Monday, December 3, 2012

The triple-jump fish

By Denis Murphy

  The fish in the frying pan began to worry as he felt the pan grow warm. When it was hot, he said to himself, “This is not a good place for me,” and, gathering his strength, jumped out of the pan and into the fire. He quickly realized the fire was also not a place for him. Again he gathered his strength—it was harder this time—and jumped from the fire all the way to the edge of the estero. “Now I’m safe,” he said. But the people there told him no one is allowed within three meters of the water, and both people and fish found that they would be sent to Calauan 100 kilometers away. The fish quickly made one last effort and landed in the refreshing waters of the estero, newly cleaned by the people living on the banks. They called him the “3-jump fish.”

This is a parable about the urban poor. Like the fish they tried to improve their lives by jumping—including the advocacy, lobbying, rallies and prayers that make change possible. First they struggled to “jump” from distant relocation to “in-city or near-city” relocation, where they would be near the jobs they had. This effort bore fruit in the “Covenant with the Urban Poor” in which President Aquino promised: “We will end illegal forced evictions. We will not allow any public or private authority to evict families and leave them homeless in the street. The government must provide decent relocation, near-city or in-city, if possible, quality housing, adequate basic services and jobs.”

Now poor people once threatened with eviction can build permanent homes along the esteros and rivers where they used to live in dangerous conditions. All is not well, of course. The fish went from the frying pan into the fire; the poor went from their old relatively cost-free lives into the middle-class world of high costs for land and construction. The poor can’t afford these costs, and neither, it seems, can society afford the huge subsidies necessary to house the poor in the city if land and construction costs remain as they are.

The least expensive unit in a five-story walkup building (called “medium-rise building”) is about P400,000. Poor families say they can pay about P500 a month. At that rate, setting aside interest rates, it will take the poor family 66 years to amortize the unit. And then there is the land cost. Even if the government manages to assemble the necessary subsidy funds for the urban poor, thousands of other families—teachers, policemen and soldiers, among them—will want the same subsidies. “What about us?” they’ll demand. Such a reaction is understandable. Less understandable is the negative reaction of many national and local officials to in-city relocation, and the age-old bias of the middle class against the poor.

The poor’s first jump was a step forward in many ways—it safeguarded jobs—but it was not the total solution. Where will they jump next? They will need to land in a place that has radically different land and construction policies. One example may be a policy requiring all government-owned or -controlled land that has lain idle for more than 10 years to be given to house the poor. There is a similar requirement in the 1992 Urban Development and Housing Act (Udha), but the turnover to the poor is left to the President’s discretion. A proposed amendment to Udha is that the turnover be automatic.

A good illustration of the usefulness of this policy is the dilemma involving 87 hectares of idle government-owned land in Quezon City, where thousands of poor families seek a small piece of land for their home. Mayor Herbert Bautista told a group of World Bank and Social Housing Finance Corp. people that he had tried to get this land for social housing, to no avail. The land is controlled by the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp. Why can’t it be turned over to housing? Some 25,000 poor families will benefit.

The new site should also be covered by an effective expropriation policy that can expertly bring about deals, including land sharing, with government agencies and private owners, and go after idle land like a hungry lion looking for his dinner.

In the Covenant’s “in-city or near-city” relocation, the operative phrase may soon be “near-city.” For now the task is to provide concrete examples of in-city relocation so that it becomes a real alternative in all discussions and planning. Perhaps the next site for the poor is a place that interprets the phrase “near-city” in a very positive manner.

What about construction costs? A five-story walkup will still cost P400,000 per unit. Perhaps it is time to let the poor build their own homes under professional supervision. Starter homes can be built for as low as P20,000 per family. It is a solution that requires only marginally more land than a series of five-story walkups. Houses of one or two stories on a small piece of land are what the poor really want. The search for land must intensify.

An attempt at upgrading a poor community through starter homes is underway in Baseco, Manila.

After these two great leaps, the poor will be in decent housing near their work. Will they be happy? Not completely; after all, they are human. They need better jobs. Now they are scavengers, vendors, pedicab drivers, casual workers, unskilled construction workers. They want better retraining for themselves, better schools for their children, and better health services. They will want their own political party. They must, therefore, jump one more time into a society where they are treated fairly and where their voice is respected.

There is an Olympic athletic event called the triple jump: It consists of a hop, a skip and a jump. It is recommended for all groups of people, not only the urban poor. A good athlete can cover over 50 feet in such a leap. The world record holder is Jonathan Edwards of Britain, with a jump of 18.29 meters.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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