After a 16-year long wait, displaced descendants of the original settlers of Jalan Raja Uda are finally receiving some compensation from a developer who took over an abandoned commercial project along this bustling street in Butterworth.

Over 300 households scattered over 50 acres lost their family homes to the Raja Uda Commercial Centre project in Butterworth, originally undertaken by Cherating Development Sdn Bhd. Work on the project, comprising rows of new shophouses fronting both sides of a one-kilometre stretch of Jalan Raja Uda towards the intersection with Jalan Telaga Air/Jalan Siram, began in 1996.

The affected residents are mainly descendants of Teochew and Hokkien-speaking settlers who had arrived in Kampung Simpah (as Jalan Raja Uda was then known) in the 1920s and 1930s from Kwangchow, capital of Guangdong province in southern China. Many of the original settlers built wooden houses and toiled as farmers or reared livestock in the area.

Some 200 of the affected households accepted cash compensation ranging from RM20000 to RM60000 while 72 others signed compensation agreements in 1996/97 for a medium-cost apartment worth around RM80000. (Another 50 households or so are affected by the latest phase of the project.)

Of those 72 households, 27 chose to find temporary rented accommodation elsewhere while 45 were given temporary housing i.e. 600 sq ft two-bedroom units in rows of long-houses near the site.

The 27 who opted for rented accommodation while waiting for the apartments were given a RM400 monthly rental subsidy, but this stopped after about 18 months, say village committee members. Some of them have since found low-cost housing.

The 45 households in the long-houses, not built to last, found conditions worsening as ceiling boards and roofing began giving way while termite infestation crept in. Not surprisingly, 11 of these 45 households left after finding their own alternative housing – leaving 34 families still in the longhouses.

But the medium-cost apartments the 72 households were promised never materialised. Work on the project was abandoned in 2008 in the aftermath of the East Asian financial crisis. Two years later, Woolley Development Sdn Bhd took over the land and Cherating’s liabilities and attempted to rehabilitate the project.

Negotiations between Woolley and the settlers proved tough and were heading towards an impasse. In the meantime, 14 of the 72 household heads, mainly children of the original settlers, who had signed the compensation agreements passed away.

The outcome of the 2008 general election gave the displaced community’s campaign fresh impetus. They organised meetings, pressured state government officials and refused to cave in.

Finally, after 16 long years and with a general election looming, a deal was hammered out: the developer would award RM55000 to the 72 displaced households who had originally been promised medium-cost apartments (which would have been worth around RM125000 today).

At a celebratory dinner for the Raja Uda settlers on Sunday, I asked Penang state exco member Lim Hock Seng, the state assembly member for Bagan Jermal, what would happen to those households who wouldn’t be able to find alternative housing with the RM55000 that they are receiving.

Hock Seng whipped out a file and displayed a list of 11 names out of the 72 who had signed compensation agreements. “I have written to (State Town and Country Planning, Housing and Arts Committee chairman) Wong Hon Hai and Perumahan (the housing department) seeking low-cost flats for these 11,” he said, flipping the pages of the correspondence. These would be flats at Ampang Jajar near Mak Mandin priced at RM42000, though renovations might be needed, he said.

Hock Seng noted that the Raja Uda settler issue is one of two long-standing problems in the area, the other being the case of the ‘Rumah Hijau’ longhouse dwellers in nearby Mak Mandin who have been waiting for over four decades for alternative housing.

Also present at the dinner was Richard Woo, the tall youthful-looking managing director of Woolley Development Sdn Bhd, who appeared relieved that this saga was drawing to a close. “This has been the most challenging project I have been involved in,” he said, his voice barely audible as right behind us, on stage, a mini-skirted singer entertained the diners to loud music. Richard said his company had taken over the project including existing liabilities to financial institutions amounting to millions of ringgit after the previous developer went “MIA” (missing in action).

Seated next to Richard at the main table earlier was Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who clambered on stage to brief the crowd of about 300 diners about his plans for quality affordable housing in Batu Kawan to be designed by Singapore Housing Development Board consultants.

In Raja Uda, there are still lose ends to be tied up as not all the 72 households have received the full RM55000. According to Goay Weng Leng, the settlers’ committee adviser, 10 households have not yet received anything while 15 have received RM50000. These households will be coming together in a committee to stake their claims. Lim Hock Seng has indicated that the developer would make full settlement by the end of March 2012, said Weng Leng.

For Weng Leng, who has stuck with the residents from the beginning, the struggle is nearly over. “We didn’t get what we were originally promised (the medium cost apartment) but RM55000 is better than what Woolley was initially offering (RM40000). The negotiations were tough as we had to pressure the developer and state government leaders until at one point relations got a bit strained when we felt the government was not taking strong enough action against the developer.”

He hoped the state government could allocate another 15 low-cost flats for those households whose monthly income is just above the eligibility threshold of RM1500 but who are nonetheless unable to afford alternative housing with the RM55000 compensation.