Even at the best of times, it’s a challenge to live in Mumbai. Asia’s 19th most expensive city (according to a global survey released in June) — and India’s costliest — is even harder to survive in during a pandemic. With no income for the last few months and no work in the foreseeable future, hundreds of young people who had moved to Mumbai from elsewhere, are now returning to their hometown. Some of them say they will be back when the Covid-19 crisis blows over. But many of them have decided to leave for good.
“My Mumbai dream has soured,” says actor Uday Rajveer Singh. “I came to the city to be a hero. After five years, I received my big break as the lead in a Telugu film called Daas. It was supposed to release in June. Now I’m not sure if it will go straight to OTT. Either way, I won’t get paid until the film is out.” Singh, 29, who also works as an MC, says 12 of his shows were cancelled in the last three months. Back in Delhi with his family, he’s had to give up his 2 BHK in Oshiwara. “”After paying Rs 42,000 every month for four months, I just had to let it go.”
A big component of the crushing cost of living in Mumbai is the rent. Ritesh Mehta, senior director and head — West India, Residential Services, at JLL, says: “There will be a correction in residential rents, but only perhaps for the next two quarters. Property owners will be unwilling to change tenants, especially since societies are not allowing newcomers, and tenants have been renegotiating rents with their landlords in order to continue with their contract.” Mehta foresees a reduction of between 10 and 15 per cent in rents of Rs 1 lakh and upward per month, and of about five to seven per cent in rents of Rs 25,000 and over. Anything below that will remain unchanged. “With a reverse migration of people going back to their hometowns, the demand for rentals will fall in the next few months,” he says. “Even now, there are instances of rents being renegotiated to less than before.”
According to Mehta, residential rentals make up 60 per cent of the market, and 40 per cent of this is held by ‘skilled migrants’ — middle and upper-middle class people from other parts of the country, who’ve made Mumbai their home. “About 30 to 40 per cent of these skilled migrants have left the city and many will be back over the next year,” he adds. “That’s when the current drop in rents will go back to normal.” The correction, he admits, has temporarily made some previously unaffordable neighbourhoods more accessible. So if you’ve always wanted to live in Bandra without wiping yourself out, now’s your chance.
Event manager and model and Namrata Shetty is packing up 12 years of her life in the city and moving back to Baroda on Tuesday. “I came to Mumbai with one suitcase and I’m leaving with 20 cartons,” she says. After her flatmate got married recently, Shetty approached her landlord to reduce the rent of her 2 BHK in Goregaon. “Not only did he refuse, he also plans to increase it on renewal, and has demanded an extra Rs 50,000 as deposit. I can’t afford it,” she says. Shetty is feeling the pain of moving home during the pandemic. Transporters are charging three times more than usual, as are godowns, so she can’t even put her things in storage till she returns. “I tried to look for another apartment online — since I can’t visit any society — and found that property owners were demanding security deposits of between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 8 lakh, instead of the previous Rs 1.5 lakh or Rs 2 lakh. I would rather conserve whatever is left of my savings, so I’ve decided to go back to Baroda,” she says. “Many of us live alone and now, alongside the depression of being stuck indoors, we have to deal with becoming homeless. It’s very sad.”
The logistical challenges are daunting. Shetty is waiting for her brother to arrive from Gujarat to help her move, but both need two sets of permissions — one from Maharashtra and the other from Gujarat — to travel between the states. When Uday Rajveer Singh couldn’t come to Mumbai, he hired a transporter for Rs 20,000 to bring his car to him, with only the belongings which would fit, like his laptop and clothes. He had to leave his flatscreen TV, ACs and a cupboard behind at his former flat. “I requested a friend to keep them at his place, but his society didn’t allow it,” says the actor. “I’ll retrieve them when I get a chance to go to Mumbai.” That won’t be anytime soon. “My livelihood depends on big events, with 1,000 or 2,000 guests,” says the anchor. “That kind of a gathering is out of the question now, so I’ll just have to stay put in Delhi now.” About 80 per cent of his friends have left Mumbai, and Singh feels more than half will not return.
