It took seven months. From March when the first emails and letters written by concerned supporters across the world – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Iran — arrived in the mailboxes of city government officials, to the day the residents were finally moved out of a crumbling, unsound building in Mongolia’s capital into safer housing.
In between, working closely in tandem with residents of the building, staff at Amnesty International Mongolia including myself tirelessly traipsed from government department to government department, taking with us their concerns.
Meanwhile, the occupants had little choice but to remain living in what is known as “Building #3” in Ulaanbataar’s Sukhbaatar District, a rubbish-strewn apartment building that had no working radiators or central heating, an inconceivable situation in a city where temperatures regularly dip to below -30 degrees Celsius in winter.
Things had started going wrong for Building #3 residents in early 2015 when private developers approached them with offers of new apartments in a building it was proposing to build. It was an attractive offer for occupants of an apartment building that had no running water or toilets.
The proposal was part of a large-scale redevelopment plan the Mongolian government had rolled out in 2013 to respond to rapid population growth and combat pollution and provide better housing and access to services. This initiative includes redeveloping unsafe, structurally unsound public housing buildings, a category Building #3 fell under.
At least 28 households agreed to a resettlement and compensation package offered by the private developer that covered a year’s rent for those who moved out while the new building was being constructed. Those who accepted the offer to vacate were asked to remove windows and doors to their units to dissuade others from moving in.
I had no heating and had to rely on just electric heaters. It was the toughest winter for me in my whole life.Jargalsalkhan, 58-year-old former resident
Living conditions deteriorated further for the five households who had rejected the developer’s offer and stayed on; pipes and other construction materials, and rubbish were dumped in the building. Consequently, the remaining occupants, including a man with disabilities confined to a wheelchair, shivered through the sub-zero temperatures of winter drawing whatever heat and little comfort they could get from portable stoves and electric heaters.
When spring of 2016 came round with no progress made on construction of the new building, occupants who had moved out began moving back in as the rent money given as compensation ran out. This was also around the time Amnesty issued our first Urgent Action, asking people around the world to write to the Ulaanbataar government and urging them to urgently provide alternative housing to the residents.
Success came just in time, as another harsh winter loomed. In October, we were informed by the Ulaanbataar governor’s office that ten families have been rehoused in alternative housing approximately 30 minutes away from from Building #3.
I tried to stay in the building through the winter but I had to move out in December 2015 because I was very sick.Lundeejantsan, former resident of Building #3
While this still is only meant to be temporary shelter till the new building is constructed, this was greeted with great relief, particularly by residents who had to endure the winter of 2015/16 in the dilapidated Building #3. One, a 53-year-old whose daughter had to move out to live with relatives when her young children fell sick, was effusive with thanks. “I’ve got a two-room apartment which is warm and cosy, and I’ll again live with my daughter’s family. This could not happen without help of Amnesty.”
I cannot have hoped for a happier outcome for the families of Building #3 for now. Their ordeal however is emblematic of the very real consequences many others in the city could face when redevelopment plans go wrong.
Faces of Building #3
Jargalsalkhan, 58, former resident in Room 30
“I bought this flat in 2003. Its heating was fine at that time. I had a stroke in 2005 and I was looked after in another location. I came back here because this is my flat. The developer was threatening to cut the power and heating in the building. Materials in the vacated flats, including floorboards, stoves and heating pipes were stolen. This resulted in more flats having no heating and made the whole building cold. It was the toughest winter for me in my whole life. I had no heating and had to rely on just electric heaters. I could say I was lucky in the sense that my body cannot feel very well the heat or cold.”
Lundeejantsan, 53, former resident in Room 45
“There are five people including my son-in-law, daughter and two grandchildren. I tried to stay in the building through the winter but I had to move out in December 2015 because I was very sick. I moved back in April this year. My daughter moved out in August 2015 when the families moved out. My grandchildren were sick staying here so they had to. But I had to stay on to protect our home. It was difficult. My grandchildren are very young. The elder child is two and a half, and the younger is six months old. I missed them. But I had nowhere else to go.”
A new policy briefing released today, Falling Short:The Right to Adequate Housing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, lays out in detail how 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.