As urbanisation proceeds in Phnom Penh, experts worry that the housing needs of the city’s poorest residents are being ignored in the development plan
UN-Habitat program manager Din Somethearith says the urban poor need to be considered in Phnom Penh’s development plan.
This 17.5-square-metre house designed by the UPDF costs just $575 in building materials.
Housing advocates are urging the government to make a long-term political commitment to low-cost housing and develop a comprehensive plan to house Phnom Penh's rapidly growing population.
In most need of support are the urban poor who need to live in central locations if they are to make an income, said Din Somethearith, program manager for UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlement Program.
"They work at markets and street-food vendors and they cannot afford living too far outside of the city centre," he said, adding that these are the same areas where land prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
Din Somethearith said the government needed to develop a comprehensive urban plan for Phnom Penh with guidelines for low-income housing to accommodate urban growth. According to UN projections, the population of Phnom Penh will swell by around one million people to nearly 2.5 million by 2020.
French-chartered architect, urbanist and architecture historian Helen Grant Ross, who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1997, said the dense shop-house developments currently cropping up in the capital were not the answer.
"It seems that this is the only kind of low-cost housing being produced at present, and it is too expensive for the poor, who are forced out of town more and more."
Even for those who could afford them, the developments did not appear to be part of a citywide plan, lacking public facilities such as schools, health centres, public space, green space and infrastructure.
The government needed to take responsibility for guiding developers and ensuring housing for the poor, Grant Ross said, although she was not hopeful it would happen.
"Providing housing for a population where demography has one of the highest birth rates in the world, and where the rural population is continually seeking to move to the towns, is challenging in any country," she said.
"It requires political commitment and long-term planning. In one that has such a high record of nepotism and corruption as Cambodia's where there doesn't seem to be any public commitment to this issue, it's true that the only solution is private initiative.
"[But], if a miracle happened and there was a public commitment to providing housing for the urban poor who live on less than a $1 dollar a day, the most important thing is to provide the basic infrastructure, such as drains, water supply and electricity."
important thing is to
provide the basic infrastructure.
Phnom Penh Municipality has taken its first steps towards developing a comprehensive plan for the city, and the so-called Master Plan of Phnom Penh by 2020 document does pay consideration to urban housing.
It talks of the need for a larger private rental market with affordable housing and of a need to upgrade the many informal settlements that still can be found around the city.
Many of these ideas have found support among local and international housing advocates who say that they are willing to work with the municipal government and other relevant government bodies.
But the 2020 Master Plan is still languishing at the Council of Ministers, where it has been awaiting approval for more than a year.
In the meantime, a number of NGOs and the Urban Poor Development Fund (UPDF), which was established in 1998 as a joint venture between the Solidarity and Urban Poor Federation (SUPF) and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), have provided a variety of solutions.
UPDF has from the beginning been chaired by Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun, who is in charge of poverty reduction in the municipality. It helps communities that have been evicted from their homes and relocated to other areas, as well as families still living in informal settlements in the city centre, by giving housing loan and providing grants and technical support for settlement upgrades.
According to UPDF communication officer and architect Sok Visal, more than 14,000 families in Phnom Penh have received loans and grants, and 123 communities have been assisted through initiatives including new walkways, drains, wells and the building of community centres.
At its 10th anniversary last year, UPDF prepared an exhibition of low-income houses that it said would cost between $500 and $2,000 to build. "The types were based on typical Khmer traditions such as wooden houses on stilts," Sok Visal said.
Empowering people and communities through schemes such as this would also encourage people to make improvements in their own lives, he added. "This is a way for the people to improve their own houses and share knowledge about building techniques."
Consideration for the poor in urban planning is not without precedent in Cambodia. As Grant Ross documented in her book Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, which she co-authored with Darryl Collins, Norodom Sihanouk presided over a period of great experimentation in mass housing development.
During the period, housing was systematically incorporated into university, health and industrial developments, including the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian-Russian Friendship hospital and the SKD Brewery.
The National Bank of Cambodia built housing for its staff in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh and also developed what became known as the 100 Houses development. It was an experiment in private ownership for low income groups and was designed by renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.
"Between 1953 and 1970 the population of Phnom Penh tripled yet there was adequate housing for all," Grant Ross said. "Private investment was also encouraged as Phnom Penh Municipality developed land with roads, drainage water and electricity, and sold plots to private developers.
"The latter had to use the plans provided by the municipality that ensured a certain standard of construction and hygiene. Hence the whole of Phnom Penh west of Monivong was developed."
Meas Sokheng, an architect at housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said a similar approach could be used today.
"[Houses] could be built in cooperation with the private sector, if there was a clear policy that when they develop, a certain number of apartments should be [set aside] for low-income people," he said.
He added that the government or municipality could also build houses for poor people, with buyers paying the money back in monthly rates or on a lease-to-buy basis.
However, Din Somethearith from UN-Habitat said the city should concentrate on improving the many informal settlements around the city and only build new developments where necessary to accommodate the growing population.
"Rich countries like Singapore or Taiwan can build social housing for the urban poor," he said. "But poor countries cannot only rely on this."
He referred to Thailand as the best regional example of how the two approaches could be combined.
The country has both a National Housing Authority, which builds low-rent houses in the big cities, and the government also runs an upgrade scheme in cooperation with the Community Organizations Development Institute in which communities in city-networks can apply for grants and loans to build according to their own needs and desires.
"The poor cannot catch up with the market," Din Somethearith said.
"That is why we need a social housing scheme to have some places for the poor to live."