The Paradox of India’s Vacant Houses

Walking around Mumbai I see many vacant houses and apartments and the statistics verify what I see on the ground, an astounding 15% of Mumbai’s housing stock lies vacant. In Mumbai, the slums are full but thousands of homes lie vacant. The share of vacant housing in Mumbai is only slightly higher than the national average of 12% (In comparison, the United States has a vacant homeowner rate of less than 2%.) Sahil Gandhi and Meenaz Munshi, two of my colleagues at the IDFC Institute, examine the paradox of India’s vacant housing:

Urban India has a severe shortage of housing, yet Indian cities have many vacant houses. According to the census of India 2011, out of the 90 million residential census units, 11 million units are vacant; that is about 12% of the total urban housing stock consists of vacant houses.

Gandhi and Munshi focus on two issues. First, government built housing is shockingly underused. In one centrally sponsored housing project in Delhi, for example, the government built 27,344 units and 26,288 lie vacant! Government housing has often been built far from jobs and public transport and in some cases the houses have been of low quality and lacking basic infrastructure. As the government acknowledged:

“In spite of the continuous efforts by the government, slum dwellers are reluctant to move to the houses built by the government due to lack of proper infrastructure and means of livelihood,” the statement to Parliament said, explaining further that the new houses often lack electricity and water, cheaply available–often through illegal connections–in slums. The new houses are usually not close to workplaces, the ministry acknowledged.

People living in India’s urban slums have often preferred to stay living in the slums rather than move to government built housing–which is really saying something.

Government built housing, however, is only a small part of the housing stock. The bigger problem is that owners of private housing would prefer to see their housing capital lie vacant than to rent.

Renting out a property is a risky affair in India due to perceived (often, correctly) difficulties of evicting tenants, particularly under the onerous regulatory framework of the various rent control laws that are still applicable across states in India.

….These laws fix rent for properties at much below the prevailing market rates and make eviction of tenants difficult. As a result, they increase perception of risk and distort incentives for renting. To get around this, leave and licence agreements are being used as an alternate legal mechanism to rent properties. Despite this, the legacy of rent control and policy uncertainty creates reluctance to rent. To provide an example of policy uncertainty, in 1973 the Maharashtra government brought the then existing leave and licensees contracts under rent control (Gandhi et al 2014). Instances like this have had an adverse impact on the confidence of investors and landlords.

As I pointed out in A Twisted Tale of Rent Control in the Maximum City it can take courts decades to resolve legal disputes, especially those involving land and tenancy so this further disincentives rental housing.

As Gandhi and Munshi note, the problems in the housing market exacerbate probems in the labor market (just as in the United States):

Without a vibrant rental housing market labour markets cannot function efficiently (see Shah 2013). Bringing the private vacant housing stock into the rental market and understanding and resolving the reasons for vacancy in the government provided stock could significantly improve efficiency in utilising available stock of housing.

See Gandhi and Munshi’s blog post and a forthcoming IDFC report on housing for more details.


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