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Commentary

Sheltering the poorest

Almost a decade ago, I wrote about the Davao City Shelter Code as a pioneering city legislation in the country (“Good news from Davao,” Opinion, 12/16/07). I recall this event because the city councilor who authored the ordinance, lawyer Arnolfo Cabling, is now president of the Social Housing Finance Corp. (SHFC), the government agency that implements community-driven housing programs for the lowest-income families. Together, we have been going on consultations around Mindanao, and we realize that relative to 10 years ago, the challenges have become even more critical because of hazards and economic pressures against the poor.

In Surigao City, we met with informal settler families (ISFs) living on the slopes of a hill. To get to them, you have to overcome slippery and narrow steps by holding on to the walls of makeshift houses, many of which had protruding nails. So if a fall doesn’t get you, tetanus might. The community needs to be resettled soonest because of their high risk to earthquakes. A mother recounted that in the latest tremors, her house collapsed; luckily, none of her seven children were injured. (I quipped, “Seven children? That explains the earthquakes!” Everyone laughed including the woman herself who said that she won’t tell us the intensity levels, eliciting more laughter. In these settings, people cope with hardships through a humorous look at life.)

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In Butuan City, we heard stories of arson attempts against ISFs: landowners would release rats that are doused in gasoline and lit, setting fire to the communities as the rats make their way through the houses. It is an absolute tragedy when property rights trump the right to life.

At the risk of being simplistic, the basic problem remains the availability of land for housing that is affordable, safe, and near the livelihood of urban poor families. These families care about the physical and psychological security of their children; thus, they are willing to pay for affordable residential land instead of squatting forever. Unfortunately, in this country, we disregard the social function of land. Thus, land uses that are perceived to be more economically profitable are prioritized over social housing, and land prices are allowed to spiral beyond the reach of poor families.

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However, we also came across solutions during these consultations. In the cities of Cagayan de Oro, General Santos and Zamboanga, we met city officials who have proactively made plans for their constituents and are keen to implement them. We are convinced that we need to work more closely with local government units (LGUs) and encourage them to plan; after all, they are mandated by law to address the housing need in their localities. For starters, we recently inked an agreement with Cagayan de Oro City to prioritize communities in 16 of its poorest barangays.

One way by which the SHFC can assist more LGUs is through the refinancing of their landbanking initiatives. Or it can help communities acquire land while LGUs provide site development services and utilities. The SHFC itself can also do landbanking in order to get around the problem of increasing market-driven land prices that the poor cannot afford. Landbanking is especially important given the disasters that annually leave thousands homeless in the country.

To scale up and speed up delivery of housing units while ensuring that we are properly targeting the poorest families, we are forming grassroots teams that will help barangays identify their most vulnerable informal settlements. To raise funds for these initiatives, we are considering securitization and the consequent issuance of bonds to developers wishing to comply with statutory “balanced housing” requirements, among other means.

Our consultations highlighted the enormous challenge of upholding the right of the poorest families to housing as a means of helping them build sustainable communities. We need to find more solutions fast and work with partners, including the communities themselves, civil society and LGUs.

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Junefe Gilig Payot is corporate executive officer of SHFC. A lawyer, he also holds a master’s degree in poverty and development from the University of Manchester (Chevening Scholarship).

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TAGS: Arnolfo Cabling, Davao City Shelter code, Inquirer Commentary, Junefe Gilig Payot, SHFC, Social Housing Finace Corp.
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