Living in a compact space is just a part of university life, especially for students who come from the provinces to study in Phnom Penh. While the city keeps building an abundance of international-standard complexes, almost none of these are realistic choices for students, many of whom are being relegated to overcrowded, substandard accommodation.
Following the excitement of getting admitted to a university, students from the provinces must face the challenge of finding a place to live in the city. While universities like Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) offer dormitories, space is not guaranteed.
Knowing some of its students cannot afford to secure their own places, PUC rents a nearby two-storey building to its students.
The dormitory has four bedrooms and three bathrooms. The 12-square-metre bedroom is shared by four students, while the larger room holds five. Students live in very tight quarters and must sleep extremely close to one another.
Although 25 students live and sleep there, there are no actual beds on the premises – they sleep on the floor with sleeping mats. Makeshift closets are located along the corridors and suitcases are stacked nearly up to the ceiling. Even the living area is turned into a sleeping space at night in order to host an extra five students.
Unfortunately, this is the best option for many students. “Students who stay at the dormitory are poor or do not know who to stay with or cannot find a safe place to stay,” said Lao Dane, manager of the dormitory.
According to Lao they want to subsidize the school using the dormitory. Students now pay $12 for rent and $5 for water and electricity each month. However, some students who are unable to afford the rent do not have to pay.
Lao says that in order to apply to stay in the dormitory students must come from the provinces or from low-income families. However, there are special cases.
“One female student asked to stay at the dormitory [after] the relative she was staying with at-tempted to rape her, so we offered her a place at the dormitory and she stayed for four years,” said Lao, adding that while male students can stay at pagodas, female students may stay at their relatives’ homes if they do not rent their own places.
Because women face safety issues when renting their own places, the Harpswell Foundation, an American-based NGO, provides free accommodation to some female students in the city.
Ing Varony, senior manager of the foundation, says every year the organisation can only take around four students from each school, a maximum of 20 students.
Currently, the dormitory hosts 79 students, nearly all of whom come from the provinces, with four students sharing one room.
“When many students from the provinces do not have enough money and are afraid of living alone, we hope to provide accommodation for those who do not have a place to stay when they live alone,” said Ing.
While there is no shortage of housing in the city, many simply cannot afford it. Sar Pisey from Preah Sihanouk had no choice but to share a room with her friend for 18 months at a rate of $20 to $30 a month.
“I have spent more than three months to get used to the living in Phnom Penh, said Sar. “Actually, I did not feel like at home as I felt the accommodation here is too close to each other.”
Her school, Royal University of Phonm Penh, does provide an affordable dormitory for students from rural areas. Yet, Sar says only around 50 students out of a total number of 20,000 students are accommodated after successfully passing a series of screen tests.
Sar believed that other students needed this housing more than her, so she chose to find her own. The $10 monthly housing stipend provided by her school helped.
“Most of the allowance is given to female students as it is more important for them to rent a safe place compared to male students,” said Sar, who had a bad experience of being harassed by a group of gangsters on the way back home one evening. “I think that most of the landlords, though not all, focus on making profit, while some places are not safe enough for female students.”
Five months ago, Sar moved out to have a more independent life and rented a 16-square-metre room near her school for $50 a month, which is affordable for her as she has a part-time job.
“The room is too small for two people, but it is enough for me to stay alone,” said Sar.
However, students who have the ability to study and live abroad are much less likely to be targeted by local developers.
“Student housing in Cambodia, at this point, is very much low-end housing,” said the CEO of Huttons CPL Sharon Liew. “A lot of them who are living in student housing are from the provinces, so they won’t be able to afford proper student housing, as opposed to the student housing overseas.”
Her group – whose projects in Cambodia are mostly premium products including condominiums, office spaces or boreys – sells student housings overseas.
“Overseas countries like Malaysia attract a lot of students from neigbouring regions because the universities there are big and good,” said Liew.
Her group provides different ends of student housing in overseas markets, from a standard whole block of buildings with units that have a bed, cupboard and desk and a common area for cooking, to a premium apartment managed like a condominium.
Given the continuous construction of high-end condominiums in the city, the growing ability of affording premium housing is beyond a doubt. Nevertheless, Liew says students who can afford high-end student housing prefer to study overseas.
Liew adds that currently developers will not focus on local student housing, “unless there are changes in the university structure and more international universities are coming in, which I don’t foresee because I haven’t seen any so far.” This leaves local people to be the main players in the market.
According to Liew, local people have an interest in building student housing as they see there is a demand and it is easier and cheaper compared to building a general building because all the students need is a small place to stay. They are generally charged less than $50 per month, depending on the location.
“Unfortunately, what [the local landlords] overlook is that they do not maintain the spaces. It is very rundown,” said Liew. “The student housing is usually a room being sliced into small rooms. It is kind of like a jail cell.”
However, the government might be able to offer a solution. “Another factor that might help would be for the government to create a policy that pushes universities to have their own hostels and requires the students to stay at the hostels during their freshman year or so,” said Liew.
“However, the government at this point does not have such a plan,” said Liew. “The only way for students to do that is to help themselves.”