Rent as social protection: thinking through housing insecurities experienced by domestic workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
What assistance was available to support informal rental housing during the COVID-19 pandemic? Experiences in Jaipur, India, highlights that rent should be considered not just as relief but as a basic tenet in urban social protection frameworks.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns have had deeply detrimental impacts on employment of workers across the globe. While social protection systems have a potential to facilitate recovery from the economic shocks to the vulnerable, most migrant workers in India across sectors are embedded in informal employment and informal housing, and lie outside the purview of social protection systems.
Among the many direct impacts of loss in employment and wages are the diminished ability to pay rent for housing, which in turn translates to housing insecurity, and transversally risks on other spheres of life.
If we conceive relief as a way to fill gaps left by the coverage of social protection, how did relief deal with the landscape of informal housing, especially informal rental housing, which remains a dominant mode of living for most migrant workers in India? How should social protection systems address housing and thus rent as a critical cornerstone that determines a worker household’s resilience in a crisis?
Here we reflect on a framework of informal housing and rent as part of social protection and relief, that would have alleviated this vulnerability of migrant workers. By mapping the experiences of domestic workers in Jaipur, and how they maneuvered rental housing insecurity, this forefronts the impact of rental dues in deepening precarity of workers during a crisis.
This piece collates insights from multiple studies and discussions conducted with the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union, a domestic workers union in Rajasthan, to reflect on the necessities and limitations of making rent and housing a part of basic social protection.
Domestic workers and rental housing
Imagine the day of a typical domestic worker in India: she works in multiple spurts throughout the day – for a few hours early in the morning, a few hours after lunch and sometimes a few more hours late evening. She has most likely taken up work in multiple houses in proximate neighbourhoods which she travels across through the day. In the recesses between these spurts of work, she goes back to her own home and carries out unpaid care work. This means she has to make multiple trips in the same day from her place of residence to her place(s) of work.
Living close to work becomes a critical way for her to save time and money, and living in rental accommodation close to the place(s) of work is therefore a pervasive form for domestic workers to find housing in the city.
Consider two empirical observations from a study of domestic workers in Jaipur: one, close to 90% of about 500 domestic workers sampled lived on rent. And two, rent formed 40% of the total household expense of domestic workers, with the cost of rental utilities making an additional 13%. This signifies that rent makes for a large and fixed monthly expense for a vast majority of domestic workers.
Most of these rentals are run by home-owners who rely on rent as primary source of their income, have limited capital to invest into maintaining these rentals, or in some cases run it as an informal housing product. Such rentals are characterised by multiple layers of informality: from the nature of contracts between landlords and tenants, the status of tenure, and their absence from government databases as recognised rental markets.
Therefore, even as these rentals fulfill housing needs for a large section of migrants, they remain outside traditional modes of monitoring and regulation.
Mounting rental dues amid absent rental relief
Now envision the situation of workers in the informal sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and the fear of the pandemic pushed employers to bar domestic workers from working in their homes, resulting in the latter’s loss of a steady monthly income. Rent continued to remain a fixed monthly expense, the inability to pay which over time affected not only housing security of domestic workers, but bled into other spheres of life causing significant duress, and deepened vulnerability.
When we look at how state and non-state relief was provisioned during the pandemic, we see relief given for cooked or uncooked food, income support and at times cash transfers for those already registered in relevant social security programmes.
Yet hardly any relief measures focused explicitly on rent. The cash transfers themselves were insufficient in quantum to meaningfully support other household expenses and rent. The only state notifications on rent through phases one to four of the lockdowns were the state mandating landlords to waive rent for one month, transferring all economic responsibility of rental waivers to individual landlords with no way to either regulate or support this waiver (PDF).
It is critical to note here that given the informal nature of this rental market, the state had no real understanding of who exactly it was issuing these mandates to, and whether the landlords in fact had the financial capacity to grant this waiver.
With no plan in place for landlords to access economic support or incentive to bear the rental loss, these notifications were merely appeals, with no state power to enforce them; and such an imagination of state relief simply sought to offset vulnerability from tenants to landlords.
