Seng Socheat and Lat Savry got married over a year ago, and as the excitement of the wedding fades into a happy memory, their thoughts are now turning to the future – especially since the couple are now proud parents.
“At the moment, my number one wish is to have a house of my own,” says Socheat, 34, who sells motorbikes from the ground floor of his rented shop house in Phnom Penh.
But for this couple, like for so many other young professionals in Cambodia’s major cities, the housing boom, that has seen high-rise condominiums and high-end villas springing up almost overnight, is passing them by.
“The gap between my incomes and the cost needed to buy a house is huge. It’s hard to even to try and buy the most basic houses,” says Socheat.
Okhna Cheng Keng, Director of CPL Real Estate, one of Phnom Penh’s premier housing developers/agents sums up the problem:
“In Phnom Penh, there are around twenty thousand newlywed couples every year. But the supply of housing has mostly been in the form of expensive condominiums and such. I think that if investors start looking at the lower-middle income market segment, they will see a lot of demands there.”
In an interview earlier this month in the Phnom Penh Post, Dr. Peng Hong Socheat Khemro, Director General of the Housing Department at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, laid out government plans to start developing housing for “lower middle-income people, low-income people and vulnerable people.”
He said that before building begins the government would need to put in place the mechanisms and expertise to embark on such projects – and building was unlikely to being before 2017 to 2018 – with housing units not available for some time after that.
Experts agree that the private sector also has a role to play alongside the government in helping realize the goal of a more level playing field in the housing sector, which now is heavily tilted towards foreign investors and wealthy Cambodians.
“Currently, the majority of condominium projects under development are targeted at predominantly foreign investors with only a small minority of Cambodians able to afford such properties. Unlike in most developed countries, there is no social housing scheme in Cambodia, and there is a gap in the market for developers to focus on ‘affordable housing’ for the mass market,” says Ross Wheble, Country Manager for multinational property company Knight Frank.
Analysts say there are plenty of models around the world, good and bad, of what happens when the public and private sector try and work together on major initiatives like affordable housing.
One model that is consistently held up as a positive one is Singapore, the tiny island city state that has been one of the major success stories of the last half-century developing from a poor, resource-free nation to one of the world’s leading economic and financial centres.
“In no small part that is down to the government and private sectors working in coordination to deliver affordable and decent housing stock to the nation’s expanding population over the last 50 years – the HDB (Housing Development Board) flats have been such a success and have really helped anchor Singapore’s economic growth,” says Dato JohnnyOng, Group CEO of HLH Group Limited, a Singapore-listed property development group.
DatoOng says the group is taking a keen interest in opportunities in housing for Cambodia’s middle classes which, if done right, could be a sustainable and profitable business.
“Right now we consider middle-income Cambodians to be anyone with a household income between $600 and $1500 per month. We are confident that there is a way of providing dignified and decent homes for that income group. It would be a long-term, capital investment that will not just make their lives richer and more stable, but will also contribute to the development of the country as a whole,” he says.