HOUSING APARTHEID People from around the country looking for rental housing find the fast-growing city more welcoming, but non-vegetarians have fewer choices

This is a city of tenants - more than half of the population lives in rented houses. And every year, about 15,000 new migrants arrive and look for places to live. The city has been broadly accommodative. Religion has not been a major barrier, but rent does matter. However, food preferences could make or break a deal. A prospective tenant often faces the question, ‘what are you, veg or non-veg?’ In the land of curd rice, vegetarians have it easy.

A correspondent from this paper, posing as a prospective Muslim tenant, called a few house owners. In areas like Rajiv Gandhi Salai (OMR), Thiruvanmiyur and Adyar, where the rent for a typical two-bedroom apartment is above Rs. 10,000 a month, religion did not matter. The owners were prepared to rent it out to anyone who was ready to pay. But in areas such as Ambattur or Arumbakkam, which fetch relatively low rents, a few owners were a little reluctant. In their opinion, ‘Muslims consumed non-vegetarian food everyday’ and they did not, therefore, want to let out the house to them.

Such cases are few and far between, said R.V. Loganathan, a real estate agent who operates in Central and North Chennai. Muthukadu Rajesh, an experienced house broker in South Chennai, also has similar observations.

“I have been a broker for more than a decade and I have seen at the most four or five cases where Muslims and Christians were denied houses. But this is primarily because they are non-vegetarians.”

Faiza Moumin, a media professional, who has lived in three apartments in Chennai before she moved to Kerala, found it difficult to get a house five years ago. But her recent experience was better. “Earlier I have been refused apartments because I was a non-vegetarian, and it is not uncommon. Being a single woman added to the problem. But things have changed now,” she recalled.

Like Faiza, Fazul Ahmed who owns a mobile phone showroom, found it difficult to rent a house because many apartments were predominantly inhabited by “vegetarians”.

Reluctance to let out houses to non-vegetarians has affected non-Muslims too.

Sneha (name changed) and her family, who live in a semi-independent house in upmarket Raja Annamalaipuram, had to give up cooking non-vegetarian food to retain her rented house. “It took us over three months to find this place. The house owner insisted that we should not cook non-vegetarian food. We did not want to let go of this house. Hence, we gave up cooking non-vegetarian food. Now, we either eat out or bring food home when the owner who lives downstairs is not in town,” she said.

In recent years, Chennai has been playing host to many people from North-Eastern states who work in beauty parlours, restaurants and so on. Their experiences have been reassuring. G. Pratima and six of her friends, who come from a small town on the West Bengal-Bhutan border, did not face any difficulty in finding a house in Nanganallur. With some help from their employers, they have settled in this neighbourhood. “Idli, sambar, chappatis and rasam are our staple food. We can speak Tamil too. At times we cook chicken and so far there has not been any issue,” Monica said. “Neighbours and the landlord are friendly, and we too prefer to keep to ourselves,” she added.

Zubair Ahmed, an auto driver, added a note of caution. “All is not well with Chennai. A few of us have had bitter experiences,” he said.

“In the last thirty years, I have rented many houses owned by Hindus. But that was after a long search. Some house owners told me that I am a non-vegetarian, would not keep the house clean, and avoided me as a tenant. I vividly remember an incident when a house owner in Kodambakkam said that in the past, Muslim terrorists used to live in the neighbourhood. Hence he feared renting out his house to a Muslim even now. His prejudice was humiliating.”

A.Srivathsan, Asha Sridhar and Sunitha Sekar contributed to this report.

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