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Ban Mankong: Slum solution or a fiasco?

Secure housing schemes were supposed to alleviate the problems of slums, but are they working?

  • Published: 24/01/2010 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: Spectrum

In the world of low-income housing, the concept of Ban Mankong (Secure Housing Scheme) in Thailand is understood to be a solution to the slum problem. Under this concept, security of land tenure is delivered to the dwellers and a lot of assistance programmes are undertaken.

DAILY GRIND: A woman stands in the doorway of her home as she cooks breakfast in a slum adjacent to a railway track in Bangkok.

There is one Ban Mankong slum located along the banks of an old irrigation canal that has received many awards and seems to have become the prototype for dealing with this type of problem. However, there is some doubt as to whether it is a genuine success or simply a case of propaganda.

There are a number of reasons that support this view:

The slum does not really demonstrate a general solution to slum problems; it can be seen to make neither efficient nor effective use of public funds;

the development that has occurred resulted only through heavy investment of public funds;

these public funds have been spent only on certain community groups and this has resulted in disparity between peoples.

INEFFICIENT USE OF LAND: This land, located within the city proper, comprises approximately 16,000 square metres of land and contains around 250 housing units. For a site of this size and location, it would normally be expected to have been developed at residential densities which would allow the provision of around 1,600 apartment units; this form of development would have provided substantial benefits in housing low-income groups in the community.

However the land is exclusively occupied by a group of squatters who have illegally occupied public land for more than 50 years without providing any payment or compensation in return for their occupation.

This is 6.4 times the existing density and could provide housing for some 1,350 households. Even if these squatters were to be allocated two units each as some sort of privilege, approximately 1,100 less-privileged households could still be housed on the site. It can be seen that the utilisation of the land is at a much lower level than should be accepted in cities such as Bangkok.

POOR RETURN TO THE PUBLIC: If the potential 1,350 apartment units were built in order to rent them to other low-income groups at 2,000 baht per month, the revenue produced would be 32.4 million baht per year. Instead, the public budget has been used for many development projects for this privileged group of 250 households.

In addition, each household is also subsidised at 80,000 baht per year from public funds. Altogether, this represents a budget allocation of some 20 million baht. Yet, each household is eligible to get a loan of some 100,000 baht for housing construction at a very generous rate of interest.

THE 'PRIVILEGED POOR': If this piece of land could be developed for some alternative use, the value could be 12,500 baht per square metre. The total value of the land could have been 200 million baht. If it could be leased at a return of 4% per year, the annual income would be eight million baht.

The government could then spend this amount of money for the benefit of the public at large instead of supporting the living conditions of a relatively small group of slum dwellers by using the official budget supported from the taxes of fellow countrymen.

In this model slum the total value of assets being used by each slum draw is significant; each household occupies a site with a potential land cost of 240,000 baht, builds a new house at 200,000 baht, and roughly receives development funds of some 60,000 baht. This represents a total of 500,000 baht per household, which amounts to 125 million baht for all of the 250 privileged slum households.

UNREAL SAVINGS: It has been mentioned that one success factor demonstrated by this project is the development of a savings programme in the form of a saving co-operative in the community. This seems to be promoting the idea that success has not come from the injection of mainly public funded resources from outside the community.

In looking at this issue in detail, it is noted that the savings is five baht per day or 1,825 baht per year.

At this rate of savings, 22 years would be needed in order to save enough to be able to purchase economical home furnishings at a cost of 40,000 baht. However, in fact, the squatters save for only a very short period of time prior to achieving eligibility to borrow the money.

This reinforces the view that the emergence and development of this project has depended largely upon a huge injection of resources from outside the community, not from the savings of the residents.

THE REPEAT OF MISTAKES: There is a conventional belief that poor people have poor land tenure; therefore, there is a view that they should be provided land without considering whether or not they can afford the true cost. In the case of non-slum households, when they want to buy a house, the budget constraints require them to purchase a small condominium unit or a small low-rise townhouse far away from the city centre, and that results in their having to sacrifice a lot of time to commute to work. The security of property tenure available for the poor should be re-examined in view of the likelihood of producing disparity among people.

In a particular slum in 1996, only 16% of the households were earning below the poverty line. Some 23% of them would have been able to afford to purchase a house in the open market. It is very likely that this situation has improved up to the present. Therefore, there are some well-to-do households that do not even like the minimum standard housing provided because they can afford something better.

There are also some exceptionally poor households that cannot afford even a very highly subsidised housing unit. These households are likely to sell their right of stay and squat somewhere else. The provision of prototype tenure for all households without considering these differences in economic standing is thus inappropriate.

For more than 20 years, there have been a number of land sharing projects that have been showcases of success. However, they are rarely mentioned today. Many of the households did not want to pay their housing loans. Arrears accumulated to such an extent that the authorities decided to write off their debts, simply giving them the land. In another community where the land lease was only 33 baht per month, many occupants are still in arrears. They believed that the government should give the land to them for free.

UNTOUCHABLE? Sometimes, when authorities deal with the so-called poor, they seem to regard them as being untouchable. Realistically, slums in the city should all be rebuilt in order to pave the way for rejuvenated and intensified land use. If land is efficiently and effectively used in the city, sporadic or haphazard growth would be minimised. Infrastructure would not need to be expanded endlessly at a very high cost to the public. Pragmatically it would be a sound policy for most low-rise inner city slums to be demolished and redeveloped for high-rise dwelling units. In this way the land could be used to accommodate more people or could be reallocated for commercial premises for planned urban development.

However, in an anarchist environment, it seems that any action that might disturb the poor is anathema. In Thailand, it is very difficult to relocate slums, in contrast to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries; however, people should understand that things have to change over time. A more sensible treatment of slum redevelopment should be accepted because no planner can foresee or plan city development without some rearrangement of the use of the land in the city.

There is a good example that demonstrates the more effective use of land. The present location of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mahidol University, and Rama Hospital in the Phaya Thai District of Bangkok was formerly the site of a large slum of around 1,500 households.

It was the largest slum in Bangkok at that time. The government relocated the people and paved the way for better land use for the public good. If that slum had not been removed and the squatters were still living there, would it have been better for anyone? This case shows that substantial benefits can be derived from the redevelopment of slums.

In conclusion, any successes of the Ban Mankong scheme are exceptions, rather than the norm. And to build on the number of successes might create a perceived disparity among the poor, both inside and outside the slums.

Providing security of tenure for slum-dwellers where land is scare, and too expensive for others to afford, should be reconsidered. In fact, slums can be relocated to provide better use of land for the slum-dwellers themselves, for other members of other poor communities and for other people in the city without creating disparity.

Dr Sopon Pornchokchai is the president of the Thai Appraisal Foundation. He conducted a survey of slums in Bangkok in 1984, and another nationwide in 1996. He has been a consultant to different organisations of the UN in this field.

About the author

Writer: Sopon Pornchokchai
Position: Writer

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