Myanmar Times: Housing the urban poor is vital to combat COVID-19

U Thant Zaw Oo lives in an informal settlement in Hlaingthayar township. His family of six is dependent on him and his wife, who work as bricklayers. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, work has reduced for both of them- while his wife has been put out of work, U Thant Zaw Oo works once in three days. Due to a fall in their income, his family has been forced to take a loan of K300,000 at an interest rate of 20 percent for 24 days.

Keeping a roof over his family’s heads, however, is his primary concern at the moment. “Tomorrow is the due date for paying the rent on our room. I pay K70,000 for a 64 square-foot room in which my family lives. We tried negotiating with the landlord but he asked us to vacate the room if we are unable to pay. I am thinking of taking another loan to pay the landlord even though I know it will be difficult to pay it back without a regular job. I can’t imagine what the situation of my family will be if this situation persists”, he said.

This is the precarious condition that U Thant Zaw Oo and 400,000 others like him, living in 423 informal settlements in Yangon, find themselves in. At a time when having a secure, adequate home is the difference between life and death, the vulnerable urban poor in Myanmar are increasingly at risk of losing their homes.

As a part of our rapid assessment of informal settlements, UN-Habitat conducted in-depth interviews with 100 households living in informal settlements in Dala, Hlaingthayar, and Shwepyitha townships.

Our results indicate that urgent attention needs to be paid to the issue of housing, particularly for residents of informal settlements, the homeless, and low-income renters in Myanmar’s urban areas. In this article, I present a snapshot of our results and a set of policy options that underline the importance of housing for all as a critical component of the fight against COVID-19.

First, 81pc of households surveyed said that they had at least one member in their household who lost their job. In over half the households (55pc), at least two earning members have lost their job. Second, the loss in jobs has triggered a massive fall in household income- 94 pc of households in our sample reported a fall in income.

Third, households like U Thant Zaw Oo’s have been pushed into borrowing money, often at usurious interest rates. 69pc of households have taken on additional debt in the past 30 days. The top reason for taking a new debt was to buy food- 88pc of households reported borrowing money to buy food.

Fourth, the specter of evictions now looms over a majority of households in Yangon who live in precarious housing conditions including in informal settlements. 53pc of households in informal settlements reported that they do not feel secure from evictions at this time of crisis. In Hlaingthayar, the township that houses the largest number of informal settlements, 77pc of households said they don’t feel secure from evictions.

If we are to succeed in the fight against COVID-19, it is important to recognise the centrality of housing as a critical infrastructure of healthcare. If not prudently addressed, the health pandemic could well hit densely populated urban settlements and its economic impact could render vulnerable households homeless or leave them in even more precarious housing conditions.

Four key actions are critical to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the vulnerable urban poor in Myanmar:

First and foremost, authorities must also focus attention on informal settlements that are uniquely vulnerable. Our survey found that even though awareness of key protection actions against COVID-19 (physical distancing, use of masks, and regular handwashing) remained high, residents of informal settlements are unable to put their knowledge into practice. 62pc of households said that their settlements are too dense to practice physical distancing, 33pc said they have no money to buy masks, and 23pc said that they can’t afford to buy soap or sanitizers.

Authorities and development partners must take urgent efforts to expand access to affordable or free water and soap as a minimum requirement in informal settlements. This must be supplemented by a plan to expand access to water at key communal locations within informal settlements. In addition, community isolation and quarantine facilities must be created for those unable to quarantine or treat them­selves at home.

However, a likely barrier in the implementation of these measures is the unavailability of data about informal settlements. This is where city authorities can engage with the vibrant network of ground-level actors in informal settlements including ward leaders, youth groups, women’s savings groups, and civil society organizations. Each settlement is unique, facing unique vulnerabilities and a successful strategy against COVID-19 needs to be operationalised at the ground level. The need of the hour is a local, granular, and decentralised response plan.

Second, measures must be taken to end homelessness as an urgent public health priority. According to the 2014 census, close to 1 million people were classified as home­less in Myanmar. In the Yangon Region, the es­timated number of homeless persons is 160,000.

Response interventions to COVID-19 including stay at home orders have increased the risk of homelessness, particularly for wom­en, children, and youth who face violence at home. In particular, the imposition of curfews exacerbate risk for the homeless especially homeless children who might find places where they routinely access food, water, and refuge shut down.

Steps must be taken to end homelessness by creating a network of adequate, safe, and accessible emergency shelters across urban areas in Myanmar. Government authorities should work with the extensive network of civil society organisations to support and amplify existing efforts to house the homeless and anyone at risk of homelessness, especially the elderly and women. In particular, no homeless child should be without a safe refuge during the pandemic.

Third, as the survey makes clear, for a majority of households in informal settlements, the risk of losing their homes due to evictions is a clear and present danger. In addition to ensuring a roof for all residents, concurrent steps must be taken to ensure that no one slips into homelessness, especially through evictions.

It is important that a moratorium on all evictions is announced, at least until the end of the pandemic, as done by several governments. Such a moratorium has already been recognized as a key element of care by several governments around the world.

The moratorium should ideally extend to all forms of resi­dential dwellings including in informal settlements, workers’ accommodation including hostels and dormitories, encampments, and all forms of student accommodation.

At this moment of heightened crisis, it is imperative to reassure communities, especially in informal settlements, about their se­curity of residence and guarantee that no resident is evicted or displaced.

Fourth, urgent attention needs to be paid to protect low-income renters. In line with policies implemented around the world, an immediate rent freeze should be instituted to ensure that residential rental prices are not increased during the pandemic and for a specified time period after.

This will go a long way in ensuring residential stability for Myanmar’s urban residents. In addition, measures must be taken to ensure that no residential renter is evicted for nonpayment of rent, if the renter is unable to pay rent due to loss of income or livelihood, or due to in­creased healthcare expenditure.

While renters and tenants will still be fully obligated to pay rent in full, it is recommended that a one-year window in which they can repay any overdue rent payments be provided. The Myanmar COVID-19 Economic Response Pla) initiates timely measures in this direction by calling for more flexibility in interest payments and mortgage payments. These efforts can be supplemented through a mortgage holiday for all forms of loans with a view to reducing household income transferred towards debt servicing.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the structural inequalities that our cities are built on. Even as temporary measures are undertaken to combat the pandemic, we must pause to reflect critically on the long-term strategies needed to build our cities on pillars of equality. At the center of our efforts to build back better must be the promise of adequate housing for all. Our collective urban future depends on this.

Vishnu Prasad is a staff member of UN-Habitat, Myanmar