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October2007

The housing conundrum

- Dianna

Housing is the main problem for the 120 or so Newcomers, and also for some Aurovilians. There are just not enough houses, apartments or even keet huts available. Some Newcomers leave in frustration.

Bunty of the Housing Service explains the situation, or tries to, as it is complicated. “Since 2000, increasing numbers of people are joining Auroville, including many from the local area. Auroville has about 25 so-called ‘Newcomer houses,' where Newcomers can live for a period up to 18 months. But people continue to reside there after they have become Aurovilians. One reason is that there are not sufficient possibilities to build in Auroville; another reason is that quite a few of the new Aurovilians have very little or no money to contribute to a new house or apartment because they live off the maintenance they receive for their work in Auroville.”

Building more houses and apartments is the obvious answer, but over the last years large housing complexes have not got off the ground. For example, the construction of the Citadines Housing Project has been delayed by 2 years. Initially planned as a twin of the Creativity project, it has since moved to a location behind the Town Hall and its foundation stone has only just been laid. The Swayam housing project has been waiting almost three years to get building permission. Building permission for a plot of land behind the Madhuca community has also not been given. Building within the borders of existing communities is almost impossible, as its residents often object to the years of building activity next door. Meanwhile, the list of those needing a house is becoming longer and longer. Why are the permissions not being given? Bunty has no answer.

Are other possibilities available? Bunty grimaces and talks about the problem of renting houses. “Newcomers are often forced to rent a place. Some Aurovilians control two or more houses in Auroville. They may have got into this position in various ways: for example, by building an extension to their existing house, initially for personal use, but which is later rented out to recover the investment; or because of a change in a family situation – two people start to live together so that one house has become empty. Also sometimes the family unit breaks up and it is difficult to maintain the asset hence renting is seen as a solution. Some, of course, do it purely for commercial gain. The situations are often not clear-cut. But what is clear is that the Housing Service has no control. We estimate that about 60 houses are being ‘rented out'. Rents vary from Rs 3,000 to Rs 30,000 (!) a month. We have no problem that Newcomers contribute to the running costs; but we have a problem with the notion of rent as it is against the principles of Auroville. But so far, the community has not addressed the issue though everyone is aware of it.”

Is it possible to rent a house outside Auroville? “Yes,” says Bunty. “There are houses available in the surrounding villages and at rates much lower than those in Auroville. But here the Newcomers run into a potential problem with the Entry Service, for Newcomers are supposed to live in Auroville. It is a frustrating situation because it is already happening with some Aurovilians, so how can we ask Newcomers not to? Newcomers want to live in Auroville and not in the villages, but there is no choice.”

Yet, in Auroville quite a few houses stand empty. Bunty acknowledges the fact. “This is the sad state of affairs. Often we at the Housing Service are not informed that a house is not or is only half occupied. Some people who have virtually left Auroville keep control over ‘their' house in case they come back. We consider it the responsibility of the neighbours to inform us but this does not happen very often as people either don't want to be unpopular or are personally involved in the matter.” Some people, however, allow a house-sitter to take care of the house when they are out of station. Bunty explains, “Ideally, a caretaker contract is made between the parties together with the Housing Service on behalf of Auroville. This contract specifies how long a person can live in the house and details who is responsible for payment of bills for house tax, water and electricity, and the position of long-term ammas and gardeners. But there are quite a few people who bypass the Housing Service. They prefer to make their own arrangements instead. This trend is rather unfortunate.”

Years ago, the Funds and Assets Management Committee formulated a detailed Housing Policy which is regularly updated. “It is not implemented,” says Bunty, “at least not where it really matters.” Auroville suffers from a lack of authority to enforce its own rules. “We have no teeth,” says Bunty. “If a situation gets out of hand, the matter is often referred to the Secretary of the Foundation. But we have to solve our problems ourselves. We are trying to develop a collective, yet we all have the habits of individualistic development. It is no different from the rest of the world. This must change if we want to be different. We must change.”

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