said.
Young individuals working in the media industry in general aren’t great fits for tenants in the opinion of many landlords, who equate their odd working hours and lifestyle choices to a questionable moral compass. A lot of these don’t even bother to enquire about the details of your job profile before flatly rejecting candidates.
“If you’re at all related to the film or fashion industry, you’re automatically branded as a no-no,” Rizvi shares. “These aren’t even logical decisions or educated opinions. There was a girl I knew who worked at a call centre, who was abused in the society because they thought she was a call girl.”
“The problem is that the Cooperative Housing Society Act of Maharasthra has absolutely no provisions for ‘tenant’s rights,’” Shikha Makhan surmises. “So there is absolutely nothing you can do as a tenant, if you feel wronged in a housing society. This has to change.”
V. Lording Over The Ecosystem
Brokers have got to be the scavengers on the lowest rungs of this flawed ecosystem. If you land a great deal, things seem promising and the broker’s telling you good news on the phone – it’s probably a lie. When I initially started working on this piece, it was the personal frustrations fuelled by my now ex-landlord’s demands for rent in cash and shockingly money-minded behaviour that fuelled it. So I decided to eliminate the problem and move out; I got in touch with a broker, looked at what felt like a million cubby holes disguised as flats before settling on one, thanks to a seemingly kind broker. I was promised a decent flat that I would get possession of on a mutually agreed upon date, with earnest promises of painting and repair work being made. Overjoyed (mostly relieved) we packed up and geared up to say good riddance to a house that was falling into disrepair, but with said mutually agreed upon date came news of a flat we could not move into; a certain rainy Saturday afternoon in February found my roommate and I stranded and homeless. The new flat was yet to be painted and no repair work had been done; we weren’t even allowed to keep our stuff in it, let alone live there. Boxes, furniture and bags looked back at us from the back of the tempo we’d hired, as bereft of a home as we were. This sort of unpleasant incident is far more commonplace than I’d thought, as I found out.
“When I reached a new flat I was supposed to move into on the 1st of the month, I found that no repair work had been done,” Kaavya Mathur tells us. “I was supposed to vacate my old place on the same day, and the new house was in a mess; nothing was in working condition. It would take at least a week to get it into a habitable state, so I just had to dump my stuff in a room and go live at a friend’s place for ten days until the repair work was done. I have never felt so stuck and exploited. The brokers kept harassing me and demanding brokerage despite the situation, even threatening to cancel the deal. By this point, I had already spent an obscene amount on the house, I had no choice but to pay them the brokerage upfront and just make peace with the situation.”
“There are countless problems that often arise when dealing with brokers,” Rizvi says. “Lanes might get flooded in the monsoons, there might be a legal issue with the house or the society might impose restrictions you don’t agree with – but you’re never going to find these out from a broker.
“Even when it comes to the unconstitutional rules of landlords, brokers don’t object to any unwritten rule and will continue to abide by it as long as the one-month brokerage amount is delivered snugly into their pockets.”
Having lived in various cities and faced similar problems – but none to the extent faced in Mumbai – Rizi started a group on Orkut, a platform for tenants to connect and find houses without the intervention of a middleman. The founder of the original ‘Flats Without Broker in India’, he’s helped thousands of newcomers to the city find a place to stay, and various other chapters with a similar sense of community have cropped up since.
“Several commercial websites have tried to tie up with the group and make money off of it, but I don’t want to dilute the concept it was founded on. It might not be glossy or even too organised, but it’s a friendly space and it’s definitely genuine. We make sure to filter it and remove spam or anyone who feels like a broker.”
“Whether it’s about money, resources or time – house hunting has become a terrible burden in this city today, and it’s troubling that the youth have to channel so much energy into housing.”
False promises and claims abound with brokers, as a lot of us find out the hard way, and several of them return after the initial 11-month lease expires to demand brokerage again. What is this, if not extortion?
“The problem is, owners aren’t comfortable with using the internet the way tenants are, yet,” Rizvi contemplates. “The group has been extremely successful, though, and maybe in a few years, the tenants and owners can interact directly online and eliminate the need for these middlemen who treat tenants so badly.”
That’s perhaps the only silver lining we can see in the foreseeable future, because being shocked into realising you don’t have a roof above your head tonight in Bombay is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
For the dozens of horror stories that we came across, there were also the exceptional stories with happier endings. “I live in a 1BHK in a posh society in Bandra East,” Neeraj Iyer in his 20’s says. “The landlord lives in the US and had never met me before, but eventually agreed to halve the deposit and even decrease the rent after I requested him to reconsider the rates. A year later, he came down for a visit and asked about increasing the rent but once again, agreed to keep it the same for one more year. He even gave me a bed and interestingly, thrust a T-shirt in my hands as he left.”
Perhaps it’s the perpetual rat race and prevalent money-driven agendas that makes rare gestures of kindness like these in the city seem almost surprising, and gratifying, but it’s uplifting to know that they do exist somewhere. Another tenant, Kritika Ramakrishnan, told us about her landlady who’s a lovely old Parsi woman who would even shake a leg for her and her roommate once in a while.
While most of us might not be blessed with such entertaining flat-owners or brokers, an entire generation of the youth is being forced to spend a ridiculous amount of time and resources tearing their hair out while house-hunting in Mumbai. From your profession to the company you keep – even our furry, four-legged friends are generally treated warily, with pet-owners being rejected – will no part of our life be left un-dissected? When finding a house in the city of dreams becomes a nightmare, where is the youth supposed to go?
It’s sad that finding a house has proven to be such a traumatic experience for some, that they’ve been driven out of the city that they gambled their lives to move into, leaving disillusioned and jaded from a place they sought to see their dreams materialise. While change is definitely not going to happen overnight, the internet is quickly becoming our quickest, most accessible means of communication. Maybe mobilising it to air these views and finally acknowledging the elephant in the room is our best bet at creating the required spaces that are missing from our society. If there’s any room at all, that is.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari
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