Residents of dilapidated Saigon buildings live in limbo

By Ha An   February 10, 2021 | 05:29 am PT
Bedeviled by compensation, title and relocation bottlenecks, thousands live in precarious conditions in crumbling Saigon complexes, not knowing when their lot will improve.

Nguyen Thi Thanh, 54, wears a helmet every time she leaves her house.

She is not preparing for road traffic. She is afraid that chunks of the ceiling along the corridors could fall off any time.

Thanh lives in the Truc Giang residential quarters in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 4, a complex built before 1975.

These days, the ceiling along corridors of most blocks has peeled off, revealing rusted, dark brown metal bars. There are cracks everywhere. Electric wires and cables are intricately wound and the electric boxes badly damaged.

The balcony at a corridor of Truc Giang condo project in District 4, HCMC, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/

The balcony on a corridor of the dilapidated Truc Giang apartment complex in District 4, HCMC, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.

Apartments on the highest floor in this complex suffer water leaks every time it rains.

Thanh, 33, who lives in one of the top apartments, said every rainy season, he has to apply cement on the roof to prevent the water leak. But even this layer of protection cannot prevent water from seeping in if it rains heavily. When this happens, the entire family has to take shelter at their parents’ house.

"I don’t need a beautiful house. I just need a safe one," he said.

In 2018, municipal authorities found a private investor to rebuild the Truc Giang complex.

The investor suggested that residents move back into the complex after it has been rebuilt, with the conversion rate of changing every one square meter of the old apartment for 1.1 m2 in the new apartment.

Those not okay with this conversion rate can sell their apartments to the investor at VND27.5 million ($1,193) per square meter.

However, several residents did not accept the exchange rate, saying it was too low compared to the market price of VND40-50 million per square meter.

With such disagreements yet to be settled, the investor was caught up in legal procedures that could create difficulties in the site clearing process. The investor quit.

The city changed its tactic then to resettling all residents of the Truc Giang complex to another condo project in District 11, around 8 km (5 miles) away.

So far, 119 families have agreed to move along with compensation that has not been revealed, but four families who live on the ground floor are refusing to move.

This prevents the authorities from setting up barriers around the buildings for demolishing them, or cutting water and power supply even as they continue the search for a new investor.

Nguyen Thi Bao Trinh, chairman of District 4’s Ward 13, where the Truc Giang complex is located, said that just in one week in late January, the ward invited the four families at five different times to try and persuade them, but have failed to do so.

Around one kilometer from Truc Giang, the Vinh Hoi residential complex in District 4’s Ward 6 is facing similar problems.

The district has been able to attract several investors to demolish the project for rebuilding, but so far, only 18 of 244 families have agreed to the plan.

The city had at first arranged new residences for Vinh Hoi families at the Vinh Loc B condo project in Binh Chanh District, around 20 km away. Most residents said the new location was too far away from their schools and places of work.

The district authorities then came up with a new resettlement plan that would move the residents to the Tan My condo, just 5 km away. While more residents are amenable to this plan, there are those who are reluctant to leave Vinh Hoi.

The ceiling of a house at Vinh Hoi apartment building in HCMCs District 4, Janauary 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

The ceiling of a house at Vinh Hoi apartment building in HCMC's District 4, Janauary 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An.

Valid reasons to stay put

Dao Duy Dat, 69, who lives with his family at one of the four houses at the ground floor in the Truc Giang complex, said he has encountered administrative problems related to the ownership of the house.

"The government sold me this house five years ago at a preferential price because I was a war veteran, but until today, all the related paperwork to transfer the house's ownership to me has not been completed.

"I’m worried that if we decide to move out without an official ownership certificate, we will not be provided with another place to live in," he said, adding that he will agree to move once the authorities make sure that his family will have proper ownership at the resettlement location.

Nguyen Ngoc Tien, chairman of Ward 6, said the biggest reason preventing residents from moving is that they do not want to leave a place and a neighborhood that they have spent almost a lifetime in.

In some cases, residents want to hold on to the downgraded apartments to wait for an investor who can offer a better compensation and relocation deal.

"These are all reasonable wishes of the people, but yet in a situation when these buildings are seriously degraded, moving is the only way to ensure safety for their lives and assets and we truly hope for cooperation from all residents," Tien said.

He said that the Vinh Hoi complex hosts many cracks, the balcony along corridors are broken and pose significant danger, especially for children who play in the area.

New law proposed

The city now has as many as 474 condo projects built before 1975 that are seriously downgraded and need to be rebuilt.

However, due to several factors, including disagreements over compensation and obstacles in site clearance, the city has been able to demolish and rebuild just two of them – one at 192 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in District 3 and the Nguyen Kim project in District 10.

City authorities have suggested that the Ministry of Construction makes changes to a degree on
renovating and reconstructing of apartment buildings to remove a provision that requires consensus of all residents of a building to demolish it.

Instead, the agreement of just 50 percent of the residents should be enough for authorities to carry out demolitions, they have proposed.

Le Hoang Chau, chairman of the HCMC Real Estate Association, said the city’s proposal was necessary. The association itself has suggested the same thing to the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, he added.

It was not clear how this rule would protect the rights of the other 50 percent of the residents.

Vietnam now has around 2,500 old and downgraded apartment buildings and a majority of them are in Hanoi and HCMC. By the end of last year, just 1 percent had been renovated, Deputy Minister of Construction Nguyen Van Sinh said at a meeting with HCMC last November.

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