Multiple sources suggest that for most domestic workers, rental expenses were only deferred, but not completely waived by landlords. As the lockdown continued for months, rental dues continued to build up to substantial amounts, many domestic workers also facing the threat of eviction.
Interview with members of Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union in February 2023
Had the government helped, would we have suffered so much?... If the state had put in this amount (in our accounts), rental dues would not have been so huge… we have no expectation from the state.
Within the first seven weeks of the lockdown, through phases 1 and 2 of the lockdown, 88% of 455 respondents (455 out of 501 respondents lived on rent) had rental dues accumulated, with 65% having rental dues more than 5000 rupees, and rental dues for close to half of these exceeding Rs 10,000. This amount is at least 25% more than a domestic worker’s average monthly income as recorded in February 2020.
In December 2020, 68% of a total 112 who had accrued debt since the beginning of the lockdown reported rent as the reason for taking debt. Around February 2021, almost a year after the onset of the first lockdown, another study covering 76 households of domestic workers revealed that one third of the set was still paying rental dues averaging about Rs 10,500; and one third of the households had paid the rental dues off with great difficulty – either by cutting costs in their household or taking some form of a loan.
This financial burden was severely exacerbated by the absence of stable employment, absence of any rental support or meaningful waiver provided by the state, and the slump in the domestic worker labour market. Yet despite being a basic need, housing and rent continue to remain outside the ambit of core social protection, unlike other comparable basic needs like food and health.
Transversal and detrimental effects of rental dues into other spheres of life
Discussions with the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU) as well as interviews with domestic workers inform us that multiple trade-offs and redirection of funds were made from other critical expenses like school fees, savings, nutrition and so on to be able to pay rent.
Therefore, the state’s inability to account for meaningful rental relief affected education, nutrition and mental health of domestic workers while pushing them into deeper vulnerability economically and for a longer duration, and also making them more acquiescent to taking pay-cuts when they returned back to employment.
Interview with members of Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union in February 2023
Women went back to work at lower incomes, sometimes at half pay. If she earned 10,000 rupees earlier, for the same house and same quantum of work, the employer now said they could only pay 5,000, take it or leave it. At that time women thought, ‘I will at least be able to manage rent from that income, and get some ration. So at this point, 5,000 is as good as 10,000 for me, I will at least have some work. So we saw that in the second and third lockdowns, domestic workers experienced pay-cuts.
Union reflections on their role in rental relief
Discussion with the union suggests that during the first lockdown – which lasted about three weeks – the primary concern of their members was food security and income since rent was deferred by many landlords. Come the second lockdown, tolerance of landlords to waive or defer rent diminished, as did speculatively their ability to cushion their own loss in rental income.
It is to be noted that for many landlords rent was the dominant source of income to run their households, which they could not afford to waive indefinitely.
Through the first lockdown, the union anticipated that rental deferrals would decrease and came up with possible strategies of intervening in dire rental situations, also building their members’ capacity to do the same. They report that the rapport of the landlord with the tenant was employed as a mechanism to prevent evictions. The union’s influence was critical, and in dire situations, connections with the police were leveraged to diffuse tense eviction situations.
However, the union also felt constrained in terms of how much they could intervene. They had to navigate a complex terrain of landlord-tenant dynamic and layered vulnerability of tenants as migrants during a health crisis. Secondly, housing did not feature as a priority in the state's imagination. With no state support, the union could not do much to systemically mitigate the long-term impacts of building rental dues.
Third, domestic workers were not registered in a systematic social security database. This limited ways in which the union could lobby for the state to channel in an existing identification and delivery system.
Interview with members of Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union in February 2023
The biggest problem is that had the domestic workers been associated or registered with any social security system, we could have interfered very easily, and could have pressurised the government to announce a relief package to reach them.
First our policy would deal with roti, kapda, makaan – ie food, cloth and shelter – three things that are critical to lead a better life. Slowly it (shelter) has been put on the side and discarded... We've seen this very closely, across the three phases, that from the state there is neither thought nor intention to act on this. They don't even want to see what is happening on ground (related to housing). Then we saw that there was not much talk around rent, not even by the state…
One thing is evident. While assuming its role as a welfare state trying to provision relief for various things, the state overlooked housing as a critical need during the pandemic – one that pushed informal workers into deeper precarity, forcing them to make difficult choices between nutrition, education, health and housing.
