x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

29 days later

Dubai's campaign to prevent crowded villas forced more people into an overheated rentals market. Jen Gerson follows one woman who had to knock on a lot of doors.

Sophie Martin sits with her belongings for a portrait in the garage of her old apartment in Arabian Ranches.
Sophie Martin sits with her belongings for a portrait in the garage of her old apartment in Arabian Ranches.

Between the ground floor and penthouse in one of the box-like rows of sand-coloured blocks of flats behind Mall of the Emirates, Sophie Martin was trapped. "It was a one-bedroom place behind the mall but the landlord said every now and again his house needs maintenance, so he wanted to be able to come around and sleep on the sofa bed," she recalls.

"And he wanted to be my friend." The financial adviser from South Africa leans back in her chair, eyes wide in remembered disbelief. She refused. She had heard stories about men dangling all sorts of lures at young women in search of Dubai's most valuable commodity - a decent flat for rent. "I said: 'Oh yeah, I'll call you. I just have to look at other places. This is the first place I've seen.'

"But then he stated that this was the best place for me and how we were going to be such good friends. And then you realise you've gone off by yourself, you're on the 34th floor in some shady tower behind the Mall of the Emirates and no one knows [where you are]." This was week three of Martin's flat hunt. The ordeal began last month with the discovery of a dodgy landlord and was then exacerbated by Dubai's one-family-per-villa rule, which forced hundreds of professionals to seek new homes, straining an already-exhausted property market. Martin faced an all-too-common challenge for the young and ambitious in Dubai: despite good salaries and better opportunities than back at home, the city has few affordable places to live.

Dubai's villa campaign began earlier this year as families and bachelors sharing villas in the poorer areas of Al Rashidiya were asked to moved out. The municipality has since said the rule applies across Dubai, and in September, it began serving notice to villa dwellers in Jumeirah, Umm Suquiem and Al Wasl, advising them to leave within a month. If the residents and landlords do not comply, they face Dh50,000 fines and having the electricity and water shut off.

The municipality has not announced which districts will be served notice next, and many of the villa dwellers who were told to leave have simply ignored the warnings. It is a tactic that appears to have been successful in the weeks after the deadline, as the municipality has not released any numbers to say how many people, if any, have been evicted or had their power disconnected. (Abu Dhabi Municipality said it had no intention of instituting such a rule, as it is still in the process of enforcing legislation banning illegal partitioning and extensions of multiple- family residences.)

Dubai's campaign was intended to stop overcrowding, particularly among the villas that are home to bachelors stacked like flapjacks in insanitary and unsafe conditions. "These villas have rooms and additional walls that have been built without permission," said Omar Abdul Rahman, head of the municipality's building inspection section. "They are using bad materials and are not regulated. That is why we're telling people to go. The design of the villa has been for one family so there's no proper partitioning of kitchens and bathrooms."

In August a villa in Deira containing as many as 500 bachelors caught fire, killing 11 Indian men and one Bangladeshi, and injuring dozens more. Although the new rule was designed to prevent such tragedies, it has also affected middle-class families whose incomes would never afford a full villa in Dubai. Many in Jumeirah and Al Barsha are also like Martin: single and well-paid young professionals sharing villas while paying rates that compare with some of the highest in the world for decent homes.

For Martin, the fallout of this housing crunch found her facing eviction last month. She was sharing a villa in the Arabian Ranches, a wealthy suburb yet to be hit by eviction warnings from the municipality. It was a large, three-bedroom house with a maid's room and a garden. She lived in a bedroom with a terrace and shared the villa with an older couple, two other young men and a small white dog called Rani.

The couple had sublet the house from a man called Vic who charmed them with drinks and tales of his multiple property portfolios. Nine months after their little family had moved in, the couple received a knock at the door. It was the real owner of the house. "Where's Vic?" he asked. Vic, now disappeared, had been given money for the house from his employer and increased the rent for the couple who then sublet the bedrooms to pay for the place. Martin was unknowingly subletting from a pair of subletters who had rented the house from a man who had lied and said he owned the place but was, in fact, himself another subletter. When the real owners realised what had happened, Dubai Municipality had announced its one-family-per-villa rule and the whole arrangement became illegal twice over.

"It left us all wondering how legal is a document here. How solid is it?" she says. As Martin had sublet her room, she had no formal arrangement with the couple. However, even if her situation had been legal, she says she would avoid going through the Dubai Rent Committee, which oversees rental caps and wrongful evictions. "We can drag people through the courts, but then your legal fees are higher than any damages you'd get back and there are loads of sharks here. Many people sublet, I think that's the norm. If you have a bit of money you put the rent up and then you live for free.

"But it's all illegal so that means if you are burnt, it will never stand up in court." The couple she had sublet from had adhered to the common practice of paying a year's rent upfront. They were evicted three months before their year was finished and still do not know whether they will receive the balance of their rent back. Which left Martin and her flatmates out of luck, evicted and with 30 days to find a new home in one of the most overheated property markets in the world.

