Housing Asia's working masses

A billion people have swelled the urban population in the Asia-Pacific over three decades, and it is expected to grow by another billion by 2040. By next year, half of the region's population will live in cities. The Straits Times presents a new series highlighting Asian cities and ways to tackle pressing urban issues. In the first instalment, regional correspondent Tan Hui Yee looks at the migrant housing crunch.

A faint pong of rotting rice and vegetable peel hangs in the air as Mr Tran Van De enters the unpaved alley an hour's drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

With another building project completed, the 56-year-old construction worker has taken his wheelbarrow home. Until he finds more work, the mud-splattered cart will stay in the tiny, windowless rented room he shares with his son and colleague.

He tears open a sachet of instant coffee at the doorway to catch the fading light.

"This place is narrow and quite tiring to live in," the former rice farmer from southern An Giang province says. "It's not as nice as in my home town. But the jobs are here."

Hundreds of thousands of rural folk like Mr De crowd into cheap, grimy and sometimes unsafe dwellings when they head to cities in search of work.

Research concluded this year by the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities found that migrant worker households live in rooms averaging 18.1 sq m in floor area - about half the size of a two-room Housing Board flat.

VIETNAM A migrant family relaxing outside their room in the village. The rooms in urban lodgings for migrants tend to be cramped and squalid, giving communal spaces an added importance. Migrant worker Vo Thi Kim Phuong getting some air outside her wi
VIETNAM: Shabby rental housing in Binh Duong offers migrant tenants rooms without a view. The pitiful state of urban quarters for migrant workers has prompted the city to build open-plan, no-frills 30 sq m apartments for these workers. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

About 46 per cent of such households have just 6 to 12 sq m. While rents may hover at just 1 million dong (S$60) a month, migrants often risk being overcharged by landlords for water and electricity use.

The Vietnamese government, by its own standards, has failed to keep up with demand. While it earlier pledged to build 250,000 low-cost apartments for these workers by 2020, it had completed only 28 per cent by last November.

The same phenomenon is seen across Asian cities, where private developers for years chased high-end buyers. Newcomers not housed by their employers often face a stark choice: Live near their workplace in squalid settlements at the constant risk of eviction - or choose slightly more secure dwellings, but spend more time and money commuting. Most opt for the former, swelling the patches of squalor scattered across major cities like Jakarta, Bangkok, Delhi and Beijing.

According to United Nations' data, about a quarter of East Asia's urban population - or 252 million people - lived in slums in 2014.

Some of these shanty towns are hidden. In the Chinese capital Beijing, where a household registration system penalises migrants by tying access to social welfare benefits to one's home town, about one million people live in underground bunkers originally built to withstand nuclear blasts. Rent for these stuffy 1970s shelters, which come with power, running water and sewerage systems, is reportedly as low as US$20 (S$27) a month in a dormitory-style room.

CHINA: A woman getting a street-side haircut in a migrant village on the outskirts of Beijing, surrounded by the sleek campuses and condominiums of Beijing’s “Silicon Valley”. PHOTO: AFP

In June, Chinese radio reported the discovery of 400 people living in a dormitory directly underneath an upscale residential complex called Julong Gardens.

The fallout from poor living conditions is felt every year in Delhi, where the monsoon rains turn slums into breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the dengue virus. Stricken workers return home for cheaper medical treatment, delaying work on roads and bridges, and holding up factory production lines. Projects by the country's Public Works Department were hit by a 30 per cent drop in workers last September, The Indian Express reported.

Yet state demographers tend to leave migrants out of surveys, Mr Sebastian Boll, a United Nations Development Programme regional research specialist, tells The Straits Times. "Rural-to-urban migration needs to be considered as a fundamental element of national development strategy."

Vietnam's Binh Duong province is trying to do just that.

At over three times the size of Singapore, it is home to US$27 billion worth of foreign investment, an amount second only to that pumped into neighbouring Ho Chi Minh City. It hosts 28 industrial parks and zones that produce everything from shoes to milk to tissue paper.

In 2013, it offered 100 million dong apartments for sale to low-wage workers.

They were meant as an experiment, explains Mr Nguyen Hai, the chief architect of state-owned developer Becamex. His open-plan, no-frills 30 sq m apartments come with a mezzanine level and a double-volume living area that lets natural air flow freely through the compact space.

