Mini apartment blocks in eye of controversy after Hanoi fire kills 56

By Ngoc Diem, Son Ha, Phuong Anh   September 21, 2023 | 08:14 pm PT
Mini apartment blocks in eye of controversy after Hanoi fire kills 56
The 10-floor mini apartment building in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District where 56 people died during a fire on Sep. 12, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh
The recent Hanoi fire that killed 56 people has stirred up debate about mini apartment blocks in major cities, with some opposing it and others demanding better management.

"Mini apartment blocks cannot be legalized," National Assembly chairman Vuong Dinh Hue said this week as he demanded a review of fire safety regulations in the capital after the fire in a 10-floor mini apartment building killed 56 people, including children, and injuring 37 on Sept. 12.

Mini apartment blocks, which typically have between five and 10 floors divided into small apartments, have been mushrooming in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in recent years despite having no legal sanction.

There is no official data, but according to national utility Vietnam Electricity, around 2,000 buildings in Hanoi that are connected to the grid can be classified as mini apartment towers.

Vu Ngoc Anh, head of the Ministry of Construction’s science, technology and environment department, pointed out to reporters Thursday that the 2014 Housing Law does not recognize mini apartment buildings as a separate category, and so in essence they are residential buildings like others.

Many owners have built more floors than licensed and sold them, and so must return the money to buyers since it is illegal, he said.

The illegal floors should not be used for any purpose, he said.

Tran Ngoc Chinh, head of the Vietnam Urban Development Planning Association, said mini apartment blocks are distorting the face of cities.

Many are located deep inside alleys in thickly populated districts, and most are illegally modified to house more people, he said.

The building that caught fire in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District was, for instance, only allowed to have six floors and accommodate around 50 people, but the owner added four floors illegally and house triple that number of people, he said.

"Of the thousands of mini apartment blocks, many infringe the law. The city is overburdened with this type of property."

But others pointed out that though mini apartment blocks have their drawbacks, they are giving low-income people a chance to own or rent property amid the disappearance of the affordable segment in major cities.

Le Hoang Chau, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Real Estate Association, said there are around four million blue-collar workers in Hanoi and 4.7 million in HCMC, and they all need a place to stay.

Low-income workers, and students from other provinces, could only afford to buy or rent housing in mini apartment blocks, where prices range from VND600 to VND1 billion per apartment, making them the cheapest property segment in cities.

HCMC had over 60,000 mini apartment buildings with around 600,000 apartments as of mid-2022, according to its construction department.

So they house around 1.8 million people, or 40% of the city’s workforce, Chau said.

In the last three years Hanoi and HCMC have seen almost no new supply in the affordable residential property segment (priced at below VND25 million per square meter).

"The shortage of homes for low-income people has led to the boom in mini apartment buildings in the last decade," Chau said.

Lawmaker Trinh Xuan An said in the long run the government needs to provide affordable homes costing VND700 million-1 billion that meet fire safety norms.

But for now mini apartment blocks should not be banned, merely better managed, especially in terms of fire safety, he added.

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