Shantytown Philippines

The organized effort of the Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) to occupy the housing project of the National Housing Authority (NHA) in Pandi, Bulacan reminds us of the  severity of the housing shortage  for the poor.

A 2011 survey by the NHA showed there were 1.5 million informal settler families (ISFs) in the country, 52 percent of whom were living in dangerous areas such as the esteros of Metro Manila or the spaces below some bridges. A 2015 study by the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) reported  that the number of ISFs increased to 2.2 million.

These figures are underestimates for the reality is that the poor build homes, in public and private spaces, wherever they can. In big cities, there are “karton” or cardboard communities behind or around gated and fenced subdivisions or commercial complexes. When Yolanda hit the Visayas in 2013, majority of those who lost their homes were those who built their houses in the areas within 40 meters from the shorelines, which were declared by the government as “no-build zones”. In the uplands or mountainous areas of the archipelago, the indigenous peoples have to compete for space with the economic refugees from the lowlands. Even in some cemeteries, there is competition for space between the living and the dead. Go visit the Manila South Cemetery and see how many sari-sari stores are operating within the area. And yes, some ISFs simply settle along the concrete pavements of the urbanized towns. A few ISFs have been living for years in their mobile homes called karitons.

An old economic thesis states that poverty in the rural areas contributes to urban sprawl due to the endless migration of the rural poor. The fact, however, is that many of the urban poor today are second-, third- and even fourth-generation urban poor and that the spread of the urban sprawl is happening side by side with the spread of rural sprawl.

One outcome of this process is “peri urbanization”, the term given by some sociologists to the erosion of the urban-rural dichotomy or distinction in terms of landscape, demography and so on. In the developed countries, peri urbanization is mainly the result of the continuous outward urban infrastructure development which shrinks the space between the urban and rural areas. In the Philippines, however, peri urbanization is largely the consequence of the struggle of large segments of the urban and rural poor to secure jobs and incomes alongside their struggle to build homes wherever they can, usually found in the urban-rural peripheral areas and in idle or unoccupied lands. Thus, “slumization” is happening almost everywhere, in both the urban and rural areas of the three island groups of the country. Just take a look at the long rows of slum colonies in major highways, river systems, canals and mountain hillsides.

How then can the government, both at the national and local levels, stop urban and rural slumization? By providing subsidized housing? By relocating the ISFs?

It is clear that there are no easy answers. The HUDCC housing solution in Calauan, Laguna under the previous Administrations shows the weakness of a simple housing subsidy solution – breadwinners still work in Metro Manila because jobs are scarce in Calauan and are able to visit their awarded housing units once a week or even less. Thus, some units have become semi-abandoned, if not fully abandoned, while Calauan itself is suffering from population congestion without any substantial economic development.

The point is that the government, under various Administrations, has a bewildering array of housing projects for the poor since the 1970s. These include building “affordable” housing units, assistance to those wishing to build low-cost homes through low-cost financing, resettlement, site service development, rental control, etc. There is even an order for LGUs to develop specific sites for ISF relocation within their territories. And yet, the slumization waves inundating the whole country never stop.

As correctly pointed out by UN Habitat and numerous studies, slumization is directly traceable to the low incomes of the masses and their limited access to affordable housing. Majority cannot afford to build or rent decent housing and provide their families with balanced food, proper education, medical care and other amenities of modern life. The housing problem is a poverty issue.

On the other hand, poverty is a consequence of the dire realities in the labor market: low-paying jobs for the many and limited number of decent quality jobs for the few. This, in turn, is rooted in the mal-development of the country under poor economic and political governance in the last so many decades.

This is why pushing for a stand-alone housing reform program for the poor is neither feasible nor sustainable in the medium and long terms. It should be part of a bold comprehensive socio-economic reform program aimed at transforming the economy in a progressive, inclusive and sustainable manner. Progressive means transforming the industrial and agricultural sectors so that they can modernize society and upgrade the economy’s capacity to create quality jobs for the many. Inclusive means making the transformation beneficial and participatory for all sectors. This would necessitate, for instance, the adoption of a national land use policy that addresses the needs of all sectors, not just the real estate business sector. And sustainable means the transformation program should meet the renewal and preservation challenges of Philippine environment.

After the Kadamay interlude, is the Duterte Administration ready to tackle this transformation challenge?