June 7, 2018 / 1:11 AM / a year ago

Down and out in Ulaanbaatar: the battle for housing in a city in crisis

ULAANBAATAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a damp, single room in a disused bathhouse in the Sansar area of eastern Ulaanbaatar, 90-year-old Yuule Vandan cares for her disabled son and worries how he will survive without her.

    Yuule moved out of a shared flat in an old Soviet barracks over three years ago while it was redeveloped but the project was shelved and she now struggles to pay 100,000 tugrik ($42) rent from a state pension of 250,000 tugrik for their one room.

    She is one of a rising number of Mongolians living in the nation’s capital who have been cajoled or forced out of homes to allow for development to house a fast growing population and have been left in limbo, unable to afford suitable housing.

    “They organized a beautiful event. I think they even cut a ribbon. They said they were going to build a new apartment building ... It was all lie,” Vandan, formerly a gold dealer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    “Now we have nothing ... Having no place to call your own is the worst situation.”

    Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled in size in the last decade and is now home to about 1.4 million people - roughly half of the country’s total population - creating a major shortage of affordable housing while luxury high-rises line upmarket areas.

    More Mongolians are moving to the city with some quitting traditional nomadic herding due to climate change and younger Mongolians lured by more diverse job opportunities, with the government expecting the population to hit 1.7 million by 2030.

    Officials estimate 55 percent of the city - or 750,000 people - now live in sprawling informal districts in traditional circular herders’ tents, or gers, with no access to central heating.

    This has led to a major pollution problem with the coal fired stoves people use to stay warm in freezing conditions blamed for driving up air pollution to 14 times global guidelines, according to the World Health Organization.

    But there is no room for the urban migrants in central Ulaanbaatar in buildings built largely after the Second World War at a time when Mongolia was under Soviet control and residents all lived in state housing.

    MAJOR BUILDING AMBITIONS

    Aware of the need to both regenerate old Soviet residential areas and to connect the ger districts to the gas supply, to stop pollution from fires, authorities have vowed to invest billions in affordable housing and utilities by 2030. 

    The Ulaanbaatar 2020 Master Plan and Development Approaches for 2030, approved in 2015, outlined a plan to redevelop ger areas in stages with new apartment complexes and about 50 service centres while also redeveloping unsound public housing.

    The city plan, agreed before the current government took power in 2017, was signed at a time when the Mongolian economy was fueled by a mining boom.

   Under the plan, development companies compete for residents’ approval and, once chosen by at least 70 percent, enter an agreement with residents and city officials which is meant to protect the right to alternative accommodation and compensation.

    But campaigners say residents are not being protected and many of them are left homeless in the over-crowded city.

    In dark glasses and a mask to hide his face, a former resident of one low rise building in Sukhbaatar district in northern Ulaanbaatar said he was among the 30 percent who did not want to move - but the law did not make their rights clear.

    “The households who signed the contract removed the doors and windows and cut off the electricity and heating system. That’s why we consider this a forced eviction,” said the former resident who would only be named as “Jugii”.

    “I don’t have confidence in my future.”

    Other residents have been caught out as developers who promised new housing failed to deliver, with the economy now stalling, confusion caused by a change in government, and widespread accusations of corruption.

    Between 2010 and 2016, construction began on a total of  7,374 apartments across Ulaanbaatar but only 3,516 were completed, according to the Ulaanbaatar 2020 Master Plan.

    “The absence of clear and adequate government regulation, effective consultation and monitoring makes individuals affected by redevelopment vulnerable to a range of human rights violations, in particular the right to adequate housing,” according to an Amnesty International report.

    Damchii Nyamba, 70, was in favor of redevelopment as he knew it would reduce air pollution and agreed to leave his home for a new property in 2014. Five days later his home was demolished.

A building that used to be bathhouse and and now used for living space is seen in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, February 9, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shanshan Chen

    But four years on he has no new home and only received two thirds of the compensation he was promised. Unable to afford to rent for an alternative property, he has been forced to rely on his relatives for a roof over his head.

    “I used to have land, a comfortable house and a yard. I lived as any middle-class Mongolian citizen. Now I’ve joined the poorest of the poor,” said Nyamba, a retiree from Sukhbaatar.

    AT MERCY OF MISUNDERSTANDINGS

    In the Sansar area of Bayanzurkh district in the city’s east, Munkh-Orshikh Batmunkh stands on a deserted site pointing to large holes in the ground and a long, low building.

    “There were seven two-storey buildings like this .. That was our life. Now the place where I used live has turned into these large holes,” said Batmunkh, a middle-class urban Mongolian.

    He now pays over 100,000 tugrik a month to stay in another family’s yard in the southwest of the city.

    “Before this eviction, we used to live so well here, we were all friends. Now, all the 85 households are scattered around and live somewhere else. So here we are - no compensation, no apartment to live in,” he said.

    Some Sansar area residents submitted petitions seeking help to Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa and got results.

    The prime minister ordered city officials to act and, after an investigation, a contract awarded to the Ikh Urguu Company to develop the area was canceled.

    The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s requests to a director of the Ikh Urguu company for comment failed to elicit a response.

    Ulaanbaatar’s Deputy Mayor Batbayasgalan Jantsan said companies awarded redevelopment contracts were obliged to provide housing for families who gave up land for redevelopment.

    “But during the economic decline (caused by a global slowdown in mining), some misunderstanding took place between the government, the companies and citizens,” Batbayasgalan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office in Ulaanbaatar.

    “However, the government should not turn away just because it was the previous government’s fault. The citizens are owed protection by necessary laws.”

    CORRUPTION AND INTIMIDATION

    The government has received complaint after complaint from residents unhappy about the process, some of whom have accused developers of using intimidation to try to get 70 percent of residents to back them, sign a deal and leave their homes.

    “Our campaign leaders were stopped at night at the end of street and taken into the company cars and threatened,” said Nyamjav Bat-Ulzii, of the 13th Koroo of Bayanzurkh District in city’s east, who has refused to move from her apartment block.

    Some development companies acknowledge the system has not been as effective as it should be.

    Property development company Tsagaan Khuaran LLC denied Bat-Ulzii’s accusations of harassment but said some companies were using dirty tactics to get hold of properties and land.

    Otgontuya Dugarsuren, a director of Tsagaan Khuaran, said a rival company, which lost out on a contract to redevelop one area, set up a bogus non-government organization and tried to stop people reaching a deal with her company.

    When her shareholders heard the accusations of harassment they withdrew from the project fearing reputational damage, letting down residents who had agreed to the redevelopment.

    She said vague planning laws and processes had created a breeding ground for confusion and corruption.

    “A lot of procedures and policies are ... too general. All these conflicts between companies and citizens are because of that,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An abandoned mattress is seen in the woods in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, February 9, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Shanshan Chen

    Ragchaa Ochirbal, a lawyer from Unique Legal Partners who help residents battling the system, said the situation needed to be resolved urgently before it was out of control.

    “We can expect that redevelopment projects will get larger and affect even more people. Therefore, we should act now while the scale of violations is still manageable,” said Ochirbal.

    “We need to show the state the right direction ... One progressive observation is that citizens are now uniting around their interests. They are now demanding their rights.”

Reporting by Max Baring, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit www.thisisplace.org

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