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Building homes for underserved communities

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The two-story stilt “Framework House” measure a total of 80 square metres and costs just $2500 to build. Photo Supplied

Building homes for underserved communities

Despite recent announcements of large development projects throughout Cambodia focusing on so-called “affordable housing” for the emerging middle class, there remains a massive gap in the market for quality affordable housing for the poor; especially the urban poor as more rural Cambodians flock to cities in search of work. As land prices continue to skyrocket in Cambodia’s commercial centres, those in need of lower-class housing are effectively pushed further and further from worthwhile economic opportunities.

Two NGO’s are currently seeking to close this gap, and have discovered a common theme: the need for co-operation and a culture of constructive dialogue between the private and public sector, and NGOs.

Habitat for Humanity International is present in 70 countries worldwide, seeking to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world.

As Kif Nguyen, national director of Habitat for Humanity Cambodia stresses, “research shows that about 2 million houses in Cambodia do not meet minimum quality standards when it comes to design, durability, access to water/sanitation but also land tenure. Sub-standard housing is one of the key bottlenecks to inclusive, sustainable development across the nation – because poor housing in not only the consequence of poverty, but also a critical root cause.”

Furthermore, says Nguyen, “by 2030, according to the National Housing Policy, Cambodia will need 1.1 million more houses to fulfill demand, and the vast majority of this demand will come from the lower-class particularly in urban areas.”

Meanwhile, Building Trust International, a UK registered NGO, offers building design assistance to communities and individuals in need. David Cole, CEO of Building Trust International which has offices in Cambodia, believes that “housing can be a tool to inspire family [and] community investment in areas long after the initial projects are complete - through incremental housing design; and in the formation of jobs and training.”

In Cambodia, both of these NGOs provide support for sustainable housing solutions that can meet the needs of the growing urban and rural poor. They also promote transformational community development through financing low income home loans, and encouraging support for their projects from both the private and public sector.

A recent project in which Habitat and Building Trust has collaborated on in Cambodia is the design and implementation of the “Framework House” project, a highly sustainable, affordable house built from local bamboo and wood, costing the end buyer just $2,500.

Cheap, but highly innovative, these homes are specifically designed for Cambodia. Shutters help encourage air flow and passive ventilation throughout the house while large, overhanging roofs allow for water catchment.

The design and testing phase for the Framework House is complete, and the two organizations are now turning towards the next phase: higher-density multi-storey social housing design for urban areas. However, to make these projects succeed on a large scale, both organizations understand that assistance from the public and private sector is crucial.

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The “Framework House” comes equipped with a solar panel that provides electricity for lights and a water pump. Photo supplied

According to Nguyen, the government has already provided assistance and has shown some general willingness to further the collaboration into a larger scale. For instance, in Battambang, Habitat worked with the local Government to facilitate secure land tenure to families who have lived precariously on a large swath of public state land for many years.

While the process of gaining secure land tenure is just the first step for sustainable housing development, Nguyen lamented that “it wasn’t easy. But, it can be done.” After each family receives a land certificate, Habitat then assists with the on-site development of homes and infrastructure projects such as roads and drainage systems.

“Provision or subsidies of land is the key. We have the technical solutions – we can build affordable homes of high quality, as Habitat has done around the world, but as land prices soar in urban areas, we need support from the public and private sector in gaining access to land in adequate locations and at prices which won’t exclude the low income earners from the market,” added Nguyen.

Through “Land Sharing” initiatives in which the three sectors genuinely co-operate, Nguyen firmly believes all Cambodian’s could achieve a decent standard of living. “The NGO sector has the knowledge of social housing and technical ability to design these projects; the private sector has the money; and the Government may facilitate access to land. If we create a culture of co-operation and constructive dialogue between these three sectors, we can change the status quo – and everyone can win.”

Market Development is also another string on Habitat’s bow in Cambodia, as the organization supports low-income families in gaining access to home loan finance.

“We helped 6000 families’ access home loans last year alone, but with increased support from the government, we have the potential to bring home financing to the masses. It is a viable market, and the largest share by far – but it requires more understanding and education throughout the lower-class and within the micro-financing industry,” he said.

“In Cambodia’s three main urban centers, namely Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap, existing communities will need a portion of subsidized land for low cost housing or else today’s baby boomers will be priced out of the highly inflated, speculative land prices - which is increasingly what we are seeing,” says Cole. Currently, the rapid urbanization being seen in the city suburbs are pushing organizations like Habitat to look as far afield as Oudong when seeking affordable land to house families in need.

“Whilst it is good to hear that people are talking about investment in affordable housing without government subsidies, says Cole, “the cost of units in these projects will still exclude many key workers and service professionals, or indeed lead to unsustainable debts and the social problems that follow.”

“If real affordable housing of a good quality is to be achieved in urban centers such as Phnom Penh, we believe that the government must either provide land at a subsidized rate for building, or allocate land and build municipal housing with the support of organizations like Building Trust and Habitat - with fixed rents being paid to the government to recoup costs, maintain and build further projects,” confirms Cole.

If the government makes this a priority, says Cole, “this will set the bar for foreign investment firms and public/private partnerships.” James Whitehead, Realestate.com.kh


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