The Worst Place On Earth To Find An Apartment?

02/20/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2015
AP

By ANKITA RAO, OZY

Jiya Nandy practices black magic, stays out all night with random men and lives the reckless life of any 20-something in the film industry.

At least that’s what some Mumbai landlords wrongfully asserted when they told her she couldn’t live in their apartments.

Nandy, a freelance film director, got slapped with the undeserved reputation because she comes from the northern Indian city of Kolkata — which is viewed as either a hotbed of voodoo-style, inauspicious, magical activity or the cultural seat for intellectuals and art. Oh, and then there was her habit of wearing black eyeliner — a sign of a destructive young female if ever there were one. Eventually, the 26-year-old found some more reasonable landlords: She can live in their building in the northern suburb of Malad as long as she promises not to don short skirts or invite friends (other than her mom) to visit.

And you thought your housing hunt was bad.

Such are the woes of many young professionals trying to make it in India’s city of dreams. It’s a clash of generations as millennials meet the old-fashioned, astrology-following, horoscope-reading landlords. And all this is going on in the country of 1.2 billion’s most valuable housing market, where the average cost of an apartment is around $643,200. A new bunch of real estate startups, many launched by 20-somethings who encountered the same struggles as Nandy, have risen to the occasion. Their goal: to greet and grease the paths of the city’s newcomers — and to eliminate sketchy middlemen.

There’s a kaleidoscope of troubles caused by landlords, and a new startup is blooming to handle each one. One complaint: Anyone can cop the title of real estate agent, even unsavory or unprofessional types. “If you have a mobile phone, you can be a realtor — a grocer, a neighborhood pan-walla [a seller of tobacco-type products],” says Hemant Kejriwal, founder of EezyRent, a real estate portal that claims to garner 100 new customers each day.

Kejriwal got the inspiration for his company in 2013 after struggling to help his nephew find a place to live in Mumbai. He got dozens of unsolicited phone calls every day from brokers in the city. When he realized there was no simple way to sort out authentic properties from scams and avoid hefty fees, the Mumbai native decided to launch a website on which people could sort through vetted listings. There’s also Housing.com, where each property listing comes with a plethora of data points about things like gas connections for stoves and parking details. Or the popular site Grabhouse, which requires both tenants and landlords to create ad-like pages in order to communicate with each other, like a visual dating service for real estate.

It’s a blessing for exhausted renters like Sandhya Ramachandran, who recently moved from Ahmedabad to Mumbai and used the portals to find a home. The 28-year-old’s wild-goose chase previously led her to more than 30 houses and a multitude of back-and-forth negotiations on the phone and in person. When she tried to move into a place with a mix of male and female friends, she was told that only married couples were allowed. Ramachandran says finding an open-minded landlord meant enduring plenty of snide remarks and roadblocks.

“You can piss in public but can’t kiss,” she complains, listing a litany of hypocrisies in the city’s cultural norms.

On top of it all, the city still exhibits residential segregation and arguably discrimination against some potential tenants. Many housing clusters have cropped up around religious or cultural communities, like Jains from Gujarat or Catholics. Inhabitants of those dwellings often make it clearly known that outsiders are not welcome.

Addressing discrimination is also part of the startups’ mandate, says Housing.com co-founder Advitiya Sharma. The 24-year-old was driven to launch his company by his experiences scrambling for housing as a new university graduate. A native of Jammu, a state in northern India, Sharma had lived only in houses built by his father or grandfather. A newbie, he didn’t know how to handle landlords who didn’t trust young, single people.

His site tries to tackle the problem head-on through data and conversation. It doesn’t undo prejudice, but it allows landlords to list tenant restrictions up front so renters can know sooner rather than later, for instance, if their black-magic-cursed background disqualifies them. It also tries to educate landlords about the value of having young people in their buildings, and works to disprove the assumption that the young are loud and irresponsible. The company has raised more than $123 million in venture capital, receives more than 80,000 unique visitors a day and hosts properties to rent and buy in 50 cities.

But not everyone thinks these websites are all that’s needed to unravel the mess of Mumbai housing. Sandeep Sadh, CEO of Mumbai Property Exchange, a real estate platform and research firm, says digitizing the apartment hunt isn’t enough because it’s easy to hack the system. Sadh, a broker for more than 20 years, says the websites rely only on data mining and can’t stop people from posting their properties in irrelevant categories or gaming listings to get extra eyeballs on their offerings. And most of all, no number of websites can stop landlords from griping about those meddling kids.

For the home hunt to become more bearable, we’ve gotta wait, says Sadh: “The society needs to become mature.” Grow up, already.

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