Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hard truths on housing

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Hard and unwelcome facts have put an end to many of the theories advanced to solve the land and housing problems of Metro Manila. History, like a good teacher, has examined our theories one by one over the last 50 years, and each time has sent us back to our desks to do better. We are all included in this learning process—the government, the United Nations, experts, nongovernment organizations, and the poor themselves.

We keep trying. A new theory proposed by a small alliance of NGOs and people’s groups, for example, claims that there are three rock-hard truths on which we can build a successful housing program: 1) Rich and poor are meant to live together in the city; 2) all of us, rich and poor, must combine the elements of both urban and rural living in our lives; and 3) land is so crucial to a good housing solution that its distribution cannot be left in the hands of the market.

To appreciate this theory, we should go back 50 years and take a look at its precedents. In the mid-1960s the government and many housing groups believed that the best way to end the congestion and the increasing unattractiveness of Metro Manila—families living under bridges, for example, who, according to the government, discourage foreign investments—was to relocate poor families far from Manila. Some relocation sites were up to 100 kilometers away.

Land at that distance was cheap but there were no jobs, and some 30-40 percent of all relocated families returned to live in even poorer, more congested slums.

Near-city, in-city

In 2010 President Aquino forbade distant relocation. If families must be moved, he ordered, they should go to near-city or in-city relocation sites. “Near-city” meant less than 30-40 km from Manila. The thinking here was that wage-earners would be able to commute to their old jobs in Manila from these sites and the problem of jobs would be solved. The bus fare to and from the near-city centers could be managed by wage-earners, it was thought. Most NGOs believed this was a good solution.

Four years later we are seeing that near-city relocation may not be the excellent solution we thought it might be. At a meeting on April 4 on hunger organized by the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, mothers from near-city relocation sites wept as they told those present that they had no food for their children. They liked the sites and the houses, but as one woman said, “We can’t eat doors and windows.” The women’s stories were so heartbreaking that most of those present cried—government workers, NGO staff, and the poor themselves.

The key finding is that a single salary of the type that relocated wage-earners can earn is not enough to support a family, especially if 20 percent goes to transport to and from Manila. The salaries they earn are very often below the minimum wage.

If the same family were living in the city, the wife could find part-time work—doing the laundry, for example—and the children could help out after school and on weekends. They could snatch at every opportunity for work that became available. This is not possible in a relocation camp where everyone is poor. Who can afford a laundry woman or a manicurist in such a place?

In summary, it looks as if the poor have to be relocated in the city, because that is where the work is. However, in-city relocation has proved to be very expensive, especially if we talk of multistory housing and the commercial cost of the land. It is very expensive and probably impossible to implement for a great number of families, as long as the market controls land prices, and we insist on total house construction.

There is a need to find a way to control the distribution of land, so that large areas can be set aside for free or at very low prices for the poor. And we have to concentrate on one-story incremental construction.

One way to control land prices may be to choose a person of unchallenged integrity and competence to make these decisions. He/she would be independent of the government and private companies. In the aftermath of huge oil spills in the United States, a man was chosen with the consent of the oil company, the government and private claimants to make all decisions on damage awards. His decisions were final. The scope of such a person’s work here in Metro Manila can be limited to lands suitable for housing poor people.

Side by side

Rich and poor seem fated to live side by side. In truth they need each other. We are one nation, and one people in God’s eyes. Pope Francis’ recent pastoral letter, “The Joy of the Gospel,” says we must learn from the poor about the mysteries of life (#198). How can this happen if we live 50 km apart? The poor can find jobs with the well-off as laundry women, manicurists, and gardeners. And is there a man so locked into his wealth that he cannot enjoy watching poor children play?

Also, we must combine in our lives elements of rural and urban living. Vegetable gardening is becoming very popular in urban poor areas. People love to see plants grow. People first put up mangroves to protect themselves, and then have fallen in love with them. They raise ducks in the mangroves. There is a growing suspicion of a city which is all condos, concrete, overpasses, tunnels, bus stations and malls. There is a growing longing by citizens for trees, shade, parks, gardens, fountains.

Some 300 poor women in Tacloban farm a hectare together. The women work happily side by side. The day is coming when the rich will build playgrounds where their children and poor children can play together and become “best friends forever” (as in the play “Maryosep” produced by Peta last year, which had rich and poor children playing together and becoming lasting friends).

Rich people get away to the countryside on weekends and whenever else they can. They are aware of the need for some time with nature. They would most likely cooperate with efforts to reintroduce the rural into our cities. Trees, flowers and parks are democratic in their very beings: They look good and smell good and are restful to all, rich and poor.

We found in the near-city relocation experiment that low salaries and unemployment limit the housing solutions available. For the near future we must plan for poor people. Our plans must work for the poor. Planning is for the poor; they are not required to fit into plans made for better-off people. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

All these need the criticism of others and practical efforts at implementing the theory. Who will bell the cat?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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