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The Truth Behind Low-Cost Housing Units in Malaysia: Are They Actually Liveable?

Rizal Ramli lives in a cramped 700 sq ft flat in Kota Damansara with his wife and children. 

The front door of the 36-year-old man’s three-bedroom People’s Housing Programme (PPR) is peeling off. Visitors to his home are greeted with clothes strewn all over the floor as there are no cupboards.

The walls are turned into children’s colouring books and paper with both stationery out of reach for the children. There isn’t even a dining table, chairs or a TV[1].

I haven’t been paying rent since 2011. We can’t afford to pay RM250. – Rizal Ramli[1]

Rizal Ramli, Nor Azizah Karin and two of their seven children pose for a picture at their Kota Damansara PPR unit. — Picture by Choo Choy May/Malay Mail

Rizal is just one of many living in low-cost public housing units in Malaysia. And like everyone else in his flat, he and his family are forced to live in squalid living conditions. Their rooms lack furniture, clothes are dumped in a shopping trolley and kitchens overflow with dirty water due to clogged drainage. And while barely affording rent[1].

Worse still, a study by PropertyGuru DataSense found that four of every five families that move into low-cost housing tend to live there for the rest of their lives[2].

With this reality in mind, we have to wonder whether so-called “low-cost” housing is truly worth the price the inhabitants are affording or if they are in serious need of improvement before they can be considered livable.

The Promise

The dream for Low and Medium Cost (LMC) homeowners is a landed home and all the perceived benefits it brings – more personal space and privacy whilst retaining some sense of neighbourliness. – Joe Thor, PropertyGuru DataSense’s general manager[2]

Source: Rice

Public housing has always been part of Malaysian development since its independence in 1957. With the rapid urbanisation of the country, providing those within the Bottom 40% (B40) range with affordable housing that does not sacrifice basic amenities and livability has become a crucial part of government development plans. As such, the Federal Government has spearheaded many initiatives and programmes to provide low-cost housing for B40 citizens[3].

One of these was the flagship low-cost public housing programme, Perumahan Awam Kos Rendah (PAKR), introduced in 1976. PAKR’s purpose was to provide affordable shelter for the high numbers of squatters that came about during mass urban migrations in the 1970s. Under this programme, housing units were sold to low-income groups, either outright or through rent-to-buy instalment plans[4].

Following the Asian Financial Crisis which hit Malaysia in 1997, the government discontinued the old PAKR programme and introduced Program Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) in 1998[3].

The PPR programme provides low-cost housing for all Malaysians with monthly incomes below RM2,500. The price of each housing unit is RM30,000 to RM35,000 for Peninsular Malaysia and RM40,500 for Sabah and Sarawak. The programme consists of an ownership scheme and a rental scheme, with a monthly rental of RM124, which is later increased to RM250 per month[3].

Source: FMT

In urban areas, the PPR housing development consists of either 5- to 18-storey flats or terrace houses with a minimum built-up area of 700 square feet, which consists of three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a toilet, and a bath. The government also introduced a computerised Open Registration System (ORS) for potential low-cost house buyers to apply for a unit. Almost 100,000 PPR units have been built across the country, since 1998 with the majority located in the Klang Valley[3].

Malaysia’s affordable housing policies focus on direct provision (the government builds and owns the majority of housing units), subsidised housing (PR1MA, for example) and subsidised financing schemes. Supportive regulatory measures such as inclusionary zoning, where local authorities issue development approvals conditional on having a segment of the proposed development set aside for affordable homes) are also in place[5].

Although these low-cost housing programmes and various “zero squatters” acts have arguably worked well in providing shelter for those within the B40 range and public housing flats are considered a better alternative to squatter settlements, it is an open secret that low-cost housing in Malaysia is deteriorating.

