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Behind the dirt and garbage at low-cost flats

Many low-cost apartments are badly maintained and filled with rubbish, whether due to the residents' attitudes or structural problems beyond their control.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Cleanliness and hygiene are a problem at some low-cost housing areas, where garbage collects and clean-up efforts don't last long.
Cleanliness and hygiene are a problem at some low-cost housing areas, where garbage collects and clean-up efforts don't last long.

From a distance, the apartment blocks at Kayu Ara in Petaling Jaya look like any other urban neighbourhood, with their ubiquitous beige walls and cement-floored car parks.

A closer look, however, drives home at least one clear difference: the garbage.

Around the blocks and along the corridors, rubbish is everywhere – tied up in bags or just flung to the side.

A strong smell of decay pervades the air in the blocks, which are dark and thick with grime. Somewhere above, a broken pipe leaks water which collects in pools on the floor below.

The walls are covered in graffiti and cat excrement lies scattered about on the floor and in the stairwells.

Here, in a ground-floor unit, Dania and her family have lived for the past five years.

She said this was how the low-cost flats had always been in terms of cleanliness and hygiene.

“It is what it is,” she told MalaysiaNow. “Sometimes, it gets cleaned up but it always becomes dirty again.”

Dania has several children who are still of schoolgoing age, and she knows that the environment is not good for them.

But like the hundreds of other families living there, she has no other choice.

A countrywide problem?

Several years ago, pictures showing similar conditions at a People’s Housing Project (PPR) in Penang took the internet by storm.

A resident there said while the authorities would come to clean up the place, the garbage would soon accumulate again.

Garbage lies strewn on the floor outside the ground-level units, thrown down by residents as they pass by or from the windows of upper floors.

This appears to be a problem for many who live in low-cost housing areas, whether public or privately owned.

There are also other problems such as a shortage of parking.

Many of the low-cost flats in the country were built decades ago, and designed to maximise the number of units that could be squeezed in.

This meant that more often than not, a large number of people would end up sharing a very small space.

This gives rise to the question of whether the hygiene problems in such areas stem from the attitude of the residents themselves, most of whom are in the low-income bracket, or whether there are structural issues at hand involving planning and policies.

Ainoriza Mohd Aini of Universiti Malaya said one of the problems was the lack of areas for garbage disposal.

“At some PPRs, the spaces set aside for the disposal of rubbish are too small and cannot accommodate the volume of trash, including bulk items,” she said.

Nevertheless, she did not deny that the issue also arose from the irresponsible behaviour of the residents themselves.

If, for example, a lift is in need of repair, those living on the upper floors often just throw their garbage down or dump it on other levels or at other blocks, she said.

Ainoriza, who has studied residents in PPR areas, said more domestic waste was also generated during the movement control order period, partly because of the increase in take-away packaging.

“Management costs, especially for cleaning, are very high compared to the maintenance fees collected from the PPR owners,” she said, adding that inconsistent collection is another compounding problem.

This was affirmed to MalaysiaNow by a member of the Kayu Ara management, who said that many residents do not even pay their maintenance fees.

Ainoriza said the management should take firm action if residents are found to be throwing garbage anywhere other than the designated areas.

This would include making a police report if property is damaged because of such acts, she said.

This is in line with how neighbouring Singapore maintains the low-cost flats or HDBs in the city-state.

Authorities there also hold campaigns and contests such as the “Cleanest Block Competition and Cleanest Estate Competition”, efforts that can be mimicked by local authorities in Malaysia.

“In the end, I think that residents associations need to take proactive steps to remind everyone to help take care of the area,” Ainoriza said.

“I have visited PPRs that are well maintained because the residents there have an understanding about their joint responsibility to keep the place clean.”

In the UK, she said, there are bulk garbage disposal centres and rubbish dumps in residential areas are only for domestic waste.

She suggested that future PPRs be built along these lines, to make it easier for residents to dispose of their garbage.

Back at Kayu Ara, Dania dreams of moving out one day and living somewhere else.

“I don’t want my children to have to deal with the issue of garbage or the other social problems in this area,” she said.

“It’s not good for their future.”