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February 10, 2015

No country for tenants


February 10, 2015


If you’re planning to reside in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for the foreseeable future, if your children are to grow up in this country and stay on till they achieve college level education and if you belong to that misguided category of people who – despite the rot, the drift, the decline and the decay that is the defining characteristic of this benighted land of ours – still feel compelled to call it home, then you better own a piece of land with a house on it.
Conversely, if you happen to belong to that hapless lot who fall in the category of the renting class like I do, you’re pretty much doomed to continually exist with a gnawing sense of uncertainty punctuated with periodic episodes of displacement, as you are forced to vacate one rented home to move on to another.
The real-estate rental accommodation market is a seller’s market. Buyers have no rights and are thus frequently at the mercy of the caprices of landlords and their insatiable thirst for profit maximisation. There are essentially two kinds of landlords: the very rich, yet very greedy landlord with a conscience; and the very rich, yet very greedy landlord without a conscience. This time around I’ve been hoodwinked into renting a ground floor portion from a man who epitomises the latter category. The essential difference between the two personality types is this: the very rich yet very greedy landlord with a conscience, out of a general sympathy for the tenant or a fear of God – one can only wonder – will ensure that a house that is fit for occupation is handed over to the prospective tenant.
The walls will be whitewashed, the fixtures intact, the woodwork refurbished, the water pipes and geysers and taps and commodes functional, the sewage and water drains unclogged; gas mains, their outlets, the electric system and light switches and power sockets tested; the windows and doors intact and the locks in working order with complete sets of keys. In exchange for this

generosity there will be an unwritten pact that you as tenant are required to assent to: from the date you move into your new home you will only contact the landlord on the day the next instalment of your rent is due. Any unnecessary calls in the interregnum, particularly if they are concerned with frivolous and irritating requests for repair and maintenance – despite being in accordance with the rent agreement – will be met with derision and run the risk of your premature eviction.
The hallmark of a good tenant, an indicator of his sense of responsibility and virtue, is evidenced through his deep understanding and sympathy for his landlord’s cash flow requirements. The ability and willingness to furnish at least six months’ rent in advance and to willingly forgo the one month security at the time of vacation is deemed the sign of an unimpeachable character. Added to this, if you’ve managed, out of your personal expenditure, to add to the superstructure of the house, you may even be afforded the privilege of being requested not to vacate the house.
My very rich yet very greedy new landlord without a conscience listens with downcast eyes and a stony silence as I outline the basic work required in his house to make it fit for moving in: the woodwork is termite ridden with entire sections of window skirtings hollowed and cracked; the ply sheets on door frames and on the doors themselves are rotting and damp and peeling; there are no keys to the locks; the hot water pipes have burst and will require replacement; the geyser is dysfunctional; the insides of cupboards are also damp and reek of mildew and rot; kitchen and bathroom faucets are old, rusty and jammed.
Surrounding him, the real-estate agent and the repair and maintenance contractor, both salivating at the prospect of getting their commission and advance payment for repair work, are quick to interject: “Everything will be done sir! And sooner than you can think! All will be fixed and polished and mended and will be shining like new in a few days”. The landlord remains unmoved and after exchanging a few glances with the contractor exhales with a deep sigh and with a shake of his head finally breaks his vow of silence with the ominous words: “Advance please”.
In one week of supervising the repair and maintenance of my new home, my arch nemesis is no longer the landlord, but the bane of my current existence, the repair and maintenance contractor, Fayyaz. Fayyaz owns three mobile phones that are constantly ringing in unison and through some devious strategy designed to outwit other hapless tenants like myself, he answers a different phone every fifteen minutes. To each inquiry his response is the standard “I’m on my way sir! Just around the corner from your house”. By the afternoon this statement changes to “My car crashed on the way” or “I fell from my bike sir!”
Fayyaz suffers from blood pressure, no doubt a result of his unplanned work commitments. His team of labourers changes every day. They are undernourished semi-skilled and lazy. They arrive at work late and escape the moment it is dark. None of them possess any understanding of the concept of time. Everything will be done soon, in a few hours, tonight, tomorrow. Nothing is ever done on time. It is a myth that Pakistan possesses much talent.
Pakistan is populated across its length and breadth with extremely poor and largely untrained and unskilled labourers who only manage to get their assigned work right once in a while. We continue to indulge in a roaring misguided celebration of the cottage industry as opposed to investing in modern mechanised methods of industry. The casualties are our burgeoning impoverished masses which cannot improve their lot as their social class remains hostage to outmoded and archaic modes of production. Pakistan is one big leaky pipe with unwilling and duplicitous repair and maintenance contractors tasked to fix it. There is little hope in sight that there will ever be any fixing of the proper kind.
My ordeal is finally over in a week’s time. I have managed to ensure that the house is adequately repaired and largely on the landlords expense. Now begin the travails of shifting and settling down. I’m reminded of Tom Joad and of the anguish he and his family suffer through their journey of displacement across America, in Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’.
Thankfully my access to resources has reduced my suffering considerably. For the large sections of the urban middle class, particularly the salaried lot, the prospect of finding decent accommodation, of not being frequently uprooted and of avoiding the substantial costs of moving house are bleaker. There is an artificial bubble in the real-estate market and the rental segment is only regulated to advantage the landlord. In Islamabad rents spiral up annually at 10 percent gross; in New York at three percent basic!
Exploitation of tenants is therefore rampant and will continue perennially unless the state takes notice and introduces laws that bind landlords to offering suitable accommodation and to their responsibilities for periodic maintenance, which regulate affordable rent levels and secure the rights of tenants. Such is the unrealistic hope and the desperate prayer of a tenant till his next move.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kmushir




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