The social debt in housing
In a recent dramatic move, 20,000 members and supporters of the militant urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) unilaterally occupied 5,262 houses in six government housing projects in Bulacan managed by the National Housing Authority (NHA). While official circles expressed outrage at such an audacious move, unilateral actions, by themselves, are nothing new and have been resorted to time and again by poor and marginalized groups to assert their rights and uphold their notions of human dignity.
In Indonesia in the early 1960s, the 3-million-strong Indonesian Peasants Union (BTI) launched a series of unilateral actions (aksi sepihak) to force the Sukarno government to implement land reform. In the Philippines, after the Edsa uprising that ousted the Marcos regime in 1986, about 50,000 peasant families unilaterally occupied about 100,000 hectares of farmland in various parts of the country. In 2007 in Mabalacat, Pampanga, about 7,000 persons affiliated with the Boluntaryo sa Giyera Laban sa Gutom, Kahirapan, at Kawalang Pag-asa occupied 40 hectares of abandoned farmland and made these productive.
But the takeover of unoccupied public housing is a new phenomenon and marks a unique stage that brings the struggle of the poor to urban areas of the country and closer to the centers of political and economic power. Initially intent on strictly enforcing the law and ejecting the occupants, NHA officials were forced to back down and negotiate with Kadamay. To top it all, President Duterte himself, after denouncing the occupation as “anarchy,” relented and allowed the occupants to stay on.
Unilateral actions by the poor, however, must be seen in the context of the government’s consistent failure to provide for social protection for its less privileged citizens in terms of affordable housing, education, and healthcare. This failure translates to what social scientists refer to as the “social debt.”
Latin American scholar Ricardo Infante defines social debt as “the amount of resources needed to achieve a reduction in poverty; to reestablish jobs providing permanent incomes and to transfer resources to the poor sectors to compensate them for the income insufficiency.”
In the Philippine context, the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) defines social debt as “the State’s unfulfilled obligations to its citizens, which can be approximated from the State’s commitments in its Constitution and its laws, the socioeconomic targets set by all previous development programs and plans, and the international standards set by the United Nations and other international covenants.”
The 1987 Philippine Constitution mandates that “the State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost, decent housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas.”
During the Social Development Summit in August 2016, Vice President Leni Robredo, speaking then as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, reported a 2016 backlog in socialized housing of 5.6 million units. She also deplored the meager share for socialized housing in the national budget of a mere 0.12 percent from 2000 to 2014—the lowest in Southeast Asia.
The Subdivision and Housing Developers Association calculates the cost of socialized housing at P450,000 per unit. Given the 5.6 million housing backlog, the total social debt that the government owes in housing would amount to P2.52 trillion. The FDC calculates the social debt in education at P2.5 trillion and in health at P4.8 trillion.
Unless the government fully and substantially repays the social debt in housing and in other sectors, the Philippines will expect to witness more of the poor resorting to bold unilateral actions as a form of struggle in defense of their rights and their very lives.
Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, is president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition and professorial lecturer in Asian studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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