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Rethinking the concept of socialized housing to address the backlog

column-amor maclangWHEN American writer Jonathan Kozol said, “The cause of homelessness is a lack of housing,” he wasn’t just bringing to fore an obvious truth, he was emphasizing the existence of a problem that has persisted despite the fact that the solution is staring everyone in the face.

Some time ago, I wrote about the housing shortage the country was facing. Unfortunately, the problem has escalated since then and, today, the solution has apparently managed to elude everyone concerned. Or, rather, everyone knows what the solution is but there still seems to be no organized, wide-scale effort to pursue it. What we largely see are pocket housing projects here and there that may be well-meaning but, at best, only scratch the surface of the problem.

Despite the improving economy, an impressive expansion in foreign investment and a continuous influx of remittances from Filipino workers overseas, the Philippines continues to lack shelter for a large part of its population.

Figures, figures

Different reports have been stating differing figures for the socialized housing backlog, which range from 4 million housing units to more than 500 million. Despite the huge disparity in published housing-backlog figures, one thing is clear—the demand for socialized housing in the Philippines has steadily increased and is currently way more than it should be.

Creating safer, cleaner and more livable communities for our less fortunate and underprivileged countrymen has always been a thrust of our national government. However, the government’s efforts are apparently not enough.  As things stand, there are still over 2 million informal settlers in the country right now, which roughly belong to around half-a-million families. And the number is alarmingly growing.

Admittedly, providing socialized housing as it is defined today is not the only solution, considering that most informal settlers still cannot afford supposedly affordable socialized-housing units. To address the issue of informal settlers, there should be a large-scale program that combines new socialized-housing initiatives with resettlement, relocation and livelihood projects.

Just imagine—if we could provide for our low-income earners and informal settlers just around 500,000 housing units, which represent just a fraction of even the most conservative housing-backlog estimate, we would be solving not just one problem, but two, three, or even more. For, if we look closely, the housing shortage and the informal-settlement situation have been contributory to other important national concerns.

For one thing, we know that informal settlers are forced to look for places on which they can set up their makeshift shelters and, oftentimes, they do so along rivers, estero, creeks and shorelines. Without access to an effective waste-disposal system in those areas, they oftentimes just throw their garbage into the creeks, sewers, or waterways. This naturally accumulates over time and everyone knows what this causes.

Moreover, in some areas of Manila, such as some parts of the port area in Tondo, informal-settlers have occupied the sides of truck routes, substantially narrowing road space and severely hampering traffic flow.

These are just a couple of examples. It is clear, however, that addressing the housing shortage and the informal-settlement situation also contributes to solving related, and equally pressing, societal problems.

The need to redefine socialized housing

The Urban Development and Housing Act was a good start and definitely well-intentioned—requiring property developers to allot 20 percent of their residential subdivision projects to affordable socialized-housing units. However, there have been so many arguments against the Act, such as its financial feasibility to property developers, as well as how it actually defines the term “socialized housing.”

Also, putting middle-income residents side-by-side low-income earners is a difficult proposition right off the bat. Middle-class families set up new homes in areas that allow them access to simple conveniences like stores, schools, transport hubs, and, yes, even malls. On the other hand, low-income families need to be located in places with good employment opportunities for them, like industrial areas with factories, construction sites, or even central markets where they can carve out a living by selling. Finding residential subdivision project sites that address these two different sets of needs would be difficult, if not impossible.

It is flat out wrong to relocate low-income families in suburban areas meant for middle-class convenience as it is wrong to resettle them in isolated areas without any means to eke out a living.

In fact, one of the reasons so many resettlement programs have failed in the past is because most of the relocation sites were situated in far-flung places with limited or totally no employment opportunities.

It is high time that we truly and seriously address the housing backlog and informal-settlement situation through an innovative and integrated national program that involves not just the government, but also property developers, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and expert consultants, as well.

The first crucial step is to rethink our approach to socialized housing and redefine it to encompass a greater array of possible residential development opportunities—from house and lots to low- and medium-rise apartments. Then, we must look at everything from a totally fresh perspective.

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