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Decision Time at White Building

Pech Sotheary / Khmer Times Share:
Residents of the iconic White Building in Phnom Penh have been given two choices as a developer is set to move in. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Residents of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building were presented with two options yesterday: take a $70,000 payout for their apartment or live in Phnom Penh’s Teuk Thla commune for three years while the structure is renovated.
The 50 people representing the 554 families living in the White Building were given the ultimatum yesterday at a meeting with local authorities, Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Minister Chea Sophara as well as a representative of Japanese company Arakawa, which will be handling the renovation project.
According to an announcement on the Land Ministry website, a study on developing the White Building showed that it will cost up to $70-$80 million, including temporary accommodation for its residents.
They plan to make the building 21 floors, with three floors of parking, one floor for stores and five floors for accommodation – which they claim will be 10 percent larger. Arakawa will own everything from the ninth floor up and it is unclear what they plan to put there.
A citizen representative of the White Building residents, Sem Savuth, said they were told the project would take three years to fully finish before they would be allowed back into their new homes.
“We are worried that we won’t get our house back after the temporary move like what happened in Borei Keila and Boeung Kak, but the minister said if we take the homes in the White Building, we will get the deed or title after it is 70 percent done,” he said.
The White Building, in Chamkar Mon’s Tonle Bassac commune, was built in 1963 amidst a massive housing boom in the capital.
Designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and overseen by famed Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, the structure fell into disrepair during the civil war that wrecked the country during the 1970s and ’80s.
The building underwent a revival after the war and despite stigmas of poverty and crime surrounding it, the housing complex has become home to a vibrant community of Khmer artists and musicians.
The government tried to clear the building in July 2015 because it was dilapidated and there were cracks in the foundations.
But most residents refused, fearing that if they left their homes they would be unable to find a suitable replacement.
Kem Chum, who has lived in the White Building for more than 30 years, said it needs to be developed because it is in extremely poor condition. He plans on keeping the apartment and moving to the temporary housing offered by the government until the building is renovated.
“I do not want to take the money and he [Mr. Sophara] said he wanted us to take the homes. If we took the money, we may not manage it well and cannot buy a house, so it’s a loss,” he said.
“But if we take a new home after the development of the place and the house will be worth more than $70,000 when it’s finished,” he said.
Mr. Sophara said they will hold another meeting with residents on November 8 to continue discussions on the issue.
But during the meeting, he took pains to remind building residents to trust the government and wait patiently for renovations to finish in the next three years, saying it may even take four years to finish.
This left many residents at the meeting, including Mr. Savuth, wary of both options presented to them. Many residents of the White Building remember the situation at Borei Keila, where police forcibly evicted hundreds of families in 2012 and claimed they would build replacement housing for them.
Yet after years of protests, only eight out of the 10 replacement buildings had been finished, with much of the housing in extremely poor quality.
Similar situations have been common across Cambodia.
Sie Phearum, the executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, applauded the initiative of the Land Minister and said it was good that government officials were encouraging people to keep ownership in the White Building while it is renovated.
“To meet and discuss with each other before issuing the development is a good measure and this is the first time they have done this. Discussion through cultural dialogue between ministers and citizens is rare,” he said.
“We see that the minister is open to negotiation, so we think this is a good forum for them.”

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