The Reality

Translation: DO NOT LITTER HERE/Rice

When they are moved to public housing flats, these communal networks do not exist. So, the children are unable to adapt. It stunts their growth, and they are unable to become better than their parents. – Jasmine Adaickalam, veteran community worker[6]

Despite the original intention to house the underserved in better living conditions than squatter settlements, low-cost public housing programmes have inevitably created a new social problem in the form of ‘poor housing for the poor’ in stratified buildings.

All residential complexes remain of poor quality due to inadequate funding for maintenance and repair works. Poorly conceived building designs and low-quality construction have further exacerbated the deteriorating conditions[4].

Houses without basic furniture are common at PPR Taman Putra Damai Lembah Subang/The Star

Problems here are residents throwing cigarette butts and rubbish from the window. – Chan Yoke Chan, 79[1]

Gregory Ho, a Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) research associate said that unit sizes for PPR flats are largely inadequate. He said according to research carried out by KRI, the standard size of a three-room PPR unit was 650 sq ft compared with the national housing standard which was 800 sq ft[7].

The average household occupancy rate for a PPR is about six people. Yet, they have to squeeze into this very small home. – Gregory Ho, Khazanah Research Institute research associate[7]

Ho added that PPRs also had a high-density population level, with an estimated 1,455 people living in a building comprising 316 units[7].

Poorly planned low-cost units can also adversely affect the mental and physical health of those living in PPRs. – Gregory Ho, Khazanah Research Institute research associate[7]

It Is Not Just The Lifts That Are Rubbish

The lift display reads: MAINTENANCE/Rice

Low-cost high-rise units are notorious for poor maintenance. Since those who purchase such affordable homes are from the B40 category, many cannot afford or are reluctant to pay maintenance fees[8].

Lift efficiency and availability are common issues in many low-cost public high-rise flats. The number of lifts is often too low for the intended number of inhabitants, thus the same lifts are used often to wear them down. Coupled with a general lack of maintenance, these lifts are prone to breaking down[9].

Other problems include puddled urine on the floor, lewd graffiti drawings, garbage along walkways, rusting railings and many others. These problems create a condition that is unsuitable for living, which is against the primary purpose of building low-cost homes in the first place[8].

There are railings now, but the metal is hollow. It’ll rust. It’s not a case of children climbing over, but they fell through the railings. – Jamal, 48, reminisces about the deaths of two children in 2013 and 2014 at the PPR. They had fallen from the 14th and 6th floors respectively[1]

Three children have fallen from the Kota Damansara PPR in recent years, two of whom died. — Picture by Choo Choy May/Malay Mail

Low-cost housing flats also suffer from poor design. For example, long corridors and staircases hidden away at the side often become rubbish dumps. Moreover, without a balcony and backyard space — a common omission in low-cost housing — residents tend to dry their laundry in the corridors[10].

Over time, mildew accumulates, making it more expensive to maintain. Where open corridors and balconies are provided, they become play areas for children, leading to falls among small children. Such housing also has limited open space and recreation areas, such as a multipurpose hall or playground for community activities and interaction[10].

Meg (not her real name) works as a cleaner twice a week at a bank and does freelance cleaning services at several private houses. As her mother’s primary caretaker, having a full-time job is impossible. Meg’s mother holds an OKU card (a person with disabilities) for a psychiatric condition. She also has diabetes on top of kidney issues.

As we step out of the sun and into the sheltered corridor, the blazing heat is replaced by a distinct stench. An odour wafted to my nose—a scent reminiscent of a sewage tank. Meg is unaffected by the smell, so I play it cool. – Lee Chow Ping, a writer for Rice, recounts when he visited Lembah Subang PPR for an interview with one of the tenants[11]

Litter strewn all over the awning below the low cost flats in Rifle Range. Photo: Malay Mail Online/M Today

At Penang’s oldest PPR flats such as the Jalan Sungai public flat and Rifle Range, residents endured rubbish such as packets of leftover rice, curry, empty bottles and even soiled diapers being thrown out of windows on a daily basis. “This is normal and this is considered mild compared to seven years ago,” a long-time resident, Zainol Abidin Shariff, told Malay Mail[12].