Despite her bad luck at the Ranches, Martin still hoped for a flat in a villa. "I like having the garden and being outdoors. I don't like living in such close proximity to people in a high-rise. It's bad enough doing that at the office but to do it when I get home, I don't like it. It's not homey to me. That sort of high-rise living is work," she says. Price was also a factor. "Another thing I have against apartments is that because they're trendier, they cost Dh6,000 to Dh7,000 [per month]. That was the middle range, not even the upper end. So you're paying 7,000 to be in a pokey apartment. And it's also a lot more intense living with someone you don't know in an apartment. You have to get on."

Martin began her search online and in four weeks saw about 10 places. She finally resorted to photo-copying her own "flat wanted" adverts and knocking on doors. Martin knew the search would be exasperating. The one-family-per-villa rule was having a double pull on the market: not only was she competing with hundreds of other evicted people for places to live, but also the number of places had diminished. Fewer villa owners were willing to let their rooms, fearing a municipality clampdown. Even those who had places available outside the targeted areas were nervous, she says.

Martin had heard the horror stories of flat rentals from her friends. She knew she was not going to have an easy time. Although she is well-paid, a one-bedroom apartment would be likely out of her league. The average price for a room in a villa cost Dh5,000 a month. Places could be found for less than that, but, as Martin says, "forget about it". Cheaper rooms often had the smell of stale dust and mould and were situated in crowded neighbourhoods such as Karama. Several of the places she looked at were not advertised, and the number of places available through websites seemed to have decreased compared to last year.

"I would have gone to Jumeirah because that's a great location," she says, but there was nothing advertised there. By the second week, Martin began looking at flats in the Dubai Marina, fast becoming a catch-basin for a stream of young professional expatriates. "But, especially at Jumeirah Beach Residences, you never know what state it's in. Those are young professionals going nuts, getting wasted, having parties. You just never know what sort of people," she says.

She also looked in the Gardens behind Ibn Battuta Mall. A man there was willing to rent her a one-bedroom flat. But he said he was doing a Master's degree in the US next year and would need to use the sitting room as a crash pad. "It didn't seem right," she says. "There are lots of desperate guys looking for a girlfriend rather than a roommate in these places." Although desperate young bachelors using apartments as bait no longer surprised Martin, some had more noble intentions: they simply wanted to reduce the rent. Later in the week, Martin met a man who was advertising to split an ensuite room in Al Barsha. He was paying Dh6,000 a month.

"He's an educated guy who works in property and does insurance on the side, but he said he didn't want to spend that much on an apartment. That's the extent of the rental problem in Dubai, young professionals are willing to share their room with a complete stranger and to take that risk with all of their stuff. If you had the money, you wouldn't do it. But here, it's just too expensive." By the third week, desperation was setting in. Martin had to get out. The internet wasn't providing any leads in her price range and an attempt to find a shared flat on a group on Facebook devoted to the cause had yielded nothing. Martin was spending most of her work day on classified websites and most of her evenings travelling between two and three places against the Dubai traffic.

"It starts to affect your work because every night after work you're going out and you can't help looking at [the website] Dubizzle during the day, thinking: where am I going to live? What am I going to do? Then you go to look at these places and it's such a let down because of some of the weirdos you meet. It affects your state of mind," she says. "It's a nightmare." This is how Martin found herself on the 34th floor of the apartment block behind the Mall of the Emirates with the insistent man who saw her as both a tenant and a "new friend". She had told no one where she was, or what time she might return.

"He was a lawyer and when I explained to him that it was not really good for networking to live by myself, with him on the sofa bed whenever he feels like it and that I'd rather live in a villa, he tried to convince me by saying that shared villas are illegal throughout the city." Martin left that flat and never called back. Within a few days of her eviction date, she found a large room in a villa, although she will not say where, as she does not know whether the area she lives in will become the next target of the municipality's campaign.

She found it by making dozens of photo-copies of an advertisement looking for a place to live. After forgetting where she parked her car, it took two hours to the pamphlets by hand to every home in her chosen neighbourhood. "By morning, I had a call," she says. Twenty nine days after she had been served her notice, Martin still risks eviction in her new villa. She and the remaining single professionals sharing villas in Dubai are left to hope for the best.

Be aware When you find a place through the newspaper, you will reach a property agent. He represents the owner, who must be Emirati unless you are looking for a freehold flat. You should not offer an agent money to see a place, nor should you expect an agent to get back to you if you leave your contact details with him. Be wary Agents will also ask for a commission of 5 per cent of the first year's rent once the paperwork has been completed; they should not ask for more. In Dubai, informal month-by-month rentals are more common than in Abu Dhabi, and are often much less hassle, though they have fewer protections such as rent caps. In the capital, you will often be asked for a year's rent in advance. It is common for companies to provide the cheque for the year for their employee and then deduct a monthly amount from the salary.

Be prepared When viewing a flat, carry Dh2,000 with you as "key money", which can be used against the security deposit. If you find a reasonable place and have ensured that the agent does represent the owner, immediately offer the money and demand an offer letter. You can haggle with the agent over the price of the flat; however, if you leave his office without an offer letter, you can expect the place to be given to somebody else. Be firm It is not uncommon to be refused a flat because the owner or the agent says he wants a tenant of a particular race, income, profession or familial situation, but persistence may sway even the hardest of hearts.