Evicted residents camp out at Komtar with pillows

Families camping at the lobby of Komtar after they were evicted from flats they were renting at Rifle Range, Air Itam, Penang.

GEORGE TOWN: A group of 30 people camped with their pillows and comforters at the lobby of Komtar today after they were forced to leave their rented low-cost flats owned by the Penang government yesterday.

The seven families were evicted from the Rifle Range Flats in Air Itam for various reasons, including having rental arrears of up to RM20,000; having a monthly income exceeding RM750; registered tenants who had died; and having spouses who are foreigners.

Many of these tenants are the parents or siblings of those originally given the chance to rent the low-cost flats.

They continued staying in the flats after the original tenants died. However, many of the current tenants earn more than the stipulated RM750 and are therefore ineligible to stay there.

The Penang government said it had “bent over backwards” to accommodate these affected families, giving them instalment plans to settle their arrears and ample time to find a new home.

Kopitiam worker Phang Shu Min claims he was evicted after he declared he had married a Vietnamese woman and now had two children.

Kopitiam waiter Phang Shu Min, 48, said the move to evict him for having a Vietnamese wife was ridiculous. He said he had paid the RM90 rent for his 340 sq ft flat diligently for the past nine years.

He blames himself for the eviction as he had declared his marriage to the 35-year-old Vietnamese woman during a verification interview with the Penang government’s housing department official in 2016.

“I wanted to declare everything. I did not want to hide anything. When I moved here nine years ago, my salary was about RM400 to RM500, doing odd jobs.

“Now, I am a waiter with a RM1,100 salary — the minimum wage. If you chase me out now, where do you want me to go? At least give me a new place. I have to take care of my wife and two children.

“When I declared my latest salary and other details truthfully in the 2016 interview, a government official asked me ‘Kenapa you bodoh?’ (‘Why you stupid?’) for declaring the truth,” Phang said when met at Komtar.

He said after he spoke the truth, he was served four separate notices to move out in 2017.

“Now, they have locked up my house. My three-year-old daughter’s clothes are inside, together with my other valuables. When are they going to let me in again?”

Phang said he, his wife and two children are now staying at his father’s 340 sq ft flat at the next block.

The Rifle Range flats in Air Itam here are the country’s first low-cost high-rise flats, built in the 1970s. There are 3,699 units in six blocks.

Most units are privately-held, with the Penang government owning 449 units meant for the poor at Blocks E and J. These units are offered for rent.

PSM’s R Karthigesu says the state government must include those affected in their discussions.

Rifle Range Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) coordinator R Karthigesu said Phang was not alone. Another woman, who had married a Pakistani man, was similarly disqualified from public housing.

He said the immediate concern was the refusal of the state authorities to meet those affected by the eviction, despite repeated pleas since December 2017.

Karthigesu said the Penang government claimed it has “met eight times” to discuss the matter but he claimed none of these meetings involved the participation of the affected residents.

“The PPR houses are the only hope for the poor to live in. Where are these people going to go? Today, they are homeless folk. Nearly half of them are Muslims and are currently fasting for Ramadan,” he said.

Karthigesu said PSM had managed to get Liga Muslim, an NGO, to rehouse all of them at a shophouse on Lebuh Queen.

Penang govt: We have entertained appeals

State Housing Committee chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo said the Penang government had gone through each eviction case in great detail, saying those told to leave were no longer deserving of the flats.

He said his officers had gone through 384 appeals by residents, with 288 of them approved.

Jagdeep said with 860 low-cost flat applicants in the Northeast district (where Rifle Range is located), the state government had no choice but to only give them to the truly deserving.

He said at the Rifle Range alone, there are 62 applicants on the waiting list.

“While they might have their grouses, I have a longer list of people waiting for homes. It is a very fine balancing act.

“We have bent over backwards giving them time. I am the only Exco in Malaysia that decided that all enforcement action must get my approval first.

“In other states, they do not. DBKL, for instance, evicts their residents from PPRs (public housing units) in Kuala Lumpur right away.

“I, on the other hand, have given a lot of leeway to them, allowing them to pay through instalments and giving them extensions of time to pay up,” he told FMT.

Jagdeep said it was unfair to label the Penang government as “cruel” for only doing the right thing, saying there are people in much worse-off conditions who deserve these units.

“There are a lot of irresponsible tenants who are paying RM90 to rent the units but later renting them out for more than RM1,000. Do you think that is fair?

“Hence, enforcement is the only way to ensure only the truly deserving get these units.

“As for foreigners, we are very strict about this. Our priority for low-cost housing is meant exclusively for Penangites.”

In a separate interview, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said those protesting must understand that they no longer qualify for affordable housing and this was the reason for the enforcement action.

“We have given them six months to look for alternative housing. Perhaps they should talk to the 1,800 people on the waiting list for low-cost flats.”