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Self-help can solve housing problem
Bangkok’s Bon Kai community works together after slum fire

By Van Anh

Laodong Newspaper – Vietnam

Bangkok – Sompita’s new house is situated behind the most expensive part of land in the center of Bangkok. Not far away is Rama IV Road, lined with boutique hotels, large shopping malls and luxurious restaurants.

Sompita sits in front of her three-story house preparing dinner for her family. Inside, two of her grandchildren are watching cartoons. The 47-year-old grandmother smiles happily. “I love this house,” she said, looking back toward the old slums where she used to live.

Sompita’s new house in the Bon Kai community is a result of community self-help. She has this house mainly through the combined efforts of her family and neighbors. With assistance from the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), they were able to convert a slum to relative luxury without leaving the place they had called home for 26 years.

CODI is a public agency formed in 2000 under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Its mandate is to help Thailand’s poor communities improve themselves, and it is currently working with a quarter of all slum communities.

One of its key programs is called Baan Mankong, which means “secure housing” in Thai. It is the brainchild of CODI Director Somsook Boonyabancha and other housing activists. Under the Baan Mankong program, CODI gives subsidies and soft loans directly to poor communities to carry out improvements.

“The Baan Mankong project is based on the belief that poor people are a resource,” Somsook said. “They can think and they have a lot of potential.”

The Bon Kai community was first occupied more than two decades ago when people migrated from rural areas in northeastern Thailand. In the countryside, farming was not good enough. In the cities, there was opportunity.

Residents lived there illegally and were asked many times to leave. The land belongs to the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), one of the biggest slum landlords in Thailand. The CPB is reckoned to own some 36,000 properties in Bangkok and much more land in the provinces.

Roughly 600 families, or about 5,000 people, are crammed into a 15-rai site in Bon Kai.
Ironically, it was a fire in 2001 that destroyed 202 houses and changed the lives of more than 200 families. Sompita recalled that time: “I had seen fire only on television before. Everybody was terrified. The community was terrified. They thought they would have to move. But Sumravy Songpinthai, the community chairman, told us to live in tents because if we left, the landlord would come to take back the land.”

It was at this point that Sumravy worked with CODI to negotiate with the CPB. Finally, the community obtained a renewable land lease for 30 years. An investor was willing to pay 400,000 baht to secure the lease. And a cooperative was formed to oversee collection of money from families and hold monthly meetings.

“Poor money is as good as rich money,” Somsook said.
They were also helped by the fact that in 2003 the Thai government announced a new policy of providing 1 million houses for urban poor all over Thailand. The five-year-plan had 2 approaches. The first one consisted of constructing low-income housing under the National Housing Authority. The second is the Baan Mankong program.

“The Baan Mankong project looks at poor people as solutions and factors, but not as a problem. If they are given a chance, they can walk by themselves,” Somsook said.

Bon Kai is the first case of a land-lease contract being made to a community cooperative, rather than to an individual, on a nominal rent of 150 baht per month per household, paid by the community cooperative in one big monthly payment.

“After we got the land lease and loan, we started to think about our house design,” Sompita said.
The community worked with architects to draft a plan for narrow lanes and compact row-houses built on tiny plots of only 24 square meters. These fully-finished houses cost 200,000 baht each. The community decided to use a contractor to build the first phase of houses. The second and third phases will be built by community members themselves to reduce costs. Those projects are expected to start in mid-2008.

“I was so happy to move to this new house in July 2004,” Sompita said. “It was a great day. The inauguration was attended by thousands of people.”

Sompita pays 1,400 baht per month for the house and 230 baht for the land. The period of the loan is 15 years. Her husband, a bird seller, and her son, a guard for a private company, are the main bread-winners for the family of six. Every month, they can earn up to 8,000 baht. After deducting all expenses, they can save a modest amount.

“I feel safer when I am living here,” Sompita said. “When I was in the slum, I had to watch out for a lot of dangers throughout the day and night. Here, people take good care of each other and I find my life more comfortable.”
A neighbor, Daanyaki Boonrat, 51, agreed.
“Living in the new area prevents our children from drug addiction and other bad things,” he said. “We are not afraid of the thieves.”

Many of the residents in Bon Kai are vendors or house maids while others work in the nearby port. They service the wealthy community that surrounds their homes. Only one household has been unable to regularly make its monthly lease payments.

Not everyone is as lucky as Sompita.
Nokkaew Thongsakul, 57, lives in a dark and cramped slum not far from Sompita’s house. Her child died and her husband left her some years ago. She sits sadly in the slum, watching a bunch of bananas that have not yet been sold.

“I know living here is very dangerous, but I have no choice as I cannot afford to pay the rental [for a new home] every month,” Nokkaew said. “It’s not easy for me. I have been here for 20 years and I want to move to a new house, too.”

Somsook agrees that saving is not easy. “That’s why people need to work together,” she said. “They need support and need a strong community leader. Then they will become powerful. They can stand up and cope with any problems.”

Sompita finished her cooking and started to set the dinner table. She and her two grandchildren were waiting for others to come back and join them for dinner. The neon light on the wall reflected a face full of satisfaction and happiness, as she knows that from now on she can continue to walk by herself.

Additional reporting by Ngo Tri Duong
Bon Kai Project Details
•  Households: 202
•  Land owner: Crown Property Bureau
•  Tenure terms: Long-term cooperative lease
•  Type of upgrading: On-site reconstruction
•  Housing costs: 29.99 million baht (165,000 baht/unit)
•  Total cost of land + housing + infrastructure: 39.6 million baht
CODI support for housing:
Since 1992, CODI has supported community organisations with housing loans to 47 housing constructions projects (on the same or alternative land) benefiting 6,400 households around Thailand. CODI has also channelled grants to communities for improvements of infrastructure and living conditions in 301 environmental projects, benefiting more than 68,000 families in 796 communities.
Source: CODI Update publication No. 4, June 2004
Copyright 2009 IMMF.