Segregated Housing: Discrimination or Free Choice?

by Rupa Subramanya - Nov 30, 2014 01:44 AM +05:30 IST
Segregated Housing: Discrimination or Free Choice?

Across the world, the issue of housing discrimination—or, to be more precise, what is often housing self-segregation—is a complex one.

The recent resolution passed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) council to deny necessary clearances to property developers who discriminate on the basis of caste, religion or dietary preference has once again brought the debate on housing segregation to the fore.

First off, it must be noted that the corporators’ resolution is not binding on the municipal commissioner, who is within his rights to disregard it. It appears therefore to be largely an exercise in symbolic politics, with all of the non-BJP parties voting in favour of the resolution and the BJP against it.

Further, it is reported that property developers are predictably unhappy with the move and suggest it’s not likely to come into force. One builder suggested it was the housing societies which were expressing their preference on whom units should be sold to and builders were simply doing their bidding.

The debate in Mumbai is reminiscent of that in Ahmedabad, which too has a heavily segregated housing market. Builders there often have fairly specific commercial rationale for restricting whom they sell to.

A Mumbai Apartment Complex
A Mumbai Apartment Complex

In a column I wrote for the Wall Street Journal India last year, I spoke to several property developers in Ahmedabad who told me anonymously that they do indeed decline to sell units to members of either the Hindu or Muslim community depending on the building and the neighbourhood. In other words, they wouldn’t sell flats to Muslims in a Hindu building and vice versa.

One developer told me, speaking of a new property development intended for Hindu buyers, “If they (Hindu buyers) came to know that I sold units to Muslims, many of my Hindu buyers would pull out and my development would be in trouble.”

Whether in Mumbai, Ahmedabad or anywhere else, the issue of housing discrimination—or, to be more precise, what is often housing self-segregation—is a complex one. Mumbai itself has many pre-existing societies which restrict access based on the community, religion, or dietary preference of their members. Indeed, a 2005 Supreme Court order preserved the right of a Parsi society in Mumbai to exclude non-Parsis on the grounds that it protected freedom of association.

The issue of housing discrimination has been, and remains, contentious in many places, not just in India. One of the products of the American Civil Rights movement was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a federal statute which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of various criteria including race. The context of the law clearly was the history of housing and other forms of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in the American South and elsewhere.

Likewise, Canadian provinces and territories have Human Rights Codes which prohibit discrimination in housing on a range of grounds including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so on. The exception, an important one, is that discrimination by a landlord is permissible if a kitchen or bathroom will be shared with a would-be tenant.

It’s noteworthy that despite a human rights code which prohibits discrimination in housing, this news report from Ontario, Canada found many instances of housing advertisements looking for “Muslim only” tenants in the Toronto area, or advertisements in the Vancouver area looking for Chinese, Korean or Japanese tenants.

Another recent Canadian example of a prospective housing development pitched towards a particular community centres on the Jaffari Community Centre which is seeking to build a large housing development in the vicinity of its mosque. While the units would be open for sale to anyone, hence no discrimination would be involved, the presumption is that most buyers would be Muslim, given the proximity to the mosque and community centre. Interestingly, this proposed development is in a Toronto suburb which is predominately Jewish and centred around Ner Israel Yeshiva of Toronto, an Orthodox Jewish boys school.

It would seem in cases like the proposed housing development around the Jaffari Community Centre or indeed the Jewish community around the Ner Israel Yeshiva, what is at work is not discrimination but the desire of people who share similar beliefs and lifestyles to live close to each other. This indeed is the very rationale often given for the observed pattern for housing self-segregation in Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

What is lost in the din is the fact, however politically incorrect or inconvenient it may be for some, that many traditional societies have featured and still feature some form of housing self-segregation. Those traditional modes of living exist even in the contemporary West, and even in highly diverse societies like the US or Canada, as the examples I cited suggest.

Sometimes, though, the market itself responds to institutions which try to exclude certain communities. Famously, high-end co-operative societies in New York City would exclude prospective Jewish buyers, as their boards were dominated by the old Anglo-Saxon elite. In response, a new form of ownership—the condominium—flourished, in which a board does not have the right to deny someone the right to purchase a unit if he or she can afford it.

Similarly, as I discovered in Ahmedabad in response to the unavailability of housing units for Muslims in many parts of the city, a housing fair geared towards Muslim buyers was set up by an entrepreneurial young Muslim businessman.

The deeper question that is begged by debates around housing discrimination is the extent to which society wishes to impinge on individual liberty in the interests of pursuing a goal such as social cohesion. For a strict libertarian, forcing someone to rent their apartment to someone they don’t want to—even if that is based on purely personal preference—would be illiberal. After all, society doesn’t tell people that they cannot take into account the religious affiliation or other characteristics of a prospective marriage partner!

Evidently, some societies have deemed that the presumed social good of preventing such an exercise of individual preference exceeds the harm caused by the loss of individual liberty itself.

That logic might make sense in the US or Canada, although even there it has its detractors, who believe that human rights tribunals overreach when they tell a landlord that advertising an apartment as, say, “ideal for older couple” is discriminatory.

Whatever you may think of the BMC council’s vote, it’s clearly a half-baked measure, since it will only apply to new developments and not to the many existing housing societies which restrict membership based on religion, community or dietary preference; nor is it likely to be approved. It seems much more a way to score a cheap political point than anything else.

Rupa Subramanya is a Mumbai based commentator and co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India (Random House 2012) Follow her on Twitter @rupasubramanya

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