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Chung Maly lives in a rented shack and pays $10 per month
Chung Maly lives in a rented shack and pays $10 per month. Eli Meixler

Facing the choice between good and cheap

Amid a shortage of affordable housing, Phnom Penh renters are being forced to deal with cramped conditions, disease, rubbish, crime and lack of secure tenure

Keo Kemlee, 58, lives in a dilapidated concrete house in Meanchey district with her seven tenants. For $10 a month, her renters share a single room of about 64 square metres. All of them are garment workers, Kemlee said, and live in extreme frugality to maximise savings.

“They will even eat less so they have more money to send to their parents in their hometowns,” she said, adding that up to half their salaries go to remittances.

Although the house is in bad shape, Kemlee said she herself is too poor to offer much to her tenants. Apart from the rent, her family’s income comes from her husband’s meagre soldier’s salary and a small drink stall in front of her house.
“I have no money for anything to put in the house,” she said, adding that her own daughter will soon start work in garment factories after failing her grade 12 exams.

Phsar Doeum Thkov commune, Chamkarmon district
Phsar Doeum Thkov commune, Chamkarmon district. Eli Meixler

A new survey has revealed the extent of the deprivation faced by the ever-increasing population of poor urban renters as more rural Cambodians migrate to Phnom Penh. Options are bad, with living conditions abysmal and contracts virtually non-existent. The law is silent on the matter, with neither public housing nor renters’ rights provisions on the books. 

“There is no regulation of landlords telling them they can’t rent out the small shed in the back of their property, but there is also no available cheap housing in good condition,” said Honesty Pern, program manager adviser at urban advocacy NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which conducted the survey.

Although no solid statistics exist on the number of poor urban renters, a 2013 STT study determined 33,605 urban poor families, many of who rent, live in Phnom Penh. Its most recent study, which was unveiled on Thursday, focused exclusively on 124 renting households paying $60 a month or less – the study’s cutoff for low-rent – throughout 37 sites in the capital. Only 2 per cent of respondents have written contracts with landlords, and 34 per cent reported rent hikes without warning.

Heoun Makara, 21, said her landlord is free to increase her rent, currently $45 a month, whenever he wishes. The electricity bill, which is marked up by her landlord, is more than twice the city average.

Her rickety wooden house, a squat that sits on top of a marsh near the Royal University of Law and Economics, is a legal nonentity with no fixed terms to its rent. “They always increase the prices and costs, and if it gets more expensive, we will move to another place,” said Makara, who earns $90 a month working as a cleaner, outside her house on Tuesday night.

As 86 per cent of the sampled renters originally moved to Phnom Penh from outside the city, STT executive director Ee Sarom said the problem will continue to grow as urban migration continues.

“You can see day by day an increase of migrant workers to the city … and we can see migration mostly in the slum areas,” he said.

An Asian Development Bank study earlier this year estimated that at least 44 per cent of Cambodians will be concentrated in urban areas by 2030, up from around 30 per cent this year.

Keo Kemlee at her home in Meanchey district
Keo Kemlee at her home in Meanchey district. Eli Meixler

But low-cost housing is often built without land titles, Sarom added.

At her home in Phsar Doeum Thkov commune, Makara said her family’s future is uncertain, as rumours spread of an impending eviction at her slum. Despite poor conditions at the site, such as an abundance of mosquitoes and diarrhoea cases, she fears new problems if she moves.

“I am worried about leaving this place because I don’t know how to find the best, cheap place,” she said, adding that she would like to move closer to the mall where she works if she was able to find an inexpensive place nearby.

Chung Maly, 50, who lives in a rented shack near Makara’s slum, for which she pays $10 per month, said it would be hard to find somewhere else for the same price. “This place is cheap, but some places are $40 or $60 and I have no capacity for paying that,” said Maly, who makes a living selling fried bananas.

It is important to acknowledge, said Pern, that living in low-rent accommodation has advantages. In addition to financial savings, slum residents enjoy the ability to move house when they switch jobs. Proximity to work, she added, was among the most important considerations for poor urban renters when choosing a home – some people even choose to rent over owning land.

“We’ve found that the relocated families outside the city will abandon their relocation sites and come and rent much closer to the city for livelihood reasons,” she said, referring to the politically charged land seizures that have seen homeowners removed from their property and given land outside the city to settle.

To improve the plight of poor urban renters, Sarom said the government ought to update the National Housing Policy to enforce renter agreements. Minimum standards of housing, such as fixed rental and service fees and sanitary living conditions, should also be introduced into law.

Keo Kemlee outside the house she rents out
Keo Kemlee outside the house she rents out. Eli Meixler

“We should push more on the local authorities to make sure the renters are having their rights in the city, and [city government] should understand that this would benefit the city,” he said, adding that he also favours the introduction of low-cost public housing.

Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said that while the government aims to help poor renters, it is limited in what it can do.

“Since we live in a democratic country, we never make decisions for renters or landlords because they are the decision-makers,” he said.

At her Chamkarmon shack, Maly dismissed her poor living conditions. Crime was high, but she said she was too poor to be a target, and while rubbish filled the street, she said the city waste collectors’ visits of every three days were enough.

“The environment is okay for me here – it’s cheap,” she said.

What is a ‘slum’?

UN-Habitat, which is responsible for the UN’s urban development programs, defines a “slum household” as an urban home that lacks at least one of five conditions: structural durability, sufficient living space (with not more than three people sharing the same room), sufficient access to safe water, adequate sanitation and security of tenure.

Given the UN’s broad definition, the degree of deprivation varies considerably, ranging from a well-maintained house lacking a proper rental agreement to a cramped bamboo shed with 20 people sharing a single toilet. As the term is used to describe individual households, labelling a whole neighbourhood a slum is more subjective – a “significant” number of homes must meet slum conditions, according to UN-Habitat.



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