In 2010, a man waiting at the entrance to the flat was killed when a fist-sized stone fell on his head[12].

It was 11 am at that time, he was a taxi driver so he usually waited in his car but that day, he got out from his car and was standing there when someone threw a stone out the window and it hit him. He died immediately. – Zainol Abidin Shariff, a resident of Jalan Sungai public flat[12]

The Rifle Range low-cost flats have also gained an unsavoury reputation for being a suicide hot spot due to being the first high-rise building built in Penang in 1969[12].

From the 1970s up to the 1990s, we regularly have people jumping to their deaths here, to the point that people avoided walking across the centre court area because that’s where their bodies usually fall.

Nowadays, we have lesser suicide cases since there are so many high-rise buildings everywhere but we still have the same rubbish-throwing mentality here. If you look at the awnings at the entrances, you can see the amount of rubbish gets thrown out. – Loh Eng Kim, a resident of Rifle Range since 1971[12]

Troubled Communities

Public housing projects are often artificial communities. – Jasmine Adaickalam, veteran community worker[6]

Children in PPR flats often lack a proper play area/The Star

One hidden pitfall with low-cost housing is that they often create uneven communities. 

According to Jasmine Adaickalam, a veteran community worker who lived in one of the many low-cost public flats, PPR communities comprise families with different backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths, who are forced to live together without forming the communal ties necessary for poor and low-income folk to survive and thrive[6].

She further remarked that squatter colonies, for all of their many faults and dangers, sometimes had families who knew and relied on each other for emergency funds. In addition, they kept an eye out for each other’s children[6].

There are also high incidences of drug and youth problems because of the constrained space, which leads to people spending more time outside their home. Many are struggling with several jobs and have a substandard life. – Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Think City Sdn Bhd managing director[13]

Low-cost housing is often linked to social ills. Such was the case of Mr Rajen, whom Ms Adaickalam met in a Selangor prison. He was sentenced for robbery, kidnapping and murder. He was not even 25 years old at the time[6].

According to Ms Adaickalam, Mr Rajen’s family moved into a two-bedroom flat in a Kuala Lumpur public housing project in the 1990s[6].

He spent his time at a nearby cemetery because it was so cramped in the flat. That was where he met the gang that he would eventually join. That was how his life of crime started. – Jasmine Adaickalam, veteran community worker[6]

For the residents of Taman Putra Damai Lembah Subang in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya, life is a constant struggle with poverty and drug abuse, among other social and domestic issues[13].

Jenny (not her real name) is a single mother of six, who is a victim of domestic abuse and works as a security guard at the flats from 7 am to 7 pm and does not have any day of rest[14].

My ex-husband physically abused me and still haunts my life frequently. He does not know where I live but he disturbs my children who are living at the shelter home. When we lived together, I was chased away from the house and ended up spending the night on a field with my baby who was then three months old. – Jenny, a security guard at Taman Putra Damai Lembah Subang, Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya[14]

Jenny added that her alcoholic ex-husband caused trouble at her former workplaces which got her fired[14].

It is hard for me to hold a better job elsewhere… I fear that my ex-husband will harm my daughters. I also do not like the surrounding area which is not conducive for children to grow up in. – Jenny, a security guard at Taman Putra Damai Lembah Subang, Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya[14]

Jenny’s fears are not unfounded; break-in burglaries are a frequent occurrence, especially if a resident has something expensive in their homes, and abandoned units with missing (read: stolen) doors play host to drug addicts[11].

An empty unit with missing doors/Rice

When I find myself face to face with someone with glazed-over eyes in the lift, I know they are high on drugs. I exit at the next available floor, even if that’s not where I want to go. I would rather take the stairs. – Meg (not her real name) cleaner and resident at Lembah Subang PPR[11]

Sadly for Jenny and others like her, moving up to better accommodations is easier said than done.

