Call for immediate relief for urban poor

PPRs must be reconsidered under a comprehensive housing policy that ensures decent living for all

Pic by BERNAMA

AS MALAYSIA struggles with Covid-19, among the many who are suffering terribly are the urban poor residing in People’s Housing Projects (PPRs) and low-cost flats.

Due to poor financials and income security, their livelihoods and ability to afford basic needs are decimated. Worse, their lives are also threatened as their poor living conditions, which they have been enduring for many years, present a serious risk to Covid-19.

Numerous outbreaks have already occurred among them, causing several PPRs to be placed under the Enhanced Movement Control Order.

There are four things the government can do to bring immediate relief to the poor in PPRs and to prevent further outbreaks.

Urgent financial relief, public health solutions needed.

First, schemes under the People’s Protection and Economic Recovery Package (Pemulih) like Bantuan Khas Covid-19 (BKC) need to be expedited to July, while others like Bantuan Kehilangan Pendapatan (BKP) need to widen their coverage so as not to neglect informal workers and others in need.

As of now, Pemulih lacks urgency, adequacy and reach. For example, BKC will only be distributed in phases in August, November and December — but nothing for July, and the eventual amount is only up to RM1,300, a far cry from the average poverty line of RM2,208 per month.

Meanwhile, other schemes like wage subsidies and BKP, which require Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) or Social Security Organisation (Socso) registration, will unlikely reach the urban poor and PPR residents who are mostly informal workers.

Second, the government should reintroduce the PPR rental waiver nationwide for six months. This has been done before in 2020 and has already been reintroduced in states like Sabah and Selangor, but for a shorter duration. As incomes have fallen and savings depleted, every ringgit counts for the urban poor, so that they can afford critical necessities like food, while the longer waiver duration will better prepare them amid Malaysia’s long and uncertain struggle with Covid-19.

Third, the government should offer extra temporary housing for residents in PPRs and public housing to minimise Covid-19 transmissions, especially among larger households with members who are suspected of Covid-19 and/or untested yet actively going to work. This could be done with nearby vacant PPR units rental-free, and with units from the private market at rents subsidised through rental vouchers.

Fourth, free mass Covid-19 testing should be scaled up at PPRs and low-cost flats in the Klang Valley and other major urban areas. This has started at several PPRs in Kuala Lumpur (KL) to offer up to 500 tests per day. However, given such high levels of community transmission, the government should be prepared to do more tests if needed to ensure that the Covid19 positive rate falls and remains below 5% as per the World Health Organisation’s recommendation.

Without relief, livelihoods and ability to afford basic needs are decimated.

In 2016-2017, Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) conducted a case study of five PPRs, finding that many residents were already living in poverty pre-pandemic. More than 60% were under the average poverty line of RM2,208, with hardcore poverty (incomes below RM1,038) at more than 21%. This may be unsurprising given that the government has designated PPRs as housing for the poor — but the high poverty rates meant that the PPR folks have little savings to weather the current crisis.

Worse, they have poor income security. About 4% of working household heads had never attended school, while only 13% went beyond secondary level, meaning their work options are likely limited to low-pay jobs. Moreover, 5% worked part-time while another 30% were self-employed, meaning many are easily dispensable considering current economic restrictions, with little to fall back on like EPF savings or unemployment insurance from Socso.

Also due to their work nature, most PPR residents are unable to work from home amid the ongoing lockdowns, risking livelihoods further. If forced to attend work physically, this puts them at risk of contracting Covid-19.

Given their desperate situation of low income and savings after many lockdowns, this infection risk from a trade-off of lives for livelihoods is very real.

Lives threatened due to poor living conditions.

Infection risks are also very high within PPR households due to cramped conditions. A typical KL PPR unit is a mere 650 sq ft with small room sizes — including three bedrooms with just one shower and water closet. Most of these rooms fail to meet Malaysia’s National Housing Standard due to their small sizes and things become worse with overcrowding.

From KRI’s survey, at least 15% of the units were overcrowded, having more than two people per bedroom — worse if boys and girls need their own separate rooms. This, along with limited shared spaces like toilets, makes physical distancing near impossible, on top of many other adverse effects like on mental health.

Meanwhile, whole PPR complexes are also very dense, further risking infections to between households. KL PPRs typically have at least 316 units per 17-floor block, with each block served by three lifts. As the conditions of lifts have been a top complaint long before the pandemic, their limitations now present serious health risks as they are likely to be overcrowded.

Beyond immediate relief: Reflecting on how we treat the poor

Beyond the urgent relief needed, the struggles of the poor in Malaysia like those in PPRs also requires a serious reflection and rethinking on how we as a nation treat those who are less fortunate.

Just because one may be “poor” does not mean they should receive “poor” treatment including housing — it is in Malaysia’s best interest to go beyond the bare minimum when providing help. Elsewise, it is an injustice to expect them to just remain grateful when such poor solutions can cause great harm and suffering, which the Covid-19 pandemic is clearly showing.

PPRs both old and new must be thoroughly reconsidered, under a comprehensive social housing policy that ensures decent living for all.

  • Adam Firouz is a research associate at KRI.

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.