“If somebody enters your yard and claims it as his own, what will you do? Will you allow him to get it from you?” President Aquino asked this question during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) last Monday, referring to the Chinese incursion into Philippine waters. The President doesn’t realize it, but the situation in which the Philippines finds itself regarding the ownership claims of China on islets inside Philippine territory is exactly the same situation that hundreds of thousands of Filipino property owners find themselves in. Squatters have entered their properties illegally and refuse to leave.
Like the Philippines which cannot fight a giant like China, the property owners cannot fight squatter colonies. What can one lot owner do against hundreds of squatters who do not recognize any law? Go to the local government unit to ask for help? I tried that, asking the help of the Quezon City government, during the terms of four different mayors, to eject squatters from my property. They did not do anything. The squatters are still there and have, in fact, increased. Local government officials do not want to touch squatters because they are voters. Truth to tell, many of them were brought in by the officials themselves shortly before elections.
So what do you do, go to the police? But the police won’t do anything either. They will ask you to get a court order even if you caught the squatters still in the process of building their shanties inside your property and could be prevented by the police from doing that.
Go to court? But the courts take an eternity to decide cases, during which time the number of squatters increases, and you spend a fortune for lawyers’ fees. The lawyers of the squatters, on the other hand, use many ploys on overburdened judges to delay cases.
Meanwhile, local government units, while refusing to help owners who are victims of squatters, keep raising real estate taxes.
Quezon City even added a surcharge to the tax—to fund the relocation of squatters, it says. Isn’t that the responsibility of the local government? The citizens are already paying the basic real estate tax in addition to many other taxes.
Quezon City boasts that it is the richest city in the Philippines, with billions of pesos deposited in banks. It can afford to relocate and build homes for the squatters, but it is doing nothing to return to the taxpaying citizens their properties squatted on. Instead, it is asking the citizens to pay more. The irony is that taxes paid by honest, law-abiding citizens will be used for lawbreakers stealing the properties of the taxpayers. Meanwhile, councilors and other City Hall officials are stealing the money of the taxpayers through ghost employees and overpriced projects.
In return for the taxes, the government is supposed to serve the people, especially by protecting their property. And although the Quezon City administration is already collecting the surcharge, there is no sign that it would relocate the squatters soon. Not even one hollow block has been laid for medium-rise homes for squatters. And there is no assurance that the lots of those who are already paying the surcharge would be cleared of illegal occupants first.
What about the national government? As we can see, it is doing nothing. To make matters worse, it even repealed the law against squatting to court the squatters’ votes. As a result, it made the already bad squatting problem worse as more and more opportunists, encouraged by the repeal, join the fun and also squat. I know a number of people who are gainfully employed and can afford to buy or rent a home but who prefer to squat.
“Why pay rent? Squatting is free,” one of them said.
Not only that, some professional squatters rent out parts of lots they do not own, and steal electricity and water and sell them to other squatters. Some have two or more shanties that they rent out. Others have shops and stores from which they derive profit but pay no realty or business tax to the government or rent to the owner of the property.
As for the owner, he is forced by the local government to pay realty taxes but the local government does not help him reclaim his property. Instead, the taxes he paid are used to pamper the squatters. Officialdom has even changed the term “squatter” to “informal settler” so as not to offend the sensibilities of the squatters. But a squatter, by any other name, is still a squatter.
Squatting, by any other name, is robbery in band. A person or group of persons takes over, by force, somebody else’s property without his knowledge and permission. Yet under present laws, there is no punishment for this type of robbery in band. And the government, national or local, does nothing to help the victims. They are afraid of the lawbreakers. That is like a whole town in the old American West afraid of a gang of bandits terrorizing its citizens. Who is the Lone Ranger or Wyatt Earp who would fight the lawbreakers?
President Aquino? Maybe. We hope so.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said in his Sona. It is not impossible to solve the squatting problem if only the government will honestly try to do it. The President can create a task force whose only purpose is to solve this pestilence in our society. Or it can be an important role of the planned Department of Housing. As I see it, the punishment for squatting should be restored. We have already seen what its repeal has done and is still doing.
A country can never really develop its tourism potentials or attract tourists if squatter colonies dot its landscape. No matter what statistics you show to prove progress, there can never be real progress as long as there are people who are not provided with homes.