Only 20% will leave their LMC ( Low and Medium cost) house and enter into private housing (built by developers). The reason for leaving LMC housing is primarily because such families got bigger, so they moved mainly to landed terrace houses (and even then, to outer districts as they are cheaper). – Joe Thor, PropertyGuru DataSense’s general manager[2]

A recent survey by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) involving over 3,800 households that either rent or own units at four PPRs in the capital city and one in Penang showed that on average half of the respondents opted to stay, including households that earn up to RM4,000 onwards. Only one-tenth of respondents in this income bracket said they would move out[15].

When the respondents were asked to explain why they preferred to stay, researchers found that pricing and rental affordability in the private housing sector was a major factor — PPR dwellers have “extremely limited options” to buy or rent outside the social housing market because they cannot afford to[15].

If residents were considering buying homes from the private market, their options are mostly limited to flats, cluster houses, apartments and condominiums. – Khazanah Research Institute[15]

It is believed that those unable to leave their low-cost homes may face a lack of options or access to financial resources. Those unwilling to leave may feel that way because their current home could be in a strategic location (close to public transportation, key employment centres, amenities such as schools, etc)[2].

This lack of upward mobility in housing can have some implications for planners and authorities as they try to ensure affordable and decent housing in urban centres, where land is scarce and increasingly expensive, coupled with increasing construction prices[2].

Efforts To Improve

The only class that exists is human class; the rest is human creation. – Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Think City Sdn Bhd managing director[13]

Low-cost public housing’s poor living conditions have been at the forefront of the media for decades.

KRI researchers suggested the government start by framing its social housing policy based on a clear statement of objectives using international benchmarks[15].

Khazanah managing director Datuk Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir speaks during Khazanah Annual Review (KAR) 2022 media briefing in Kuala Lumpur March 2, 2022. — Picture by Firdaus Latif/Malay Mail

This means a good social housing policy should provide decent lives and transition homes for the underprivileged, or security of tenancy and stability that supports a good quality of life, a platform to help the poor take up education or employment and facilitate a transition from social housing to affordable housing or tenancy in the private rental market[15].

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; authorities have tried to improve these conditions for years now, but not always in the most coordinated way.

Think City, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd, aims to rectify this issue.

Over the last decade, Think City has been undertaking research and intervention at public housing projects across Malaysia (Photo by Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)

Since its inception in 2009, Think City’s mission has been to make cities more liveable, environmentally and socially resilient, and sustainable. And in 2021, following ongoing engagements with PPR residents worried that their housing estates were turning into slums, Think City launched a programme called Rights to the City (R2C) to explore solutions to address issues that matter to public housing communities[13].

In an interview with City & Country, Think City Sdn Bhd managing director Hamdan Abdul Majeed said Think City aims to build successful and inclusive cities. This is where everyone — including those living in public housing — has his or her own space. Location, accessibility to amenities, and density of public housing also matter[13].

Think City Sdn Bhd managing director Hamdan Abdul Majeed/The Edge Markets

For cities to succeed, there is a need to focus our efforts on building social resilience in these communities. How can we work with them to upgrade, improve and enhance the quality of space and life as well as allow better management of the spaces? – Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Think City Sdn Bhd managing director[13]

Think City’s ultimate goal, according to Hamdan, is inclusive cities. “Inclusive” in this case is not about ensuring that everything is equal, but defining and agreeing on a “right desired minimum standard.” Hamdan believes it involves more than just the government and non-governmental organisations to address issues that matter to public housing communities. It should include all Malaysians[13].

A lot of discussions are on the affordability and accessibility of the homes, but they never talk about the liveability of homes or even building sustainable communities in public housing. These are the same group with the same mindset … It is hard for these people to break free and it becomes a cycle.

