https://www.bbc.com-(Image credit: Alamy)By Ayodele Johnson
How We Live
Landlords are biased against single women in Lagos’s notoriously crowded rental market. But there are ingenious ways to get around the problem.
When Idongesit Udoh first arrived in Nigeria’s biggest city to start her new job, her friends warned her that she would need to use a little trickery to find a flat. “They told me that I needed to find a man. A man who is either my uncle, cousin or friend, so that they can deal with the landlord or agent directly,” she says. “What they have to do is to put up a front like we are an item.”
Lagos’s property market is notoriously crowded, but it’s also patriarchal; in general landlords do not like renting to single women. So Udoh, a 36-year-old accounts manager at a consulting firm, had to use what’s known as a ‘covering’ – a man who pretends to be in a long-term relationship with a prospective tenant, deals with the landlord and makes the initial payments, then fades gradually away when everything is going smoothly.
“They make sure to keep up appearances for like a month, two months, three months, six months. Then when they are sure that they have sold the idea that they are always there, they can now make themselves scarce,” explains Udoh. “You can always claim that you people have broken up.”
It sounds like a lot of effort, but it’s a necessary pretence for single women who want to find their own place in a city already fraught with rental challenges. Yet despite the common perception that landlords and agents hold all the power, there are some signs of change. New tech start-ups have begun offering accommodation solutions that bypass more traditional rental structures – including the preference to do business with men. Some landlords are also becoming more pragmatic. This shift is taking time, however, meaning that for many women, a ‘covering’ is a vital ingredient in the search for property.
The singleton stigma
In Lagos, a fast-growing megacity with a population of about 20 million people, the housing crush has handed landlords an unbalanced level of power. Many charge tenants a year’s rent in advance, plus agents’ fees. And the sheer quantity of demand means that property owners can reject applicants who fail to meet their strict image of a reliable tenant.
Despite high-paying jobs, millennial women singletons tend to face repeated rejections. That’s because the landlords – mostly conservative baby boomers and Gen Xers – don’t believe women can sustain the rental payments. Many also think unmarried women should be living with their parents until they tie the knot. And if landlords do agree to rent a place, they prefer a manly influence to act as a middleman, even though the woman is paying for her apartment.
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Social worker Damilola Olushola is currently searching for a room close to her workplace, but the 32-year-old singleton is having difficulty. “I am planning to move out of Ikorodu [a coastal area] because of the traffic. It has not been easy. I have been trying to do that since last December. I was thinking before March I would have gotten a good [flat], but up until now, I am still searching,” she says.
Her current landlady is pressuring her because her contract expired in March – and normally renters have to pay for a full year if they want to stay longer, rather than paying month to month. In the circumstances, Olushola has had to upgrade her budget as she searches for a new place closer to work, but she’s finding that landlords are being very picky.
“Sometimes while you are on your way with the agent, they start giving you what the landlord wants. He does not want a single person. Or if the person is single, the person should have a fiancé. There are a lot of rules and regulations [that involve] not coming in late [at night].”
She hasn’t yet used a ‘covering’, but is starting to think that help from a male colleague might be what’s needed. “My line manager is trying to help me get an apartment. Maybe [the landlords] will respect the fact that it is a guy that is coming to help me look… I am just tired of that stress.”
In Udoh’s case, her ex-boyfriend pretended to be her husband so she could secure a place – but the move only provided temporary relief. The landlord found out about the scam a week later, refunded her money and evicted her, so she had to start looking again.
Maybe [the landlords] will respect the fact that it is a guy that is coming to help me look – Damilola Olushola
Tenants usually blame estate agents when things go wrong, but they cannot influence a landlord’s final decision. Ugonma Arhuere, an entrepreneur involved in real estate listings, says there is very little the agents can do to help women applicants. “Agents merely do the bidding of the homeowners, and have no legal authority to demand that these women get apartments,” she explains.
Some estate agents sympathise with the obstacles facing single women and welcome a ‘covering’ to front for the renter in negotiations with a landlord. The local market defines single women broadly, covering unmarried women (both young and old), single mothers, divorced women, widows and even married women with husbands living elsewhere – so many women find themselves struggling to rent.
