Cambodia, Social Justice
Land Privatization and Affordable Housing in Cambodia
When living in Phnom Penh, you are never far from a construction site. The cranes dotting the sky are towering reflections of a city undergoing rapid growth. Cambodia, with Phnom Penh at the forefront, has one of the fastest rates of urbanization in the world. Sadly, this growth is dominated by speculative, unplanned development that favours wealthy elites to the exclusion of the urban poor. The frenzied pace of construction is leading to a landscape pockmarked by projects in various stages of completion, towers looming over traditional homes, religious sites and colonial-era buildings. The quick pursuit of profit is often too hasty for the developments themselves with many failing to secure funding for completion.
Bruno Friedel is an environmental and social policy researcher with a focus on housing and urban change. After working on urban sustainability at LSE Cities in London and as a housing adviser to the Victorian State Government, he is now based in Phnom Penh.
The construction of a gaudy 42-storey gold-plated skyscraper in central Phnom Penh, begun in 2008, lost investment halfway through only to recently be saved from being the city’s latest white elephant. Whether buildings are completed or paused during construction developers are winning big regardless. Investors are gaining huge windfalls from the acquisition of state land at bargain prices. This is supercharging the luxury property boom. The growing privatization of land for developer gain is one manifestation of an inequality of land ownership that has historically been shown to be the highest in Asia. A UN study revealed that one percent of the Cambodian population owned 30 percent of the land. The long-term effects of the land sell-off and land inequality could prove disastrous, regardless of the short-term benefits to some low-income Cambodians through new construction jobs. A property sector geared towards high-end development coupled with a lack of support for low-income housing tenures risks leaving generations of Cambodians in insecure, poor quality housing on the urban fringe.
The following section will unpack how land privatization benefits wealthy developers through exploration of case studies outlining the problem. The impacts of land privatization, including evictions, will then be discussed along with the failures of land management systems to safeguard those most disadvantaged. Attention is also given to how rapidly increasing land values derail efforts to create “affordable housing”. In the final part of this paper a different approach to land will be offered. It suggests a move away from the consideration of land as a commodity to be sold for private benefit. Land is a limited resource and its ever-increasing value on the property market is a large reason for the rising unaffordability of housing in Cambodia. Communities should instead be supported to remove land from the market through mechanisms that allow for communal ownership of land. While only one part of the solution to land inequality, communal land ownership would provide a way for communities to support each other in living affordably and securely. It would lead to less gold tower blocks and to more sustainable and inclusive cities for Cambodia.
 Jonathan Flexer, and Nam Voleap.“CBRE Market Update Quarter 2 2019: Phnom Penh Investment Opportunities.”
 United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). Local Development Outlook Cambodia: Trends, Policies, Governance. Phnom Penh. 2010.
Author: Bruno Friedel
Download: Land Privatization and Affordable Housing in Cambodia (En)
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