That’s why we advocate a future of buildings with mixed communities. It is about creating greater realisation that the more we don’t do this and the more we avoid, the greater the problem will be in the future.
– Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Think City Sdn Bhd managing director[13]

Au Foong Yee, an editor emeritus at The Edge, suggested that we learn our lessons from Singapore’s success in creating a working public housing scheme[16].

Our neighbour’s highly acclaimed Housing & Development Board (HDB) was set up in 1960 to solve a housing crisis. Many of its citizens lived in unhygienic slums and overcrowded squatter settlements. Only 9% of Singaporeans were living in government flats, with others yearning for a place to call home[16].

By 1963, HDB had built and delivered 21,000 flats, housing 80% of the city state’s resident population, of which 90% own their home. And not only does HDB continue to provide quality and affordably priced public housing, but these public housing units are also now a valuable asset class. HDB flat prices rose nearly 13% in 2021, according to a report published last year[16].

Changing a national public housing model for the better is not something for the weak as, understandably, affordable housing is close to the hearts of Malaysians. Be that as it may, changes are not only inevitable but necessary. The blueprint that seemingly worked before is no longer workable. – Au Foong Yee, an editor emeritus at The Edge[15]

Gregory Ho concurs with this viewpoint, saying that PPR flats in Malaysia had standard sizes for all units, adding that this was not suitable[7].

If you look at the HDB flats in Singapore, they have different floor plans. Suppose you are single, an affordable house with two rooms could be suitable. After that, in five years’ time, you still have the option to move and get a bigger place that is suitable for you. – Gregory Ho, Khazanah Research Institute research associate[7]

As our population grows, the need for affordable housing with basic amenities grows as well. Yet too often we’ve ignored the basic needs of the poor and stuffed them into dilapidated flats. This is where they are expected to spend their earnings on maintenance.

It is time that everyone, both the public and government, learns that “low cost” does not equal “low maintenance”. If our so-called “affordable” housing cannot even meet the basic needs of its tenants, they are no better than the squatter settlements these flats were supposed to replace.

The public housing model needs reimagining. There is no room for nostalgia or procrastination. We need to act and we need to move now. – Au Foong Yee, an editor emeritus at The Edge[16]

Explore our sources

  1. B. Su-Lyn. (2016). This is what public housing looks like. Malay Mail. Link.
  2. Bernama. (2022). Affordable housing dwellers find it difficult to upgrade. The Sun Daily. Link.
  3. Overview of Malaysia’s Public Housing History. Rights to the City. Link.
  5. A. Azuddin & Z. Razak. (2021). The Affordable Housing Issue in Malaysia. The Centre. Link.
  6. The Malaysian Insight. (2017). Why some make it, while others fail in Malaysia’s public housing projects. M Today. Link.
  7. S. Chua. (2021). Variety in PPR unit sizes can improve B40 living standards. FMT. Link.
  8. V. Chong. (2020). Problems Of Low-Cost Housing. Star Property. Link.
  9. N. Wahi et al. (2018). Problems and Issues of High-Rise Low-Cost Housing in Malaysia. Link.
  10. Assoc Prof Dr Z. Shari. (2022). Public and Private Housing in Malaysia. FuturArc. Link.
  11. L.C. Ping. (2022). Drug Dens and Killer Litter: Finding Hope Inside Malaysia’s HDB-style PPR Public Housing. Rice. Link.
  12. The Malay Mail. (2018). At Penang’s oldest high-rise flats, tales of falling bottles, soiled diapers and corpses. M Today. Link.
  13. R. Lee. (2022). Think City aims to improve quality of life in public housing. The Edge Markets. Link.
  14. S.S. Priya. (2018). Trapped in poverty in high-density flats. The Star. Link.
  15. S.J. Zahiid. (2023). Khazanah Research urges review of PPR project as study shows legacy cracks in social, private housing policy. Malay Mail. Link.
  16. A.F. Yee. (2023). The REAL deal: What’s wrong with learning from Singapore’s success in housing? The Edge Markets. Link.

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