The problem, explains Arhuere, is that homeowners feel that women will bring too much trouble, and some worry that single women living alone might be promiscuous and bring different men home. This points to a culture that needs to go away soon, or more women will continue living in frustration. But realtors speaking with one voice can help end the discrimination, she adds.
Of course, single men also face challenges renting property, because landlords view them as unreliable too.
“The truth is most places in Lagos are terrible, so it’s a very draining process with a lot of ‘no’ that you have to say,” says local news editor Samson Toromade. “I settled for my current apartment because it was the first decent one I’d seen from a pool of 10 options, not because it’s the best I could have got at the time. I just didn’t want to take the risk of losing it if I continued looking at other options.”
New options, more pragmatism?
Yet there are some signs of shifts that could make life easier for marginalised renters.
Tech start-ups that rent rooms by the month to workers have been making some inroads into the property market. One such is Spleet, which launched in 2017, and has now expanded beyond Nigeria into sub-Saharan Africa. It lists fully furnished properties on its website, and has no qualms about renting to women.
Vice-President of Growth Victor Ekwealor says that although background checks are uniform, women don’t face any additional checks. “It matters to consider female subscribers because most of them are not fairly treated and represented at other traditional real estate establishments,” he says. He says his organisation wants to offer women access to “great living solutions”, regardless of their marital status.
Daniella Ajala, a 33-year-old corporate strategy executive, listed a free bedroom in her apartment on Spleet, and has already hosted two women who moved to Nigeria from other countries for work. “I have been privileged to some degree as I haven’t had to look for properties myself in Lagos, but I have heard of many horror stories,” she says, adding that it is dreadful seeing women get turned down because they are single and female. Both women were super relieved to find somewhere to live, she says, and her room was occupied within weeks of listing it.
Yet options like Spleet don’t come cheap. Monthly rental rates range from $650 to $800 or upward, meaning it’s an unaffordable option for low-budget renters. And while several start-ups are testing the landscape, they cannot make up for the deficit in woman-friendly accommodation. Creating an adequate supply of housing for women is also an issue that has become more acute since the quarantine-linked rise in reports of domestic violence.
The government is investing in trains and ferries, connecting up cheaper areas with more rooms on the outskirts of Lagos in the hope of alleviating the overall rental crush, but this will take time. So for now, demand remains concentrated around overpriced business districts. That means traditional landlords who are willing to change their minds – or simply prioritise pragmatism – are the key to unlocking opportunities for singletons.
Olumide Johnson, 66, plans to rent his rooms out once the government fixes the road leading to his Lagos mainland multi-flat building. He is not too bothered about renting to singles; he only cares about the tenant’s capacity to pay promptly and reliably.
“The female renter must have a job and be able to pay,” he says, adding that decisions will be made based on the financial power of the woman involved and nothing else. “I can ask [the tenant] to make a statement that one year after her first rent, if she is unable to pay a month after expiration, I should go to the police station and get them to eject her.”
So perhaps things are changing, slowly. But in general, Nigerian society remains sceptical about renting to single women – and the shift may not be fast enough for Idongesit Udoh.
She’s been living in a small flat for three years, one she obtained without trickery. After the disastrous stint at her previous residence, she was lucky and managed to find a willing landlady. But she’s not entirely happy because the facilities there, such as electricity, are not being managed to her satisfaction. She’s pondering an escape to a new apartment – but the wounds from her last flat-hunt still feel fresh. “There are a lot of issues coming up with the light bill. But I am also thinking; am I going to go through this same drama when I try to get an apartment? Is it going to be the same cycle?” she says.
The chances are high that it will be, because the attitudes that cause her such trouble in the rental market will take time to break down. Udoh currently has two of her younger brothers living with her, and her landlady has asked if she can deal with them instead on formal rental matters – even though they are her dependents – because she thinks it’s more appropriate.
“It sounded very funny to me and quite outrageous, because I am the one paying the money. So, when it is time to make complaints or talk about the services that I am not getting for the money I pay, why is it a man that will sort it? I don’t understand.”