Thursday, September 19, 2013

The road to a housing solution

Since the start of President Aquino’s administration, urban poor people have worked with then Secretary Jesse Robredo and later with Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of the Interior and Local Government to come up with a housing plan acceptable to both the poor and the government.

An estimate of all this work is that never in Philippine history have so many meetings been held with so few concrete results. Another estimate admits the big number of meetings but says they were necessary to produce essential agreements that will guide work in the future. We are not yet there.
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
11:28 pm | Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Let us look at one group’s understanding of what those essential agreements are. Different groups may have different insights. Here are three proposed by the Anti-Eviction Task Force: 1) Reliance is put on the one-story house and there is growing suspicion of the usefulness of five-story walkup buildings; 2) The value of near-city resettlement sites is clearer than ever, especially as a stopgap measure until the government is able to gather its forces and find land for the poor in the cities; and 3) The absolute importance of people’s participation in the planning of the houses they will occupy is recognized.

One-story houses. Poor people have lived in one-story homes for generations, and want to live that way in the future. They want to be able to walk out the front door into the sunlight. They want a tree planted by their door, where they can sit in the shade and watch the children play. Such an image—people sitting under their own vines or fig trees—is used in the Old Testament to describe life in God’s coming Kingdom. (Micah 5:4) Poor women want a vegetable or flower garden. Children want a dog in the house.

They can’t have any of these good things in a five-story walkup tenement. They also need a place to store their tricycles, carts, fishing gear. They want to be able to get out quickly if there is a fire.

When they have a little money, the poor build a second floor and work for a title, and then they feel they have something important to leave to their children when they die. This desire to leave something of value to their children is behind people’s longing for titles.

A home on the ground is also the only home most poor families can afford. A decent one can be built for P80,000-P100,000. They can afford to amortize this cost at about P300 a month if the government gives half of the total cost through a grant. If we raise the amount required for amortization, we are in danger of cutting into their other essential expenses for food, medicine, school and clothes.

A decent starter one-story house can be built for P30,000. On the other hand, the government and private builders say it costs P400,000-P500,000 to build a 20-square-meter unit in a five-story walkup. Even if the government gave a P200,000 grant, the family will still have to pay P900-P1,200 a month in amortization. Some families can do this, but at least an equal number of poor families can’t. Can a poor country with 4 million urban poor families in need of housing give subsidies of P200,000 or more to each family?

Five-story walkups allow for higher density than one-story housing. But the advantage of height comes in a big way if we talk of 15-, 20-, or 30-story buildings, as in Hong Kong. There is little advantage when we talk of five stories.

We asked architect Ronnie Manahan, former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Architecture, how many families can be comfortably housed in five-story buildings on one hectare of land. He said: “About 400 at most.” A bigger number will make people feel crowded, which works against good neighborliness. If we give families 25-sq-m lots and one-story housing, we can have 300 families on a hectare (300 x 25 sq m=7,500 sq m; the remaining 2,500 sq m are for roads, public services and playgrounds). The people can eventually build a second floor.

Another advantage of one-story houses is the people themselves can repair them. In five-story walkups repairs are difficult to make, require skilled workers, and cost a great deal of money.

Walkups in general have bad track records worldwide. A study by UN Habitat found that in six projects involving multistory buildings, four had poor results because of high costs and poor management (Urban Economics-Building Assets for the Urban Poor, 2009-2010). The Philippines has its own examples in the row of five-story buildings on R-10 road opposite Pier 18. They are so crowded and so carelessly managed, and have become such vertical slums it is no surprise they are due for demolition.

Near-city relocation. By “near-city” is meant resettlement areas outside the city but close enough for wage earners to commute to work. The Urban Poor Associates (UPA) helped 500 families relocate to San Pedro, Laguna, this year. They use the train to commute to work for P20 one way. UPA also helped 500 families relocate to Bocaue, Bulacan, where they spend P70 back and forth by bus. Some families have together bought a second-hand wagon, which is cheaper yet. The two areas are scenic, with rolling hills and trees, and children can play safely on the ground. Before, they played on the R-10 pier front road, inches from large cargo trucks, or around charcoal pits in Ulingan, Tondo.

In-city housing remains the best solution. Cities where rich and poor populations mix have the highest rates of social mobility, including rates of escape from poverty. The government has to find more idle land in the cities if it wants the best solution.

People’s participation. In the work with Secretaries Robredo and Roxas, the principle of people planning their housing has been central. The current emphasis on “people’s plans” grew out of those meetings. Poor people believe, quite sensibly, that their plans should be the start and guiding principle of their homes. I think all who took part in the meetings with the two men agree that people’s participation is of supreme importance.

The road to a housing solution is a long and bumpy one, but it has led to certain basic principles that are part of the final solution.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Karapatan sa Pabahay

(This leaflet was distributed to urban poor families who has threat of eviction.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

UDHA Amendments a Call for Decent Housing

2013 September 10. Urban poor groups from various parts of the metropolis led by Task Force UDHA Amendments joined supportive congress persons in filing a House Bill amending Republic Act No. 7279, the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA).

Authors of the proposed House Bill are Representatives Cresente C. Paez and Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo. Co-authors are Representatives Walden Bello, Ibarra M.  Gutierrez III, Kaka J. Bag-ao, Jose Christopher Y. Belmonte and Benjamin D. Asilo.

The title of the proposed bill is: "An act strengthening and securing the rights of the urban poor against evictions and/or demolitions and to provide adequate housing, amending for this purpose Republic Act No. 7279 otherwise known as 'An act to provide for a comprehensive and continuing urban development and housing program, establish the mechanism for its implementation, and for other purposes' or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992."

