Monday, March 19, 2012

Innovation needed in informal-settler housing


2:58 am | Monday, March 19th, 2012

It takes more than presidential will and money to make a propoor initiative succeed. Apart from having an efficient and honest implementing bureaucracy that understands the purpose of the reform, innovation is a major ingredient of success. Without it, implementing institutions are bound to magnify what is wrong with the existing systems and make the problem worse. Innovation is the hallmark of reform.

Last year, President Aquino announced that his administration would allocate P10 billion every year until 2016 for the housing of informal settlers in so-called danger zones in Metro Manila. This initiative was a response to the advocacy of urban poor groups for a policy of in-city housing for urban informal settlers as an alternative to distant or off-city relocation. An estimated half a million families are expected to benefit from this initiative.

The size of the budget, P10 billion annually or P50 billion up to 2016, is explained by the high cost of in-city housing, especially since the administration prefers multistory housing so as to maximize the use of limited land. The urban poor, who previously had been instinctively averse to this type of housing design because of cost, safety and maintenance issues, have come to accept it as a reasonable solution.

Bolstering the urban poor’s confidence that the administration was ready for innovative housing approaches was the President’s appointment of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, known for his propoor housing programs in Naga City, as the government official responsible for the program.

The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) organized and convened technical working groups and contracted consultants to come up with solutions to the tenure and housing problems of informal-settler communities. It recommended the in-city housing program and budget based on the technical studies and numerous consultations with affected communities.

Urban poor communities and their organizations celebrated the announcement of the in-city housing program, considered unprecedented because of the radical departure from the longstanding policy of off-city resettlement and the large budget being committed by the executive branch for its implementation. More than that, the money for the first year was swiftly released and is now lodged with the National Housing Authority (NHA).
Encouraged by the announcement of the P10-billion fund, urban poor groups, assisted by nongovernment organizations, started to identify prospective sites and beneficiary-communities and to formulate “people’s plans” for multistory housing. The Urban Poor Alliance even submitted to the DILG a proposed menu of tenure and institutional modalities for the program, consisting of community-initiated, local-government-initiated and NHA-initiated schemes. The idea was to mobilize as many project initiators and players as possible, not only to increase the scale and speed of program implementation but also, and more importantly, to encourage inventiveness, healthy competition and cost efficiency through a multiplicity of approaches.

In Brazil where nonconventional housing approaches have been tried with some success, large-scale public housing projects built by contractors that were making lots of money while compromising the quality of housing had been gradually replaced by community-built and -managed medium-rise residential buildings. In one such project in Sao Paolo, residents were responsible for allocating housing funds, sourcing and purchasing building materials, organizing themselves into committees and construction teams, and selecting the technical advisers to assist them. A combination of grants, subsidies and loans was provided. A certain percentage of the budget was allocated for community organization and social preparation.

A more modest scheme that can easily be applied here is providing loans to poor communities that already have land tenure to enable residents to build on their existing houses a second or third floor, which they can rent out to other poor families. There are similar schemes that can achieve the objective of providing in-city housing to informal settlers, not necessarily through ownership. The question is how open are the housing agencies to such innovations.

At a recent workshop attended by government agencies, guidelines and standards to be observed in accessing the P10-billion housing fund were reportedly discussed. It is usually a bad sign when regulations are made the first order of business when implementing a supposed reform program. Regulations, especially when turned into absolutes, as bureaucrats are wont to do, run the risk of stifling innovation. The first year should be a time of flexibility, experimentation and learning. As different project ideas are tested and experience is gained on what works better and what safeguards are needed, the agencies will have a better basis for formulating standards and guidelines.

When one considers the government-built housing units in the resettlement sites in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Laguna and Cavite, or the medium-rise residential buildings in Smokey Mountain and Vitas, built by contractors that supposedly passed NHA technical standards and bidding procedures, one cannot help but want alternatives. Would the same standards that gave us the badly built resettlement and medium-rise housing units be used for the P10-billion fund? It is understandable for agencies to rely on their tried and tested rules, even if everyone else can see that their outputs leave much to be desired. The best way to kill a reform initiative is to do things in the usual way.

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