Hav Kongngy says the country is facing a housing affordability crisis. Can his company help to solve it?
Lim Sarom was watering the plants of her new garden in her pajamas when we arrived to meet her. The sound of power drills droned behind us, where workers were putting the finishing touches on a spacious, airy house made of gray stone bricks. “My dream house,” she said, laughing – her house was built by My Dream Home, a company dedicated to bringing low-income housing to families who otherwise can’t afford them.
“Before I was very poor. I think it’s time for me to have a good life and enjoy my home,” Ms. Lim explained as we took a tour inside the house, which contained a large gold shrine, brand-new flat screen television and photos of her children along the walls. Three men were taking down a wall in the bathroom because the size was “bad luck.” Otherwise, Ms. Lim assured us, the home was indeed her dream home. “I don’t want anything else anymore.”
Ms. Lim and her husband Chres To, a retired military officer, have taken a $10,000 loan from the bank and bought the house, which is situated in Toulkie, a garment factory district in eastern Phnom Penh, from My Dream Home for $15,000. Their four children help pay off the loans. “People wanted to rent our house, but we say no,” she said.
The house, which at going market rates could cost as high as $50,000 to $100,000, was largely subsidized by My Dream Home, which has been assisted through small loans from the local NGOs ICS and Impact Hub.
But while subsidized costs from My Dream Home is a curative solution for families buying homes they otherwise couldn’t afford, the real subsidy comes from the material the houses are built from: bricks made almost entirely from the soil.
The bricks, commonly referred to as “compressor block,” “mud bricks,” or “adobe bricks,” are part of an ancient technique first used during the Bronze Age around 3000 BC by cultures surrounding great river valleys like the Nile, the Tigris, the Indus, and the Huang Ho, and were an evolved form of block structures that were previously built with packed clay.
Today, mud bricks are largely used in environmentally sustainable houses in Australia, the United States and Thailand. The bricks are made by mixing sand, mud, water and a cement sealant into a mold, and leaving the bricks to dry in the sun for a day. Some are made with straw to avoid cracking and offer a cheap and sustainable alternative to wood or red brick.
The bricks made their way to Cambodia after Hav Kongngy, the 31-year-old founder of My Dream Home, spent a year in Melbourne working for an NGO, where he first saw the mud brick system being implemented as a cheap and eco-friendly alternative to red brick housing. Originally from Kampong Thom province, Kongngy’s father sold ice for a living. But after receiving a scholarship to study sociology at Royal University in Phnom Penh, he grew interested in housing rights.
When Kongngy returned to Cambodia with his wife in 2013, he founded My Dream Home. The idea was based largely on his personal experience – after a year in Australia and nine years of saving money, he and his wife found themselves back in Phnom Penh and unable to afford to buy a decent home.
“I had money saved for nine years, and when we returned we couldn’t afford a decent house,” Kongngy explained. “It was too expensive, at least $40,000 for a decent home. I started to look at a lot of people who had no good salary, and I saw a lot of people who had worse situations than me.”
Now a 10-person team, My Dream Home began as a startup without an office – but after the local NGO ICS discovered Kongngy’s idea, they offered him an office space at Impact Hub in Phnom Penh where he now works.
His company bought a modest plot of land in eastern Phnom Penh, which he refers to as “the factory,” where the bricks are made, and aside from the cement sealant and compressor machines he purchased from Thailand, there is little cost involved in making the bricks. They make roughly 300 bricks per day. Their houses sell for at least a quarter of the price they would otherwise cost in Phnom Penh’s current real estate market – a market that has been booming from foreign investment in recent years, and at the expense of the urban poor.
“For more than a decade, urban poor communities have been evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh in order to make way for urban development,” said Sarom Ee, Executive Director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), a local NGO that works with urban poor communities in the city. “For example, currently three satellite cities are under construction in Phnom Penh, and in each of these areas there are urban poor communities under formal or informal threat of eviction.”
Phnom Penh’s population has doubled between 1998 and 2008 – and according to a study conducted by STT in 2013, there are roughly 33,600 urban poor families in Phnom Penh. And the numbers of urban poor are only expected to climb.
“Real estate in Cambodia is in the hands of the rich,” Kongngy explained as we sat in a tuktuk headed to Toulkie, about an hour away from Phnom Penh’s city center – an area Kongngy estimated around 400,000 garment factory workers lived. Most were provided housing by the factories, but according to Kongngy the conditions are close to destitute; large families are crammed into small rented rooms with little ventilation. These are the people who need protection, Kongngy said.
“They deserve a dream home.”
When asked if the company is for profit, he was cautious. “Yes, but my goal is not to be rich. If I have to choose between a million people and a million dollars, I’d choose a million people.”
He says My Dream Home has made roughly $5,000 since the company was founded in 2013, and Kongngy has plans to expand the project into Laos and Thailand over time, when he feels satisfied with his work in Cambodia.
“From my view it will take three years. We need to be strong here, make sure the rich don’t [buy up] this market,” he said. “To be strong we need our own system, our own supplier.
Kongngy can rattle off statistics about the housing demand off the top of his head, but will occasionally consult his iPad to confirm. Sixty percent of Cambodia’s population is under thirty, Kongngy said.
“All these people will be getting married. They will need houses. According to government statistics, 1.1 million need new houses, but I think it will be much higher.” But the problem, according to Kongngy, isn’t the lack of houses – it’s the price.
“The GDP per capita in Cambodia is [around] $100 a month. How much can people save? Even if they live on $3 a day, after ten years it’s $6,000. But in reality, no one even gets there.”
The tuktuk reached our next “Dream Home,” and Kongngy climbed out, taking his shoes off before knocking on the door. Two women answered, and smiled animatedly at the sight of him. They welcomed us inside to a warm, sunlit house with shiny, spotless floors and photos of family along the walls. A child in a Spiderman t-shirt jumped down from the couch. The house, which was finished six months ago, was built from mud brick and was surprisingly cool even in the mid-day sun.
“It’s cooler than our other house, which was made from wood,” Ms. Roath Phon said in Khmer as we sat in front of the television, which was playing some Korean pop show.
“Houses built from wood in the 1980’s were destroyed by termites,” Kongngy interjected. “I’m so much happier than before because of the good house,” Ms. Roath added. “The poor, they cannot buy the land.”
My Dream Home has built roughly 20 homes in the past couple years, many of them in the Toulkie area where land is cheaper. But Kongngy worries that with rising real estate prices, Phnom Penh is endanger of a housing bubble crisis.
He didn’t know how the booming real estate economy would affect his business, he said, but assured me of one thing: he wasn’t going to stop building.
A house built by My Dream Home. KT/Maddy Crowell
Roath Phon (left) with Kem Neth (right) and Pich Layheng at their new home. KT/Maddy Crowell