VIETNAM A migrant family relaxing outside their room in the village. The rooms in urban lodgings for migrants tend to be cramped and squalid, giving communal spaces an added importance. Migrant worker Vo Thi Kim Phuong getting some air outside her wi
VIETNAM: Chairs and tables put out by a coffee-shop owner in a housing estate in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam, where apartments are sold cheaply to low-wage and migrant workers. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Shops on the ground floor of the housing blocks - sold at market price to subsidise the cost of residential units above - give residents easy access to fresh coffee, groceries and other services.

The land for these apartments - always near Binh Duong's industrial parks to minimise workers' commuting time - is allocated to the developer for free on 70-year leases.

"It was a joyful day when we moved in," recalls 27-year-old Nguyen Dinh Khang, who was earning just 4.5 million dong a month as a mechanic when he bought his apartment. Like many of his contemporaries then cooped up in rented boarding houses, he had wondered if he could ever afford a home. "Many of my friends also bought these flats."

Not only were the homes snapped up, officials from other provinces - as well as Ho Chi Minh City - came knocking, to find out how Binh Duong did it. According to the Binh Duong government, 7,500 such homes have been built and sold, and the same number are under construction.

To deter speculation, buyers are allowed to sell their flats only after five years, and only to those in the same income group.

Binh Duong has reaped rewards on many levels, Mr Nguyen Thanh Tai, the director of Binh Duong's construction department, tells The Straits Times.

"It has helped to urbanise the province and develop infrastructure and services quickly," he says. "It has created a stable environment for investors by creating a stable labour force."

The province, which now hosts one million migrants, wants to attract 300,000 more workers by 2030. It hopes these housing estates will do the trick.

"It is not meant to earn money," Mr Hai of Becamex says. "The profit will come from people who live here and work here, and don't get sick and plan their future here. And from the investors who want to come."

A starter home to keep his dream alive

Mr Nguyen Dinh Khang with his mother and son in their low-cost flat in Binh Duong province. The 27-year-old mechanic paid 140 million dong (S$8,300) for the 30 sq m unit. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

It is dinner time in the Nguyen household. Mr Nguyen Dinh Khang and his wife bustle around a small stove, stirring a pot of soup and frying an omelette. They load their dishes onto a metal tray, before placing it on the tiled floor.

Living in a 30 sq m low-cost home in Vietnam's Binh Duong province requires space-saving arrangements. Cabinets are tucked under the stepladder and the TV console is suspended from the wall. Meals are eaten on the floor. After dinner, spills are carefully wiped away before a mattress is unfurled for bedtime.

The 27-year-old mechanic, who hails from a rice-farming family in the central province of Ha Tinh, went to college in Ho Chi Minh City, where the average sale price of condominiums from January to March grew 13 per cent over the same period last year, according to CBRE. He wondered if his dream of a good life was slipping away.

"My generation is just like the previous. We work very hard," he tells The Straits Times. "But we don't seem to get any rewards."

So when he heard that Binh Duong's state-run developer Becamex was selling cheap homes that were just a five-minute ride from his workplace, he booked a 140 million dong (S$8,300) fourth-storey unit immediately.

He was then making 4.5 million dong a month, and sharing a 20 sq m rental room with a colleague.

Mr Khang wed his wife shortly after moving into his new home in 2013. Their son Bon was born last year, and is now being cared for by Mr Khang's mother, who sleeps upstairs in the 10 sq m mezzanine area.

View from the mezzanine floor of the flat. Mr Khang and his wife are saving up to buy land in the province on which they will build a house and have space to grow vegetables. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

As the sun sets, the breezy long corridors come alive with chatter. The growing brood of young children flit from open doorway to doorway. Adults play badminton on the open-air court below or sip sweet, black local coffee while sitting on low stools at the neighbourhood cafe.

"At first, we didn't talk to one another," Mr Khang admits. "But when our kids talked to one another, we started too."

Mr Khang thinks his future is now tied to Binh Duong, though he does not plan on living in the apartment forever.

"My family will get bigger, and so we need more space," he says. He and his wife are saving up to buy land in Binh Duong, on which they will build a house.

"If you build it yourself, it can be any style you want," he says. "Plus, with land, you can grow your own vegetables to eat."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2017, with the headline 'Housing Asia's working masses'. Subscribe