Tenants: At the mercy of landlords | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 26, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:00 PM, January 29, 2018

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Tenants: At the mercy of landlords

A largely informal house renting process persisting in the city leaves tenants at the whim of homeowners and room for discrimination

Image: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Ananya Paul, 26, a working professional in Dhaka had an eye-opening experience of religious harmony (or lack thereof) while house-hunting in Dhaka. In 2015, she and her in-laws went searching for an apartment in the Banasree area.

Having liked one prospect and after much deliberation, the two parties had settled important matters such as the advance payment and the move-in date. Ananya voluntarily told the landlady that they were Hindu while describing herself and her family members.

The landlady then told them that they should look for housing elsewhere.“She said that her husband was extremely religious and had just returned from performing Umrah. He would not want to rent their apartment out to Hindus.”

“What could we say? Although I did suggest before leaving that they should have put on the sign that they wouldn't rent to Hindus,” says Ananya.

Now wiser, Ananya in her subsequent house-hunting declared her religion straight off to see if the homeowners had a problem with renting to her. “We would get polite denials with reasons being that puja could not be celebrated openly etc. We had to provide justification for our religion.”

While to-let signs hardly display explicit rental bias explicitly, for tenants like Ananya the first phone call or visit sometimes makes her ineligible as a tenant on account of her religion.

Star Weekend called up four random major real estate agents in Dhaka to ask them this question: Do your homeowners include religious preferences for tenants, when putting out rental listings?

Remo Realty, Century 21 and Sharif Properties Services said they have not encountered such a thing. Only Lamudi acknowledged that this does happen—that homeowners sometimes have a preference as to the religion of the prospective tenants. The other three said that explicit mention of religious and/or ethnic preference is extremely rare and not to be found in their listings. More usual requirements found on listings are the type of tenant—families are usually preferred.

Bishakha Tanchangya, 30, originally from Rangamati has been living in Dhaka for the past two years. Once her job at an office in Khamarbari was confirmed, she started looking for an apartment in nearby Monipuripara, home to many minorities.

Like Ananya, Bishakha says she has faced discrimination when house-hunting—not because of her age, gender or tribal ethnicity as she expected—but because the landlords didn't want to rent to non-Muslims. She also encountered a Christian landlord who rents only to others of the same religion(she is Buddhist).

Such discriminatory experiences while house-hunting are not limited to minorities alone. In a recent report in The Daily Star, a writer talked about how their religious fervor as Muslims was assessed by homeowners before renting. They add to other groups routinely turned away by homeowners—students, bachelors and working women—and tenants of certain professions. However, these instances are more documented than recent cases of discrimination towards religious minorities.

“This is a very recent phenomenon. We have been hearing of such cases in the last few years,” says Rana Dasgupta, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Oikya Parishad. For example, even if homeowners rent to Hindu tenants they set conditions that they cannot perform puja openly and ring ghonta (bells), he says.

Even if the landlord is not prejudiced, minorities like Bishakha experience prejudice from other tenants. “I'm not religious so the conditions they set don't affect me as much as others.”

This, says Dasgupta, is a reason why minorities tend to group together in certain areas of the city. Such terms and conditions drive minorities to localities where others of their ethnicity and/or religion live. “They feel comparatively safer and can practice their religion freely,” says Dasgupta.

While religious and ethnic discrimination in the search for housing is not a problem unique to Bangladesh, there are no legal measures to address such discrimination here, says Manzill Murshid, an advocate of the Supreme Court.

Housing reality

The overall house renting experience in Dhaka is largely informal and so leaves room for discrimination by individual homeowners. In addition, lack of knowledge of the law means tenants rarely seek legal recourse from demanding landlords.

This is the view found by a study conducted by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), titled State of Cities 2017: Housing in Dhaka. The report analysed the state of formal housing from the perspective of the middle class flourishing in Dhaka. In total, 400 households in Badda, Mirpur, Old Dhaka, and Rampura were surveyed.

With high land and house prices, Dhaka is largely a renters' city. The urban housing market is dominated by the private sector, with 93 percent made up of real estate developers and individual land owners who construct and rent out residences. Tenants who rent from private developers often end up frequently changing houses as they are at the whim of individual homeowners.

Mohammad Mohiuddin Howlader, 58, works at an NGO and lives in a rented apartment in Uttara. He has changed homes four times in the last decade. Sometimes due to rent increases, sometimes due to unreasonable demands of the landlord.

But Mohiuddin has no aspirations of buying a place in the city to bring stability to his housing situation. “It's too expensive to buy a home in Dhaka anymore. I would not consider a loan as interest rates are very high as well.”

The 1000 square feet apartment he is currently renting has a market value of BDT 60 to 80 lakhs. High land and home prices, lack of savings, and high interest rates of bank loans were found by the survey to be major barriers to Dhaka residents becoming homeowners. Like Mohiuddin, 68 percent of tenants surveyed do not have plans to own an apartment or house in the city.

