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 (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).



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