Any Egyptian familiar with the frustrations of apartment hunting will likely still be haunted by a three-word phrase they will undoubtedly have come across during their search: “for foreigners only.”
Despite the fact that most landlords and property owners are Egyptian, the real estate market seems to be flooded with “luxuriously furnished” apartments exclusively earmarked for affluent Western–and, during the summer, Arab–foreigners. Egyptians, along with foreigners of lesser means or from less-privileged nationalities, are left to take their pick from a far more restricted selection of dubious listings in low-income neighborhoods.
Adding salt to this self-inflicted wound is the fact that most of the listings calling out to foreigners are written by landlords who apparently can’t even spell the word. Cairo’s Craig’s List apartment page is crawling with the likes of “Alex,” who claims he has a “luxrously furtured bethouse” for “forginars” that even comes with its own “watching mashin.”
Thirty-six-years-old and recently divorced, Lamia has been looking for a place where she can settle with her five-year-old son Omar, having recently arrived in Egypt after years abroad. So far, her search has not been going well.
“There are certain neighborhoods I want to live in,” Lamia says. “Not just for my own comfort, but mainly for my son. I want him to go to a good school, but I don’t want him to have to sit in traffic for six hours a day just to get there and back.”
Like most people, Lamia would like to live somewhere quiet and with relatively clean streets, and convenient access to reliable services. Having no desire to move to a compound (“too remote,” she says), Lamia’s search has focused on the city itself where, according to her, the “best” properties–or those most suited to her needs–seem to be reserved for prospective expats.
With clear exasperation, Lamia recalls one particular incident where she was shown an apartment that would have been “ideal” for her needs. Her hopes were dashed when the owner actually arrived. “We had spoken briefly over the phone. My Arabic isn’t great, so maybe he assumed I was a foreigner.” Either way, and despite arriving prepared with a contract in hand, the owner turned Lamia away immediately upon finding out she was fully Egyptian.
“I was told to expect to have a hard time because people here would be reluctant to rent out their flat to a single woman, but I really don’t think that’s the case,” Lamia frowns. “There are tons of single foreign women here living alone. I know two myself, and they don’t even have children,” she says. “The girls that come here to study at AUC, for example. They either live alone or with other girls and they’re young and constantly have parties and people over.”
“It’s frustrating,” she sighs. “I have the money but, apparently, that’s not good enough. I don’t even know how this is legal.”
“It isn’t legal,” says Ahmed Alsiyed, a realtor based in the downtown and Garden City areas, who explains that such discrimination is not according to Egyptian law.
“But the police do tend to get suspicious when an Egyptian rents out an expensive apartment downtown,” Alsiyed adds. “Their logic is, ‘if this person has money, why are they renting an apartment downtown, where all the embassies and government buildings are? Why not go out somewhere new and fancy like a compound in Kattameya?’ Some landlords worry for the same reason, or they worry about unwanted police attention.”
As the founder and owner of Egy-American Real Estate, Alsiyed deals with expats and Egyptians alike, and is fully aware that, as far as property owners are concerned, Egyptians are not exactly the most desired clientele. “It’s completely ridiculous,” he says. “People here have many misconceptions about foreigners. Landlords automatically assume that foreigners will take better care of their properties, just because they’re foreigners. From experience, I can tell you that’s not necessarily true.”
Alsiyed says most Western foreigners, especially younger ones, will rent out apartments for shorter periods of time, and with more housemates. “They generally don’t consider the property as a ‘home’, the way most local occupants would.”
There’s also the issue of culture clashes, which Alsiyed says come back to bite discriminating landlords. “I’ve witnessed a lot of arguments and altercations, stemming from what a foreign occupant might perceive as an invasion of their privacy, or a violation of their basic rights and freedoms. A foreign tenant might not understand or tolerate their landlord’s prohibition of overnight visitors, for example, whereas an Egyptian would probably expect it, even if they’re not happy about it.”
“There’s also a misconception about them being more punctual with the rent, which, I can tell you isn’t true,” Alsiyed vents. “I have a Czech girl staying in one of my apartments and she’s three months behind with her rent.” According to him, she’s not the only one.
Although Alsiyed, like the majority of the real estate agents approached by Al-Masry Al-Youm, is quick to claim that greed is not a motive (“the price of rent depends on location, features and furnishings, not client” was the somewhat flimsy explanation), money still plays a big role.
“There is definitely an assumption that Egyptians might be more reluctant to pay rent,” nods Yuri Vasilchemko, a real estate agent and marketing director at Masr International Real Estate. “For a lot of landlords here, foreigners are generally easier to deal with. They have no ability to start trouble, or the power to get out of it, so they don’t even risk it.”
As an American working in Egyptian real estate, Vasilchemko sees the situation from all angles. “Landlords expect that Arabs [from the Gulf] will trash their apartments. They expect that they’ll behave inappropriately and constantly have prostitutes over and cause trouble,” says Vasilchemko, adding that, based on his experiences, these concerns are for the most part valid, especially during the summer season.
“[Landlords] want to protect their apartments. If the property gets destroyed or raided by the police, it’s simply not worth it. Pimps and prostitutes and that kind of mess, landlords want to avoid all that and, for the sake of their reputation, so do real estate agencies.”
Egyptians hold a different, but equally negative, reputation in the eyes of some landlords.
“Egyptians are trouble,” says a middle-aged Egyptian landlord who asked to remain unnamed. Angrily recalling the problems he faced at the hands of his first and last Egyptian tenants some 11 years ago, he remains adamant in his position. “When you rent a place to an Egyptian, they’ll think they own it. They’ll make changes, act however they see fit, and maybe even stop paying rent. If you try to get them to leave, they’ll just say ‘I have rights, I’ll see you in court.’ You know what courts here are like. It could take years to get something like that settled.”
“[Renting to foreigners] might be wrong, but it’s the smart thing to do,” he asserts. “It saves you a lot of hassle and headaches.”
This argument, however, doesn’t convince all.
“This problem wouldn’t exist if we had some kind of system that controlled real estate practices, if they adhered to specific rules,” says Alsiyed. “But, of course, there isn’t. There’s no good reason at all [for the present situation],” he says, highlighting what could be the most worrying aspect of the whole issue.
“Is it racism? Absolutely,” says Ahmed. “Only we’re discriminating against ourselves.”
EGY-AMERICAN REAL ESTATE
Ahmed Alsiyed – 0123623366
MASR INTERNATIONAL REAL ESTATE
Yuri Vasilchemko – 0126614404