Will you bear with me for a few moments while I complain about the Chennai rental market? First of all, the quality of the housing here is terrible, especially for the price. The rental market here is very tight, and prices have skyrocketed in the last five years. Small two bedroom apartments near the beach go for Rs. 25,000 or more. Government flats, even those in terrible condition, go for over Rs. 10,000. There are no one-bedroom apartments, only unwieldy two or three bedroom ones.
The architecture of much of the newer housing makes no concessions to the unforgiving heat that blankets the city for most of the year. Ceilings are low and windows are placed with no thought to cross-ventilation – if there are any windows at all. And most apartments are dingy, dingy, dingy — mosaic tiled floors that never look clean despite hours of scrubbing, bathrooms in which the corners are unspeakably dirty.
Second of all, not even the basics are guaranteed. Water is a constant problem in the city. Apartments with connections to Metrowater (the Chennai Corporation’s water provider which provides clean and fairly regular water for many citydwellers) are highly prized. But many apartments rely on groundwater, brought up from borewells. This water can be brown colored, and is often extremely salty. In places like Besant Nagar, the water is so salty that it corrodes metal pipes, pots, and pans and makes people’s hair fall out. Most apartments are not vermin-free: an apartment, especially on the ground floor, is subject to visits from rats, bandicoots, and cockroaches, and a small army of mosquitoes is currently conducting daily evening time offensives in my apartment. During the monsoons, constructions built in low-lying areas or on lakebeds regularly flood.
But the most noxious part of the entire process is the landlord. Lease agreements are negotiated here in an atmosphere of complete distrust, perhaps unsurprising in a country where taking someone to court for a violation of a contract is simply not a viable remedy. Landlords ask for 6 to 10 months of rent as an advance before they will agree to even prepare a lease, and if you break a lease within 11 months of moving in, you forfeit a month’s worth of rent. Costs for any repairs the landlord takes care of are usually cut from the advance before it is returned to you when you leave. And the timely return of an advance is not guaranteed.
I think that this atmosphere of distrust is part of the reason why you see so many rental advertisements in the papers that openly state that they rent only to Brahmins – perhaps they suspect that fellow-caste members would be less likely to cheat them out of rent or advance money.
That, and the fact that people here openly discriminate on the basis of caste. One potential landlord asked me whether I planned to cook eggs in the apartment – eggs were not permitted because he conducted pujas (religious ceremonies) in the home. This same gem of a landlord also told me that he once threw a tenant out who claimed to be a teetotaler when he found him smoking a cigar (I did not mention that technically, the tenant could still have been a teetotaler). Oh, and he refused pointblank to take care of any repairs.
Landlords also frequently police apartments for suspicious activities. I’m not talking about stopping tenants from selling narcotics or running a prostitution ring. Do you drink? Smoke? Bring home visitors of the opposite sex? Are you having pre-marital sex? Stay out late on a regular basis? Laugh loudly? All of these are fair game for a landlord’s questions and complaints. As a single female looking for an apartment, I was asked repeatedly whether I planned to have male visitors (what’s a good answer to that question? Lots, if I’m lucky?). One landlord told me that he liked me a lot, but he had a policy of not renting to spinsters because they cause him too much trouble. That’s right. In Chennai, at the age of 27, I’m already a troublesome spinster.