These are choices that no one should have to make.
Further, the state’s position on rental housing to offset costs from tenants to landlords without offering any relief or support to the latter also failed vulnerable landlords and homeowners who relied on rental income to run their households.
Shelter and rental housing seemed to be completely outside the purview of the state during the pandemic and its lockdowns, and ended up pushing tenants into rental dues, and landlords into difficult financial positions, while each group also grappled with the health emergency that the pandemic was.
Imagining rent as a component of social protection and relief
The universal need for secure shelter, and the debilitating and transversal effects of insecure housing during a crisis strongly emphasise that shelter needs to be a basic tenet of social protection coverage. Given that the most vulnerable and poor population of our cities rely on rent as a means to secure shelter, social protection programmes should have frameworks to specifically capture and address rental housing.
The informal and unregulated nature of the low-income rental housing in urban India makes it challenging for a single solution to be devised and deployed. How then, should a social protection programme addressing rental housing be created?
To design a social protection and relief intervention for rent, three things are critical:
- The size and form of the entitlement
- Identification of beneficiaries, and
- Modes of delivery and dissemination.
The size and form of entitlement should include rent as well as expenses on utilities like electricity, water and sanitation. To assess this quantum, targeted surveys and studies should be conducted to capture rental housing typologies and the associated costs. While the rents might not be standard, their averages when compared with average income would suggest the portion of income that goes into rental housing.
In case of domestic workers in Jaipur, a study found that 53% of income was spent on rent and utilities combined. On the contrary, parameters for affordable housing set by the task force for affordable housing set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, India established that for housing to be considered affordable (PDF), no more than 30% of gross income should be spent on either rent or installments for purchase.
This means that at the very least, there is a shortfall of 25% of monthly income in paying rent. Such comparisons allow us to deduce what is the bare minimum and optimum size of rental support that social protection should provide.
Identification of beneficiaries would be tricky given the informal nature of the rental market. The first necessary step would be registration of migrant workers by their livelihood, and the database so created would also be useful in delivery. A sector-specific approach to identify beneficiaries geographically through their livelihoods would be more effective rather than creating one scheme for all sectors.
Employing other registers and markers of vulnerability like sectors of work, category as migrants and socio-economic situation would also be useful. Where geographical locators are difficult to deploy – as in the case of domestic workers live in rental housing all across cities rather than concentrated in pockets – self identification of beneficaries would prove useful.
Universalisation of rental support could be undertaken. A point of note is that most schemes in India rely on verification of beneficiaries through a proof of address of residence. A study of domestic worker rental housing in Jaipur indicates that tenants of rental housing often have no rental agreement, they also fail to have identification documents with local addresses of the states they work in.
Delinking verification with address proof, and accepting a wide range of documentation, especially those that do not necessitate having a local address, would be critical to provisioning meaningful rental support. Membership-based organisations, like the RMKU, become excellent ways to then identify as well as verify beneficiaries.
Rental support could be delivered by linking livelihood-based databases to bank accounts. Membership-based organisations and grassroots organisations could be once again deployed to ensure seamless linkage of bank accounts to the state databases. Waiving utility bills or providing subsidy to low-income rentals could be another way to lower the brunt of rent on tenants.
There is a need to consider rent as not just relief but a basic tenet in social protection frameworks, given the long-term effect of rental dues in economically impoverishing domestic workers; their tangential detrimental effects on education, economic social security nets, nutrition and mental health; and their impact on deepening vulnerability which in turn decreases the bargaining ability of a labourer.
The role of the state is undeniable in ensuring housing through financial support, policy design and forming multi-stakeholder platforms.
Thirdly, the complexity of the informal rental market should be captured in identification of beneficiary, entitlement as well as delivery mechanism for designing meaningful and effective social protection and relief.
And finally, given the integral and inseparable nature of housing in the lives of the labourer, rental housing may be tackled by sectors of work. The network and presence of trade unions should be utilised in the challenging aspect of identifying beneficiaries as well as delivery of rental relief.
Nidhi Sohane, senior associate, School of Human Development at Indian Institute for Human Settlements