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Far behind in housing

/ 05:25 AM September 06, 2019

For a country with far less poverty incidence, Singapore’s public housing expenditures (PHE) as a ratio to gross domestic product (GDP) in the 15-year period from 2000 to 2014 was 13 times more (1.6 percent) than that in the Philippines (0.12 percent). Among the original five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), our country posted the least PHE as a ratio to GDP, with Indonesia spending twice, Malaysia three times, and Thailand five times what we did. Even Bangladesh, with an average income (GDP per capita) only half ours, spent more than twice as much (0.26 percent of GDP) as we did.

The Philippine Development Plan notes that housing has consistently received less than 0.5 percent of our government budget. In 2017, the National Housing Authority and the Social Housing Finance Corp. jointly received P13 billion, or 0.39 percent of the total P3.35 trillion budget. This is a mere “drop in the bucket,” notes the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues at the Ateneo de Manila University, given the 1.7 million households targeted for direct housing assistance from 2017-2022. This target is still far less than our people’s actual housing needs.

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Figures cited in the housing sector roadmap prepared for the Department of Trade and Industry indicate a projected need of 6.2 million new housing units from 2012 to 2030, 3 million of which are in the socialized and subsidized housing category. Even if only half the minimum cost of a decent housing unit (which I’m very conservatively placing at P300,000) is subsidized by government, this would still require P450 billion over the 19-year period, or about P24 billion annually, which is twice the 2017 allocation. Doubling our annual allocation for public expenditures on housing would only bring us to the level of Bangladesh in relative terms. To match the average in the four other Asean-5 members, we would need to hike our PHE six times.

It’s no surprise, then, that informal settlers have been a persistent and growing problem in our midst. The need for mass housing has always been evident, and should have been seen as urgent all these years. For a country that has had a persistently high poverty incidence, providing for the basic human need for decent housing should be among government’s top priorities, and one for which government must have a creative and proactive strategy. I already explained in my last article why PHE would have a high multiplier effect in the economy, thereby helping generate wider and faster growth in jobs and incomes.

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Reacting to that piece, a reader wrote: “The government’s attitude toward housing, in spite of the promise of its Build, Build, Build (BBB) program, is disappointing if not disgusting.” He argues that overall infrastructure planning ought to be undertaken with provision for low-cost housing consciously integrated into plan. He has a point. He laments how “the government has not taken the potential of consolidating the various roads and railways projects of the BBB with development programs for low-cost housing. It lost a lot of opportunity in reserving land for low-cost housing along the routes of the MRT 7 and LRT 1 Cavite Extension. It just stood by and watched the greedy real estate developers.”

He wonders if there is any move to reserve and/or expropriate land for the same purpose along the routes of the planned LRT 4 from Edsa/Ortigas to Taytay, