Chennai families caught in a debt trap as they await new tenements from TNUHDB

TNUHDB's move to reconstruct old tenements has caused financial difficulties for families who have been forced to rely on loans to meet expenses.

For Sowndharya Gopi, a trans person who grew up in the housing unit of the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB) in Royapuram, those tenements constituted the centre of her life. 

“I have faced discrimination for being a trans person all my life but the people in those housing units, who were my kith and kin, were the first among the few people who accepted me for who I am,” says Sowndharya.

Recalling the days of her family moving from the thatched huts to the housing unit, Sowndharya says that as many as 240 families living in the nearby slums were promised concrete housing in 1991. Accordingly, the government carried out the enumerations. “I remember my family being photographed with a slate in our hands when the enumerations were made some 30 years ago,” she says, adding that they moved into the housing unit in 1993.

These houses, however small they were, were a dream come true for many families. The concrete building meant that their children now had a roof over their heads come rain or shine. However, these houses served their purpose for only one generation. 

As the families grew and years passed, new issues started cropping up. The lack of space to accommodate growing families led a few of them to move out. They either sold the houses to others or sublet them. 

Meanwhile, the lack of maintenance of these multi-storey buildings also started posing grave hazards to the safety and well-being of these houses. In a telling incident, a four-storey dilapidated building belonging to the TNUHDB in Tiruvottiyur, which had as many as 24 units, collapsed on December 27, 2021. 

Though nobody was injured in the accident, the incident served as a wake-up call. The TNUHDB formed committees to assess the quality of the old buildings and decided to reconstruct some of them, including the one in Royapuram where Sowndharya’s family resided until a few months ago.

Read more: Residents in resettlement colonies struggle with many aspects of daily life: IRCDUC study

Promised reconstruction of houses in two years by TNUHDB

As the families were asked to move out from the dilapidated houses earmarked for reconstruction, the officials enumerated the tenants and got two copies of their address and identity proof among other documents. “We were told that reconstructed houses would be allotted to us by 2025. No other details were furnished by the government,” notes Sowndharya.

Demolished site of a TNUHDB housing unit
Demolition of a TNUHDB housing unit in Royapuram. Pic Courtesy: Sowndharya Gopi

But there were nuanced issues that the government completely overlooked. In the years between 1993 and 2022, the families had grown in size significantly. Each unit now had at least six members. However, when the enumeration was carried out, the government considered only one dwelling unit for the entire family.

The government also gave a sum of Rs 24,000 as a one-time payment to each housing unit (irrespective of the number of members in the family) as financial assistance. This amount was supposed to help the families financially for two years, or as long as it takes to reconstruct and allocate the new dwelling units to them. 

The authorities have not shared any building plan for the houses to be constructed.  The families who are to be accommodated there were not given any opportunity to share their wishlists or inputs so that they could improve their living conditions.

Read more: Kannappar Thidal: Where residents continue their 20-year wait for a proper home

Where will the residents go?

With just Rs 24,000 in hand and no alternative provided, Sowndharya’s family, like hundreds of others in similar circumstances, started their house-hunting journey. But finding a rental house that would be both affordable and large enough to accommodate their families has been an uphill task. The first challenge they faced was stigma. 

“Many house owners refused to rent out houses to us due to the stigma attached to the place (the government housing unit) we hail from. The stigma stems from both caste and class consciousness,” she says. Even when families did manage to find a house, the security deposit demanded of them proved to be unaffordable for most of them in many instances.

“In a city like Chennai, the minimum deposit for a rental accommodation has gone up to Rs 40,000-50,000. How can these families like ours, who toil to make ends meet, afford to pay such huge amounts? A portion of the Rs 24,000 had to be spent on moving charges; thereafter, like most other families, we too ended up relying on money lenders to pay the deposit amount for the rental houses,” says Sowndharya.

Aspiring to own a house = debt trap

The story of Kumari S, a 40-year-old domestic help from Kotturpuram, is a little different from that of Sowndharya’s. Though there is no provision to sell the houses allocated by the government agencies, such as TNUHDB, many original allottees have sold them to someone else over the years. 

For Kumari, who had been living in a rental house all her life, owning a house, no matter how small it was, was the dream of a lifetime. So when she came across an agent offering a TNUHDB dwelling unit in Kotturpuram on sale, she jumped at the opportunity, not fully knowing what lay ahead. 

She applied for a loan of Rs 10 lakhs and bought the home around three years ago and moved in there with her husband and two children. In addition to Rs 10 lakh taken out as a loan to buy the house, she also spent around Rs 2 lakh to renovate the house. “Though the house had only one room and a kitchen, I finally had a place to call my own,” she says.

But her happiness was short-lived. Only a year and a half after she moved into the housing unit in Kotturpuram, all the inhabitants of the tenements received a notice that the housing unit was to be demolished shortly for reconstruction.

The announcement came as a shock to Kumari. 

Soon the officials carried out the enumeration. She was also enumerated as one of the tenants and was given Rs 24,000 as financial assistance. 

The residents here were also promised that the houses will be reconstructed in two years.

“Hundreds of families, who earn their living from work in nearby localities, were asked to move out at the same time. The house owners made the most of our misfortune by hiking rents, maintenance charges, electricity tariff and water charges. Many families moved to the outskirts of the city as it was impossible to afford a decent house in the same locality. However, they now have to spend a lot more on travel to work every day. Considering the odds, we decided to look for houses in Kottupuram as my children were also in the school in the same locality,” she says.

