Nearly all of Phnom Penh’s impoverished housing renters lack formal leases with their landlords, a scheme that leaves them vulnerable to the whims of sometimes extortionate and abusive landlords, a newly released housing survey has found.
According to the survey, distributed on Wednesday, 98 per cent of thousands of impoverished renters – defined as residents paying $60 or less per month – endure constant threat of eviction and poor living conditions, while landlords cash in with impunity.
“As there is no law in Cambodia stating you cannot rent out your house, if you have a verbal agreement with someone, that is acceptable,” said Honesty Pern, program manager at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), the local NGO that conducted the survey.
The case of Bin Sarom, 44, is emblematic of the situation of impoverished renters.
Three months ago, Sarom requested the landlord of her shantytown rental unit reinstall a door that had fallen off its hinges, lower the exorbitant electricity fees to those actually reflected on the utility company’s bill and, most importantly, she requested a lease agreement.
When she was summarily kicked out of the one-room metal shack she shared with five family members, her only recourse was to beg her landlady’s forgiveness.
The STT survey identified 340 such urban poor “settlements” in Phnom Penh, almost 20 per cent fewer than in 2009 – a decline that coincided with higher rates of eviction and greater demand for urban land.
“This is due to the authorities looking into the economic possibility of the land that the settlements are on,” Pern said.
For evictees who knew the reason for their displacement, private development ranked highest.
“In Cambodia, the poor have very little land security,” said Vann Sophath, land reform coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “When they don’t have a land title, or even when they do, they live in fear of land grabs, because rich companies can do what they want with impunity.”
Even if their landlords are offered compensation, evicted renters typically seek new housing empty-handed, with no claims to company-funded relocation.
In addition to their precarious housing situation, without formalised or regulated renting standards, the city’s poorer apartment dwellers face nearly unlivable conditions in exchange for cheap rent.
Sarom and her family, now back in their apartment, pay $30 a month for a rickety room that contains only a wood pallet and a bare light bulb.
The 200 members of her settlement share a single flushing toilet. Trash collection is nonexistent.
“There’s no negotiation, there's no debate, everything is up to the landlady,” she said.