by Thu Hien
HA NOI — Tran Thi Lanh trudges down an alley in the dark to her one-room flat, her slippers squelching in the mud. It's cold and dark, no light spills out from the ramshackle houses lining the narrow alleyway.
|A boarding house for workers in Ha Noi. Substandard accommodation for low-paid workers is a major problem in the country, which the Government has promised to address.— VNS Photo Doan Tung
She takes off her slippers before going inside. When she lets herself into her room, she places her slippers next to a basin filled with vegetables.
"I will use the water from washing the vegetables to wash these," she says indicating her slippers. "We have to be careful not to waste water because the landlady can cut it off any time."
She then gets out a gas cooker, which she stows under her bed, and begins to prepare dinner.
The walls of the 10-sq.m room are stained and the air is musty. A cockroach scurry out from under the bed.
"Three of us do everything in this room: cook, eat and sleep. Nearly 30 workers in 11 rooms in this residential area share two toilets and bathrooms," she says.
Lanh pays VND350,000 (US$16.7) a month in rent from her VND3 million ($142.9) salary as a factory worker. "Sometimes, the landlady raises the rent without warning and the electricity and water are always being cut off.
"I have moved three times since I arrived in Ha Noi two years ago. I have been forced to give money to gangsters in the neighbourhood and was once sexually harassed by a landlord."
Lanh is among millions of low-income workers in the country living in substandard rental accommodation.
According to the Ministry of Construction, about 10,000 households have no permanent roof over their head, while 1.6 million households live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
Dr Nguyen Quang, Habitat Programme Manager for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), says an apartment in a major urban area, is far beyond the reach of most people. He said, an apartment in Ha Noi, for example, costs on average US$1,000-2,000 per square metre, while the average per capita annual income is US$2,000.
Pham Sy Liem, deputy chairman of the Viet Nam Federation of Civil Engineering Associations, says despite the shortage of affordable housing, many residential buildings lie empty.
In a bid to improve the situation, a pilot housing project for 500 low-income households was recently launched in Ha Noi.
Under the programme, a 36sq m apartment for four costs VND720,000 ($34) a month, affordable to even the lowliest civil servant on a salary of VND5 million ($238)
Lanh says: "The daily worry of rising rents, troublesome landlords and safety make life almost unbearable. I just long to get away."
The Government has just approved a housing development strategy till 2020 with the goal of providing 12.5 million sq m of social housing in urban areas.
Under the plan, cheap accommodation would be made available to 80 per cent of students and 70 per cent of workers at industrial parks.
Nguyen Manh Ha, director of the Construction Ministry's Administration and Real estate Market Department, says that in developed countries, rental accommodation makes up 80 per cent of all housing, while in Ha Noi and HCM City, it makes up just 11 per cent.
Meanwhile, Quang says: "If the State keeps investing and subsidising housing projects for low-income people, we have to ask, how long can the State afford to do it? And how will the State ensure that there is transparency in the process and that the accommodation is fairly distributed?
"However, if the Government encourages investors to build rental apartments and lets the housing market operate under its own rules, low-income people will find it difficult to get a cheap place to live."
He says that similar housing projects were launched in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India but they were run by community-based organisations and members of the public participated in the whole process.
He says community development funds should be used to provide housing loans to low-income communities, jointly managed by communities, local authorities and other stakeholders. The capital should come from central and local governments, financial institutions and charitable organisations, he says.
Liem agrees that the Government should set up a savings fund for low-income workers to buy or rent low-cost accommodation.
Meanwhile, in the gloomy light of the only lamp in the room, Lanh says: "I don't understand what the housing savings fund is but I hope it will help me – and other workers like me – get permanent rental accommodation so that I can marry my boyfriend, who also works at North Thang Long Industrial Park."
In the meantime, Lanh is quietly optimistic that things will get better. "While waiting for low-priced rental housing, I will keep saving money," she says, shivering. — VNS