Citywide Housing for the poor in the town of Chum Phae

Chum Phae is a small trading and manufacturing town in the fertile rice-growing region of Khon Kaen Province, in northeastern Thailand.  In the last few decades, the town has attracted increasing numbers of poor migrants from rural areas, who come looking for work in the town’s tapioca and gunny-sack factories, or in its sweat shops making shoes and clothing.  Like bigger cities, Chum Phae has all the usual urbanization problems, though on a much smaller scale:  rising land prices and housing costs and increasing commercial pressure on urban land – all leading to problems of eviction and a shortage of affordable housing.  As Mae Sanong, the chairperson of Chum Phae’s community network says, “Chum Phae used to be full of slums, where living conditions were bad.  And people had no pride, no courage, no togetherness, no idea what to do.”

Land and Housing surver in Chum Phae

Savings, network and upgrading starts in 2004:  The city’s upgrading process started from scratch just six years ago.  The first community savings groups were set up in 2004, and shortly afterwards, community leaders carried out the first detailed city-wide survey of the town’s poor communities.  Besides some 25 established slum communities, the survey also covered scattered squatters and room renters living in isolated situations around Chum Phae.  All together, they found that precisely 3,704 families at that time had serious problems with land and housing.  With support from Baan Mankong, the national community upgrading program of the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), and in close collaboration with the municipal government and a supportive mayor, they used this information to begin setting plans to develop secure housing for all those families.

The advantages of taking a citywide perspective:  The network’s constantly evolving citywide upgrading plans included a variety of strategies such as on-site upgrading (2 projects) and nearby relocation (6 projects), a variety of land tenure options such as collective purchase of cheap private land (4 projects) and collective lease of public land (4 projects), and a variety of house designs and plot sizes to suit different needs and budgets.  The Chum Phae community network’s first housing project began in 2005, at Sawang Sang See, a nearby relocation of 65 squatter households to public land they negotiated to lease collectively.  Projects in seven other communities followed – each one different.  Through the course of all those upgrading projects, the network never lost track of their city-wide perspective, in which they continuously sought to provide as many options as possible so everyone could be included.

Secure land and housing for less than the cost of renting a single room:  All of these different kinds of projects provide long-term, secure land and housing to even the poorest families in Chum Phae.  In these eight projects, the better off could get houses that are a little bigger and buy their land cooperatively, while the poorer could get houses that are a little smaller and lease public land at nominal rents – but nobody was left out of the city-wide upgrading process.  The cost of the loan repayments in these projects, which range from $18 to $45 per month, are affordable to just about everyone, and are in fact considerably less than the cost of renting a small room in Chum Phae ($60 – $90 per month).

11 “pre-approved” house designs:   As the upgrading process continued, the Chum Phae network has developed 11 basic house plan models, which people in these upgrading projects can choose from.  There are row-houses, semi-detached and single houses, one-story and two-story houses.  The houses offer a range of different budgets and different uses of construction materials (the cheapest even re-using old doors and windows), to meet different needs and different levels of affordability.  Since these 11 designs were all developed by the people, with assistance from municipal engineers, the house plans all come “pre-approved” by the city’s Engineering Department.  That means people save time and money obtaining permits, and community members only have to pay 150 Baht ($5) to get their house registration, which takes only two weeks.  Other municipalities have begun to ask for these plans.  As Mae Sanong says, “It helps when the city is on your side!  In some projects, the municipality even provided electricity and access roads.”

A city with secure housing for all:  By 2018, the community network in Chum Phae had come close to solving the housing problems of almost all the poor in the city, with 13 completed Baan Mankong housing projects, which provide secure land and houses to 1,052 poor families.  Eight of those projects are on private land the communities found and purchased themselves, and five projects are on land leased cheaply from the Treasury Department.  Since each project is different, each is used as a “learning center” and is much visited by communities from other cities.  The collaboration between the communities and the municipal government and other local stakeholders has worked “like a single working team.”  Chum Phae may be Thailand’s first city to have achieved 100% secure housing for all.

Addressing other non-housing needs:  Now that the network in Chum Phae has largely solved its present housing problems, they are concentrating more on other activities which address other needs of the city’s poor communities.  Savings groups and the network’s community welfare program are active in every community.  The network organizes skills training courses and the city fund they set up in 2009 gives loans for income generation and community enterprises, to boost incomes.  This focus on occupation and income has helped to ensure that loan repayment rates are almost 100%.  There are also active youth groups, elderly groups, children’s savings groups, and several community libraries.  The network has set up its own community enterprise to produce purified water in one community, which sells clean drinking water at cost to network members.

Collective rice farm:  Several years back, the network purchased a 38-rai rice farm on the outskirts of town, which has now become a collectively owned community garden and rice production farm, where network members can grow their own vegetables and rice, or buy them at a cheap price from others who farm.  The rule is that whatever vegetables or rice a family grows here, two-thirds goes to the family and one-third goes to the network.  As Mae Sanong puts it, “People can also come here when their spirits are low – it makes them feel better to stay here or do a little work in the garden for a while.”  If in the future more land is needed for housing poor families that come to the city later, this rice farm acts as a land-bank for future needs.