For years, Pov San Ny has heard rumors that the local municipality would kick her and the 600-plus families out of the monstrous, decrepit Building 3 in the Chamkarmon district of Phnom Penh.
Those rumors intensified in May, when a devastating fire swept through the squatter village in front of Building 3, razing 547 homes and displacing an estimated 2,700 people.
But when the municipality started building a park on the site of the destroyed village in August, Pov San Ny began hearing a different rumor: The city was not going to displace the people living in the dilapidated building.
Rather, they were considering renovating it in order to make the building more attractive for the new $15,000 park. Still, this did not reassure her.
Pov San Ny, 42, said that once the new park is completed, the area where her building sits—between the Tonle Sap River and the park area—will become valuable real estate, and she fears her rent will be raised so much that she will be forced to move.
“If they compensate us to move from here, we will leave,” Pov San Ny said. “But if they do not pay us the market price, we will not leave.”
According to officials from the municipality and the UN Center for Human Settlement, no one in the building will be displaced.
The city and the UNCHS is working with three NGOs to ensure that no one is forced from the building, said Mann Chhoeun, chief of cabinet for the municipality.
The municipality is planning on renovating the building because it is in such a poor state, Mann Chhoeun said. Before the city begins these renovations, however, they must perform a study to detail the amount of work to be done on the building. The second step is to work with the people in the building to improve the sanitation and visual appeal of the structure.
Mann Choeun said the city does not know how much the repairs will cost, nor does he know how much the city’s share of the rehabilitation will be.
“The people in the building still have to agree to this project,” he said.
But the reaction from the community “has not been positive so far,” said Peter Swan, technical assistant at the UN Center for Human Settlement.
He agreed that the municipality would have a vested interest in removing the current tenants from the building after the renovations are complete, especially since the park is part of Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara’s “city beautification” plan.
This fear is compounded because many of the residents of Building 3 do not have legal tenancy, he said.
Because of these factors, he said the UNCHS has proposed a deal with the municipality: The UN and three NGOs will work with the tenants to allow the city to perform the survey and conduct renovations as well as urge the residents to pay for a portion of the rehabilitation. In return, the residents will receive 10- or 20-year titles on their units.
“Having people contribute to the cost of repairs is essential,” Swan said. “It gives the people a sense of value and responsibility for the building, and they will not allow it to fall into disrepair.”
The UN is still trying to decide what to do with the residents when construction begins because “we do not want people living next to an open sewer,” Swan said. He proposed that some families move in together while others might be moved to a temporary site.
He added, though, that they have been discussing the Building 3 project with the governor for several months, and don’t think construction will start anytime soon.
Pov San Ny said, however, that she would love to see the renovation project begin as long as she is not forced to move permanently. Unlike many of the thousands of tenants at Building 3, she owns the 6-meter by 6-meter apartment unit where she and her five-member household live. In addition, she bought an apartment title from a long-time resident in the 1990s for $4,500, which she rents out to another family for $25 a month.
She said the only assurance that the previous owners actually owned the unit is that they had lived there since 1979.
This gives her both the leverage to bargain with the city in case they want to kick her out and an extra incentive to contribute to the renovations in the building.
“I would rather renovate this place than move,” Pov San Ny said. “I would contribute to the cost of rebuilding this building, but I don’t think many people can afford to.”
Srey Kong, a municipal police officer, said she couldn’t pay to help renovate the building. She and her husband, who is also a police officer, each make $12 a month.
The rent they pay on their apartment is around $20, and each month they must pay 2,000 riel for a sanitation truck to pick up their garbage.
Many people do not pay for the sanitation service, which is evident from the piles of trash around the complex.
Srey Kong said that while she enjoys living in the building because of its location in the city, she would not help pay for the renovations.
“I am just a renter—I would rather move than pay to help renovate,” she said.