“My husband is a driver and I work as a domestic help in Kotturpuram. Together, we earn around Rs 30,000 a month. Since we cannot afford to pay the rent every month, we borrowed money to take a house on lease. We are paying back the money we borrowed. Since we are unable to pay back the loan taken to buy the earlier house, we have stalled the repayment for that for the time being,” she says.

Life is a constant struggle: Kumari’s lease period is almost over, and she has been asked to vacate the house once the lease expires. She dreads the prospect of hunting for a new rental home even as huge debts keep piling up.

Meanwhile, at the site where the tenements stood in Kotturpuram, construction and demolition waste are still visible all around, a full five months after her house, along with hundreds of others, was demolished. “If it takes five months to even remove the demolition waste, how will they complete the reconstruction in two years?” she asks.

Do RWAs create more agency?
The case of Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar

Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar (also known as MS Nagar) in Chetpet is one of the first housing units in Chennai. Following the fire accident in a slum area in Mangalapuram, the then DMK government led by M Karunanidhi decided to build concrete houses for the residents and laid the foundation stone for the construction of the tenements in MS Nagar in 1970. The construction of 224 houses was completed in 1972. 

Vasudevan S moved in with his family to the housing unit in 1977.

Three decades later, the houses had turned ‘unlivable’.

“Many families kept the houses locked and moved out since the houses looked like they could collapse anytime,” says Vasudevan.

TNUHDB housing unit in MS Nagar
TNUHDB housing unit in MS Nagar before demolition. Pic Courtesy: Vasudevan S

The talks about reconstruction began in 2019 but were paused due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and resumed in 2021.

However, there was no democratic dialogue held with the residents to listen to their grievances and preferences. This is when the residents of the tenements decided to form a Resident’s Welfare Association (RWA) named ‘Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar TNUHDB Residents Welfare Association’. They also registered the RWA.

Initially, they had no information about the new building plan, though these houses were being built for them. Due to constant pressure from the RWA, they were finally shown the new building plan.

Vasudevan says that the demolished building had eight dwelling units that were separated on either side by the staircase. They had 224 houses in eight blocks. Each dwelling unit measured around 270 or 280 sq ft and has a kitchen and a room. 

According to the new plan, there will be 16 houses arranged in a row on each floor. There will be 92 houses in one block, with three blocks in total. There will be two lifts in each block.

Each house will now have a small hall, a bedroom, a kitchen and an attached bathroom but will measure only around 320 to 340 sq ft.

There is a front door space of less than 2 feet between the two houses on opposite sides. The dwelling units will not have sufficient ventilation.

They have been told that almost the same number of tenements will be constructed. Due to the design model, the number may go up to 240 houses.

“Following continuous opposition to previous building plans that were way worse than this, the officials changed the plan. We even hired a professional and made a building plan for the same measurement and submitted it to the government stating that we would like our plan to be executed. However, they refused to do so outright. Though we are not satisfied with the row-house model of the building plan, we were forced to accept it,” he says, adding that the buildings were demolished in March 2023. 

Had the residents not been this involved and active, Vasudevan says that they would have faced the same predicament as residents from other tenements, who are in the dark about what is to come. He also adds that the residents are aware of the beneficiary contribution as they accessed the government order on it. 

“The officials did not say a word about it until we asked,” he notes.

Akin to other cases, the families of MS Nagar were also given financial assistance of Rs 24,000. 

“The authorities have promised that the reconstruction will be completed in 18 months. But seeing the speed of the construction here, and from previous examples like Santhosh Nagar where reconstructed houses are yet to get the electricity, water and sewage connections, we are sure it is going to take much longer than 18 months,” says Vasudevan.

Beneficiary contribution to TNUHDB

While hundreds of such families find themselves in a debt trap due to high rents as they await reconstruction of their homes, there is also the prospect of having to pay up more for the new tenements. 

According to a government order dated December 12, 2021, the beneficiaries should pay around 10% of the project cost or Rs 1.5 lakh (whichever is higher). When the beneficiaries cannot pay the contribution, the only provision the government has made is to collect the amount in instalments for 20 years or to arrange for bank loans, but the families have to repay that with interest.

No intimation was given to either Sowndharya or Kumari (or any of the other residents from their localities) about the beneficiary contribution before they were asked to move out of the tenements. 

When asked about this, Sowndharya says, “Thirty years ago when the houses were allotted to us, we did not pay any beneficiary contribution or deposit amount. We got them free of cost. The officials have not mentioned anything about a beneficiary contribution even this time.”

Kumari, however, is sure that the government will not give the houses for free. She says, “I am not sure of the exact amount, but I am sure they will ask for at least a few lakhs. We are already in so much debt, I am worried about how I will be able to arrange for more money.”

No channels of communication

Residents such as Kumari and Sowndharya have many other questions on their minds but are reluctant to raise them with the authorities. “We will be happy if we are given the houses in the same place, and if they are spacious enough to accommodate all the family members,” says Sowndharya.

But they are scared that if they raise such demands, or oppose the government plans on any count, they may be relocated to the outskirts of the city like Kannagi Nagar or Perumbakkam, where they will have no means of livelihood.

With their dream of owning their own space rudely interrupted by these developments, they continue to anxiously wait for the tenements to be reconstructed.

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