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Like Hong Kong, Malaysia Grapples With ‘grave Pit’-sized Homes as High Living Costs Bite

Standing at 56 storeys, the five towers of the M Vertica flats in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, are colloquially known as “ Hong Kong”, alluding to the dense high-rise housing that is conjured up in the mind of the Malaysian public when they think of the East Asian city.

In the shadow of this housing complex, however, stood a different one that drew parallels to another infamous feature of Hong Kong: coffin houses.

Located in nearby Maluri, a dense neighbourhood criss-crossed by several major train stations, 78 coffin-sized “rooms” were packed inside a two-storey shop lot and advertised as “capsules” and “mini rooms”, suitable for “backpackers, interns, or short and long-term renters” looking for air-conditioned “budget rooms”.

The rooms came in single and queen-sized bed configurations, with the latter being around a claustrophobic 30 square feet. They were being rented out for 290 ringgit (US$62) and 330 ringgit per month, respectively, in a city where monthly room rental prices rarely fall below 1,000 ringgit.

Speaking in parliament on November 30, Minister of Local Government Development Nga Kor Ming said he had personally raided that building in October and reported that the offending structures had been dismantled.

“It is indeed inhumane and unreasonable that some parties – in order to make a profit – make renovations so that one shop building has 78 rooms,” Nga said. “The tight space fits the definition of a grave pit for a coffin where, if we enter or leave the room, we have to crawl.”

Adding that it was a fire hazard, the minister also said there were between 40 and 50 tenants occupying the rooms.

Nga’s condemnation came after Kuala Lumpur City Hall issued a circular in August banning residential and commercial properties from erecting partition walls to create rooms in spaces designated as living and dining areas.

The minister added that there were enough laws to deal with such illegal renovations done by building owners, but conceded that enforcing such laws was a major issue.

The problem extends beyond the Malaysian capital. Elsewhere in the Greater Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area, photos of balconies and kitchens converted into rooms have been widely ridiculed online, with many calling out such landlords for being greedy.

One balcony-turned-room, for example, was being rented out for 600 ringgit (US$128) per month, catering mainly to university students at a nearby campus.

Beset by higher interest rates since the pandemic, property owners have been passing their mortgage burdens onto tenants, which led to higher rent prices as supplies increases, instead of driving prices down.

This was noted by economist Fikri Fisal, the co-author of a research paper on housing for think tank group The Centre, who said it went against the basic concept of supply and demand.

This increase in rental prices over the years has led to tenants – already beset by wage stagnation – having to downsize their options, with some forced to say yes to these infamous ‘coffin homes’.

“Furthermore, the lack of a Residential Tenancy Act means there is a weak legal framework to ensure decent protection for tenants,” Fikri told This Week in Asia.

Such laws could protect tenants by mandating a certain standard of rental housing, defining the rights of tenants and landlords, and standardising the procedure of evicting tenants.

“Even rent increases can be regulated or limited if there is a strong legal framework surrounding renting,” Fikri added. “In France, any rent increases must be based on an index of consumer prices called the rent reference index.”

Instead of a housing shortage such as the ones plaguing countries like Britain, Malaysia’s Department of Statistics last year reported that 1.9 million houses out of 9.6 million homes bought by homeowners nationwide are uninhabited, an increase of 700,000 compared to 2010.

“Among the factors that contributed to the statistic are homebuyers that treated these houses as weekend houses, or transformed them into homestays and other uses as they were working in other areas,” said chief statistician Mohd Uzir Mahidin in June last year at a press conference discussing the 2020 census.

Zabidi Mohd Nuh, a homeowner in the university town of Shah Alam, said he partitioned his rental home there as a response to his tenant bringing in more people to live in the house than what was agreed in the rental agreement.

“I found out that almost 20 people were living in my two-storey terrace house, in squalor, damaging the property,” Zabidi told This Week in Asia.

Saying it was “futile” to go against the norm, he partitioned the house so that more people could stay there more comfortably, while at the same time protecting his property from damage.

He agreed, however, that some property owners went overboard by partitioning balconies and kitchens into rooms.

“That is greed,” he argued. “For me, it is about protecting my investment.”

Source : SCMP