India’s hostels for the upwardly mobile

Originally appeared in The Economist on February 23, 2017

If several hundred million Indians do migrate from the countryside to cities between now and 2050, as the UN expects, it will be a fiendishly busy few decades for Vivek Aher, who runs a low-cost hostel, one of five, on the outskirts of Pune, a well-off city three hours’ drive from Mumbai. A fair few of the new arrivals will have their first experience of urban living bunking in one of the hostels’ 1,350 beds. Should recent experience be anything to go by, most of the new arrivals will test Mr Aher’s patience by tacking posters on his hostel’s walls, or endlessly complaining about the Wi-Fi.

India has two main drags on economic growth. One is the difficulty of finding a job, especially in the places people live. The other is a chronic shortage of cheap housing. Aarusha Homes, Mr Aher’s employer, started in 2007 to help people seize economic opportunities far from home. Its rooms are basic and cheap. They include up to six beds, a bathroom for every three or four residents, some common areas and little else. Rent ranges between 3,500 and 10,000 rupees ($52-$149) a month including food.

Most of Aarusha’s tenants are young, many of them taking first steps into the middle-class as IT or business-processing outsourcing professionals. Paying up to six months’ deposit for a city flat is beyond their means, as is the down payment for a motorbike that would allow them to live far from their employer. Aarusha’s successful pitch is that its hostels are safer than slums or informal “guest houses”, especially for women. It now has 4,300 beds in 1,300 rooms spread out over 20 hostels in four cities. The typical tenant stays for six months. Satyanarayana Vejella, the firm’s co-founder, plans to raise another $10m to increase capacity by 12,000 beds in nearly 70 new hostels, all in the next two years. Operating-profit margins are in the mid-teens.

The chain’s backers include investment funds who seek social as well as financial returns. The latter would be improved if the chain dodged taxes by operating in the informal economy, like much of its competition, but it sticks to the formal side. The problems it faces are those confronted by any Hilton or Hyatt: finding properties big enough to offer over 100 beds is hard. Tenants have to be chased for payments. An attempt to cater to blue-collar workers at an even lower price didn’t work out. So Aarusha is reliant on the IT and outsourcing sectors, which are hiring less eagerly than before.

Aarusha can probably depend on continuing strong demand for a room from which to make sense of it all before people can get their own places. The hostels have something of a communal feel, and parents find them reassuring because residents put up with not being able to drink, smoke, or mingle with the opposite sex. Soon enough, they will have moved on, taking their aspirations and their posters with them.