No longer is the landlord the sole arbiter of a tenant's fate. Today, housing societies have begun to take decisions that they aren't allowed to legally, such as, how many tenants should stay in a flat; the kind of guests they should entertain; the food they should eat; and most importantly, whether a tenant should live in the society, never mind the owner's consent
After looking at 20-odd apartments in various parts of the western suburbs and Parel -- near smelly fish markets, close to the railway tracks, and in dilapidated MHADA buildings -- Sonia Jansen (name changed) was elated to find a spacious (1,000 sq ft) two bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment in Malad (West) for just Rs 20,000 per month. After all, she's unmarried, a non-vegetarian, and a media professional to boot. If you've tried renting apartments in this city, you'll know that those specifications don't look good on the CV.
Jansen called her friends -- two women, both media professionals, too-- with whom she was to share the apartment, to tell them the good news. The same day, as she was heading to meet her landlord, to give him the deposit amount, she received a call telling her that the house couldn't be rented out to her. The chairperson got in touch with the owner and told him that he couldn't rent out his flat to more than two unmarried persons.
"It was frustrating. The flat was beautiful, in a nice and safe locality and it fit right in our budget. By Mumbai standards, it was a deal one shouldn't let go off. The owner was more than willing to rent his flat to us, but the society management has this ridiculous rule that unmarried people are not welcome to stay in the society, and no more than two unmarried people would be allowed to rent a two-BHK," said Jansen (25).
The owner tried to convince the society members, but they refused to listen to him and said that unmarried people "create a ruckus" and more than two in one house would be "a nuisance for the society".
"I couldn't afford to pay Rs 10,000 as rent, so I had to let go of the house," Jansen rued.
Jansen's is not an isolated case. Almost everyone looking to rent an apartment in the city has at some point or the other has been refused apartments by society members, owners or brokers either because they are unmarried, non-vegetarians, Muslims, pet owners or belong to a part of the country that isn't acceptable to the majority population in the housing societies.
Take for example the case of communication designer Rizvi Amir Sayed (35), who came to Mumbai from Jharkhand over 15 years back and had society members slamming doors at his face because he was a Muslim.
"I can't even remember the number of times I have been refused apartments in this city. There have been so many occasions when people have shouted at the brokers in front of me saying 'tumko pata nai hai, iss society mein Muslim allowed nai hai? Isko idhar kyun leke aaye ho?'" said Sayed.
After years of discrimination Sayed, who is married to a Hindu woman, lives in a predominantly Muslim locality in Oshiwara. "I am completely against living in ghettos, but I haven't been left with much choice," he added.
For 26 year-old Nihit Kapoor (name changed), who works for a television channel, the control that his society members exerted over him took on a different hue. When he went looking for an apartment in Bandra's posh Pali Hill locality along with three bachelor friends, he was subjected to multiple interviews by the society members, and the experience, said Kapoor, was "anything but friendly and comforting".
"The owner was more than willing to give us the house, but the society had never allowed bachelors to stay, so they were sceptical. I had go through many interviews to convince the chairperson and the secretary that I come from a 'good background'," said Kapoor. It didn't stop there. The society members, said Kapoor, continue to keep a close watch on the activities of Kapoor and his flatmates.
"They (society members) don't confront us directly. They ask the guards and our neighbours about the friends who come over, the nature of our relation with them. They are highly offensive and intrusive. In fact, once, we had a foreigner friend visit the country, and we offered to let him stay with us for a month. The society members raised a stink within a few days and told us 'foreigners weren't allowed'. That was racist, and extremely humiliating. What right do they have to monitor us?" asked Kapoor angrily.
Turns out, they don't
According to housing lawyers and experts Vinod Sampat and Shreedhar Sharma, any housing society that tries to stop a person from renting an apartment after the owner has given his consent is illegal.
"Many societies harass people because they are single, or divorced or because of their food habits or their religion or regional background. All of this is illegal. According to the state government's 2001 amended society by-laws, a person doesn't even require a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the society to rent an apartment. The society has no right to interfere with the renting out of a flat to any individual, if the owner of the flat has given his consent," clarified Sampat.
According to Sharma, chairperson of Revathy Foundation, an NGO that gives guidance on housing issues, the main concern is that there is no proper grievance mechanism -- at either the state or municipal level -- for tenants to register a complaint. Their only recourse is the civil court.
"If you go to a police station to complain about society members, who are not allowing you to rent an apartment, the cops will say it's a civil court issue and that they can't help you. The only option people have is to file a case and any decent counsel will charge at least Rs 1 lakh to fight your case. That's as much money as the deposit people pay to rent apartments. What's more, moving the court would lead to the society harassing the owner of the flat, who wouldn't want to get into a legal mess and would eventually refuse the tenant," explains Sharma, who is also an advocate.
Keeping the neighbours happy
"It is true that if societies stop people according to their whims and fancies, it would not enable a particular community of people to buy home in the country. But then, many times, for the benefit of public at large, the societies are forced to take such decisions. A vegetarian would probably prefer a vegetarian neighbour. Similarly, a person whose profession demands late nights would end up inconveniencing his neighbours who hold 9 to5 jobs," offered Advocate Narayan Bubna, who handles the legal cases of the Maharashtra Societies Welfare Association and practises at the Bombay High Court.
"While the buying and renting of property is every individual's right, the housing society decides its members. The rules made by society members help people who have similar opinions and lifestyles to live together," he added.
However, for Jansen, Sayed, Kapoor and co, these similar opinions translate to intolerance and often, extremely offensive intrusions into their private lives.
And while Bubna may think that these 'para-legal' rules help build peaceful societies, they also make life miserable for people to rent apartments in the city.