Stories of recalcitrant landlords hiking rents or turning lessees out onto the streets during the lockdown abound. Photographer Amit Khanna says he was given less than the mandatory months’ notice to vacate his Andheri West flat. On May 15, Khanna’s landlord told him to move out by June 1, saying he had found another tenant who would pay 10 per cent more. Since house-hunting was impossible, Khanna moved in with his parents. It’s not an ideal situation. The film and fashion photographer needs to be in suburbs of Mumbai for work. He says the sheer harassment also got to him. “I was literally left on the road,” says Khanna. “My landlord insisted that I pay Rs 30,000 to get the flat repainted. I thought it was too much so I had to find a painter, with great difficulty, who did it for less. I left the flat on May 27 but I hear that it’s still empty. I think my landlord was just trying to get more money.” A couple renting in Versova (who did not wish to be named) said they were locked inside their house by their landlord when they hadn’t vacated the flat within the designated time. Although the landlord insisted this had happened by accident, the couple’s friends had to come and break them out.
Property owners, however, feel they’re being portrayed, unfairly, as difficult and inconsiderate. A broker operating in Andheri East says he is aware of several cases where the landlords have been persuaded to let the tenants remain. “We tell them vacating a flat now will not help as they won’t get tenants while this lockdown-unlock confusion remains,” he says. Surendra Mhatre, who owns three flats in an SRA building in Jogeshwari East, says: “Some of my tenants have not been able to pay me a single rupee since the lockdown. This is my only source of income. What am I supposed to do?” Dinkar Lele, a landlord in Sahakar Nagar, Andheri, adds: “Rent supplements our pension. If we forego the rent, we will suffer badly.”
According to Vishal Kadrekar, proprietor of Parelbased Fair Value Property, in some of the more sought-after properties in Mumbai, rents have come down in the last few months. “In Planet Godrej in Byculla, there are three and two bedroom flats which earlier went for Rs 1.40 lakh to Rs.1.50 lakh per month, but are now going for Rs 1 lakh or Rs 1.10 lakh,” he says. Kadrekar adds that he has told his clients who are flat-owners, to be prepared for another hit in the next six to nine months. “Flats which are now fetching Rs 1.20 lakh to Rs 1.25 lakh will drop to around a lakh,” he says. “The market had already reached flashpoint, and now the pandemic has only exacerbated an already difficult situation.”
BR Bhattad, vice-president of the Property Owners’ Association in Mumbai, says in most places, landlords and tenants have come to an understanding as the survival of both is at stake. “It is in the newer buildings that some tenants have been asked to vacate the premises,” he says. “We cannot do anything there. In 90 per cent of the older buildings, the landlords’ survival depends on the rent. So both landlords and tenants will have to figure out a middle path.” Bhattad doesn’t see any improvement in the situation until at least October or November, if that.
In a city where sharing digs becomes a necessity, some decisions may be forced upon you. Fashion photographer Davesh Mehta, 24, had to return to Kota, his hometown, because his three flatmates decided to let go of their 2BHK in Andheri West. “We had a two-year lease. But when our landlord increased the rent at the end of the first year, we had to leave,” he says. “My work always comes as an eleventh-hour call, so it’s better for me to be in Mumbai. But I can’t afford it on my own.” There was also the matter of utilities. “We received an electricity bill of Rs 17,000, even though the apartment had been empty for four months,” Mehta adds.
Model Anup Pandey, who is back in Gorakhpur, says he ran through his savings in the first month of the lockdown. “I panicked and ended up buying a lot of things. I could barely make the rent,” he says, referring to his 1 BHK in Versova. “When people decide to join the entertainment industry in Mumbai, they often face a lot of opposition from friends and family back home. Going back is usually not an option. I also didn’t want to go either, but I was really struggling to make ends meet.” Mumbai, he feels, has defeated him. Talent manager Soumya Basuthakur, who lives in a large, multi-tower complex in Andheri West favoured by film and TV folk, says of the 700-odd tenants about 500 appear to have left. “Andheri West has gotten cleared out,” he says. Recently, when Basuthakur received a call to cast for a TV commercial, he couldn’t find any actors to audition. “Those who do not own their homes have all left because Mumbai is so expensive,” he says.
Basuthakur has been at the receiving end of a bullying housing society. Faced with a financial crunch, he was looking for people to share his 4 BHK flat, but says the society has made it difficult to do so. “The building has closed its gate and tenants face a lot of hostility and restrictions from the society, even though flatowners are free to roam about,” says Basuthakur, 41. “We have even complained to the Amboli police, but in vain.” The casting director is as good as a resident, having lived in the building for seven years and holding a lease that is valid till 2022. Basuthakur, who just helped a friend pack up and leave for Chandigarh, says he has been blowing up his savings on the rent. “If this goes on, I will be able to survive in Mumbai for just another month,” he says. His Plan B? At a stretch, moving to Pune and trying to work from there, even though Basuthakur knows that given his profession, it will be hard to do.