A Twisted Tale of Rent Control in the Maximum City

Walking around Mumbai it’s common to see some lovely, older buildings (circa 1920s perhaps) that are rentcontrol1in a great state of disrepair. A well maintained building can last for hundreds of years so why are these buildings falling apart? The answer is rent control. Bombay passed a rent control act in 1947 that froze rents at 1940 levels.

More than fifty years later, rents remained frozen at 1940 levels. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Act was modified slightly to lift controls on some new construction and to allow rent increases of 4% per year. After a fifty two year freeze, however, a 4% increase was a pittance. Thus, even today there are thousands of flats where tenants are paying rents of 400-500 rupees a month (that’s $6 to $8 a month!)–far, far below market rates.

The rent control law meant that there was virtually no construction of rental housing (WP) for decades and a slowly dilapidating housing stock. (Ironically, the only free market in rental housing is in the rentcontrol4slums.)

The nominal landlords have neither the incentive nor the funds to maintain the buildings so every year during monsoon season some of the buildings collapse and people die. As the World Bank put it, the monsoons are Natural Hazards but the collapses are Unnatural Disasters:

Rent controls in Mumbai may have initially benefited tenants at the expense of landlords, but over time everyone suffers. Rent controls cause landlords to forgo maintenance and neglect their properties, and tenants not only live in dilapidated buildings but die when they collapse in heavy rains. Even if tenants are willing to either pay higher rents or to maintain the building, each tries to not pay his share of the expense (free riding), especially if appropriate retrofitting involves structural changes to the entire residential structure and not to individual apartments. Tenants also may lack the legal authority to make changes to their building’s structure.

Consider the photo at top, it’s an elegant building on a nice plot in a highly desirable part of town but take a closer look and you can see that it is falling apart (second photo). Several businesses and flats operate in the building. Now read the sign on the wall.

rentcontrol3I don’t doubt that the sign is largely accurate but it also illustrates another aspect of rent control. Rent control transforms a mutually profitable exchange into a zero-sum war of misery. As I discovered in my investigations, a remarkable and sometimes hilarious example is illustrated by this very building.

The tenant, called the “victim lady”, in the Bombay High Court case that she initiated alleges that her landlord has vexed her with many frivolous lawsuits and harassed her in various and sundry ways:

It is alleged that the Respondent, on the pretext of reading books and doing meditation, continues to sit near the window of the victim lady reading law books and passing unwanted remarks stating that he will become a better lawyer by reading law books and will teach the victim lady a lesson. The Respondent is also alleged to have killed the kitten to whom the victim lady regularly used to feed. He is also alleged to have called three men to remove coconuts from the coconut tree and in the process broke number of flower pots belonging to the victim lady and destroyed the garden maintained by her.

In addition, and the judges of the High Court find this especially distasteful, the landlord “has also cast aspersions on the judiciary by making certain statements” about the “inefficiency of the judicial system”. Indeed, in his affidavit-in-reply, the respondent doubled down arguing:

…”the judiciary is perceived as inefficient by most citizens of India” as a justification for what he had stated.

Where could the respondent have gotten such absurd ideas? How dare he claim to know what most citizens think!

The Respondent may be free to express his views about the judiciary, but obviously had no right to project his views as of “most citizens in India”. What survey or research has been made by the Respondent to ascertain the views of “most citizens in India”, has not been disclosed, and considering the number of the citizens in India it is impossible to believe that the Respondent has made any survey or research on these aspects, so as to be able to make an authoritative statement of what “most citizens” feel. The impropriety is so obvious that we do not wish to comment upon the same any further…[to which, of course, the judges then proceed to comment further, AT]

The landlord does come off as a troublesome fellow but dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to see the source of his frustration. The judges, to give credit where credit is due, careful sift through the history of the case and they learn that the landlord has not actually filed many lawsuits against the plaintiff. Instead of many lawsuits, it turns out that there is only one very, very lengthy lawsuit.

Now, coming to the details given in part-B of the petition classified as “facts of the case”, there is reference of the suit bearing RAE No.537/4434/63, but this suit has, admittedly, not been filed by the Respondent and apparently the same has been filed by the grandfather [emphasis added, AT] of the Respondent….It is clear from the averments in the petition itself that the legal proceedings are pending between the parties since the year 1963.

Since landlord junior “came in picture in the year 1998 only”, and was only filling in the shoes of landlord father, who was only filling in the shoes of landlord grandfather, junior can’t be said to have initiated many lawsuits against the tenant. Thus, despite the landlord’s clearly outrageous comments about the inefficiency of the judiciary and whatever else junior may have done to the kitten, the judges throw out the tenant’s petition. The lawsuit that began in 1963 moves forward!  Perhaps to be taken up by the next generation.

Addendum: I talk rent control in Mumbai with Amit Varma on his excellent podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.


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