This bill aims to further secure the urban poor from eviction and demolition of their homes and from relocating them in distant places lacking basic services and livelihood opportunities, thus clarifying the definition of “resettlement areas” that it must be within and/or near city areas. 

The bill further provides that consultation must be effectively done with the active participation of the affected communities, with the right to offer and counter-offer for relocation sites when reasonable and allowable.  This expands likewise the mandate of the law by requiring developers to develop an area for socialized housing equivalent to at least twenty percent (20%) of the total area or project cost, at the option of the developer, not only on proposed subdivision projects but also on proposed condominiums, memorial parks, golf courses and all other land development projects. 

The bill ensures strengthening the requirements in cases of eviction of informal settlers and demolition of their residential structures and broadening of the penalties on the violation of the Urban Development and Housing Act.

The bill also proposes the creation of the Socialized Housing Commission with quasi-judicial powers and authority with exclusive jurisdiction over all issues arising from the implementation of UDHA Law.
Celia Santos, Urban Poor Associates Advocacy officer said, “We have been pushing for UDHA amendments for the past 10 years, this is by far the largest support we ever had. We are hopeful that this bill will pass in due time. The task force with the legislators have only one goal, decent housing for all.”

Friday, September 6, 2013

Justice’s two voices

By Denis Murphy

Most people I talked with appreciated Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s impassioned critique of the pork barrel scam and his low-key presence at the Aug. 26 Luneta rally. His actions raise once again the question of how the Catholic Church should address the problems facing people in society today, especially the problems of social justice. To whom should it speak? What response should it ask? To whom should we all speak and with whom should we work?

Traditionally the Church has responded to injustice in two ways. In the first, the road more traveled, the Church describes the problem it wishes to solve, and then calls on the heads of state, the rich and the powerful, to solve the problem. The approach presumes that change in society comes from the top and that the powerful can solve the problems. The second approach has been taken by Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and many other Church leaders. They realize basic change in society regularly involves a confrontation between the powerful and the powerless. And they choose to speak in the name of the victims, and have the sufferings of the poor and the powerless front and center in their minds. They end by calling on all men and women of good will to oppose the unjust ways of the powerful.

The first approach may have worked in the Middle Ages, when the popes had real power over kings and emperors, and they in turn had near total power over their subjects. But the approach hardly works now: the people of the world have become democrats in their hearts, even if their governments are still authoritarian.

The first approach reechoes the more conservative priestly tradition of the Old Testament; the Cardinal Sin-Archbishop Romero approach continues the prophetic tradition. The second is effective when the Church not only speaks out for the good of the ordinary people but also involves the people in solving the problem. The Church gives a voice to those who are voiceless and calls on the people to take part in the solution. The prophetic voice arises from the suffering heart of the poor, and engages the poor in working out a solution.

This discussion so far is somewhat theoretical. Luckily we have an example of how the two approaches might work out in practice. This example is found in Pope Paul VI’s visit to Tondo in November 1970.

The pope arrived at the Don Bosco school in Barrio Magsaysay on a Sunday afternoon, and almost immediately gave a rather routine greeting and a talk on moral guidance to the mostly urban crowds gathered on the soccer field there. He spoke in Latin, which was translated by a young Salesian priest. The speech, written by the Vatican Curia, was, in general outline, the speech he delivered in the urban poor areas he visited around the world. It was polite. It didn’t speak of the land problem that raged in Tondo. Toward the end of the speech the pope asked the president to help the poor people, little realizing the president was the cause of the land problem.

Chances are the pope didn’t know of the problem. It was created by President Ferdinand Marcos’ desire to evict 180,000 poor people from Tondo to turn the area into an upscale housing and business center. The poor opposed the plan at a very visceral level. The poor people of the Zone One Tondo Organization were there in big numbers in the hope of hearing the pope support their rights to land tenure security.

Then the pope walked through the muddy streets of Tondo—there had just been a major typhoon—to the run-down shack of a poor family. He stayed there longer than expected and, when he returned to Don Bosco, he seemed stunned by the poverty he had seen. He didn’t speak to the officials and priests around him, but held tightly to the hand of a Franciscan Missionary of Mary sister who was just a few feet from me. He looked sad as if someone had died. He looked around and seemed to see the poor people in the soccer field for the first time.

I thought, maybe the poor family he visited had explained the land problem to him. I thought, he may have regretted the inadequacy of his earlier words. Maybe, I thought, he will call for the microphone and speak from his heart about the poverty he had seen and demand that the president settle the problem in a fair and just manner. I thought we might see a pope speak for justice from his heart, with compassion and righteous anger and with all the power of his office.

As everyone knows the pope didn’t. If he had, the history of our Church would be different. Maybe our secular history would also be very different.

Pope Paul’s talk was a good example of the first way the Church has used to approach problems of injustice. His extempore speech would have been an example of the second manner of approach.

* * *
When actor Martin Sheen was here in 1997 to help promote better housing for the poor, he was interviewed by Dong Puno on TV. Puno began by asking Sheen why he was in Manila. Sheen said, “Because I am a Catholic.” He explained that he had been raised to believe that as a Catholic his job in the world was to help the poor and lessen injustice. When he was asked to come to Manila to help, he said he couldn’t refuse.

We may believe we are not qualified to speak about injustice, but then we should read again the early chapters of the Book of Exodus.

Moses said to God when asked to go to the Pharaoh and speak for the Hebrews: “If you please, Lord, I have never been eloquent…. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

God answered: “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb… It is I who will assist you in speaking and will teach you all to say.” (Exodus 4:10-12)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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