According to a standard measure worldwide, housing is considered affordable if rental (or mortgage) costs including utilities add up to less than 30 percent of monthly household income. The State of Cities 2017 survey found that 82 percent of households in Dhaka exceeded this affordability threshold.

As a result, renters face high opportunity costs. More than half of the households surveyed said they had to adjust their other expenses due to high house rent, which included compromising on food and children's educational expenses.

Tenants and homeowners alike prioritisedlocation over the cost of their apartment, with 58 percent choosing to live nearby their workplace(due to the plight of traffic in the city). In comparison, only nine percent said they considered the quality of their living quarters before choosing a place. Tenants with fixed incomes have little choice over their housing standards in Dhaka.

Your rights as a tenant

So, what legal recourse, if any, do tenants have? To what extent are they protected by the law?

The Premises Rent Control Act 1991 (also known as the House Rent Control Act)is the sole piece of legislation dealing with housing. It has provisions for rent control and other procedures safeguarding the interests of tenants, but is hardly enforced. The act sets out guidelines for standard rent, the need of a formal contract to establish tenancy, establishes that an advance payment of no more than a month's rent can be taken and that rent can only be revised every two years. It also has provisions for rent controllers, assistant judges at the district courts, to hear and decide on rent-related complaints and disputes between tenants and landlords.

Tenant experiences differ vastly from the law. A majority of tenants said their landlords fixed the rent with no room for negotiation. Rent hikes are the norm; Mohiuddin has had his rent increased annually, as do 75 percent of tenants surveyed.

More worrying however is the justification for annual increases in rent by homeowners. 32 percent of tenants said they had no idea why the rent was increased. Inflation and high demand of housing were also cited as reasons for rent hikes. However, the law only allows for rent increase on the grounds of improvements to the residence and an increase inproperty taxes paid by the landlord.

Syeda Salina Aziz, lead author of the BIGD study, said their survey found poor awareness and non-implementation of the 1991 act. Tenants had little idea about rent control and procedures and legal recourse they could take if in a dispute with landlords. “Only 15 percent of renters surveyed knew of the existence of rent controllers. The law is quite pro-tenant but is not being implemented,” says Aziz.

Annual rent increases have now become the norm. At the start of every year, tenants are apprehensive of the inevitable rent hike. According to the annual report on living costs in Dhaka by the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), house rent went up by eight percent last year.

While this is in part due to rise in land and house building costs, “The increase in house rent every year is excessive beyond the demand-and-supply mechanics of the market,”says Ghulam Rahman, president of CAB, “Enforcement of the act is needed in order to ensure renters can live securely and have access to legal recourse without any hassle.”

In 2015, the High Court returned a favourable verdict to a writ petition filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) seeking strict enforcement of the act to prevent homeowners from raising rents arbitrarily. It instructed the government to form a commission to investigate tenant grievances, settle disputes, fix area-wise rent ceilings, and provide recommendations for amending the act.

But the death of Justice Bazlur Rahman, who delivered the previous verdict, last year before writing the full judgment means that the verdict is no longer applicable. The court will be rehearing the petition this month.

Advocate Murshid, the President of HRPB who filed the petition in 2010, said they sought the enforcement of the House Rent Control Act in the short-term and reform of the law in the long-term.

“There are provisions for rent controllers in every district but we want to make that for every ward in order to increase renters' access to legal recourse,” says Murshid. As of now, rent disputes and other cases of contention between landlords and tenants are rarely heard in court.

“Most people don't go to court because they don't have the time or money to go through the legal process. Rather, they pay higher and stay on because their first priority is to be near their workplace and/or their children's schools, or simply leave in search of another house.” This is why, he says, not just enforcement but eventual reform is needed.

If the renting process were to be formalised, tenants such as Mohiuddin would be more secure with regards to their living situation. The landlord of his current apartment did not provide a formal agreement and Mohiuddin said he had no negotiating power to insist on one. Only 27 percent of tenants signed a contract upon renting their apartment and among those who didn't, only six percent asked for the papers.

Mohiuddin, however, gets a receipt when he pays rent every month. 85 percent of tenants surveyed do not get even this. According to the House Rent Control Act, landlords have to provide a formal contract and a signed receipt for paid rent to tenants.

Without these crucial documents, tenants cannot take their rental problems to court. When landlords raise rent, or set conditions tenants cannot comply with, their only option now is to leave. “There needs to be a government intervention in order to formalise the renting process,” says Sirajul Islam, a researcher on tenant security.

Once again on the move a few months ago, Ananya encountered a homeowner who not only denied her a tenancy because he was namaji (religious) but declared that all Hindus should live together in one building. “It was humiliating,” she says.

Ananya and her in-laws now live in an apartment in Mahanagar residential area which they got through the help of a mutual acquaintance. The landlord is Muslim. “Not all landlords are like what I encountered, but I feel that it's become taboo to be of another religion in Dhaka. I can't force them to rent to me but people should know that this is happening,” she says.

There is little that can be done to change the mindset of discriminatory landlords. But a formalised renting system would at least mean that tenants have access to legal recourse to such discrimination and other aspects of house renting in a market dictated by homeowners.

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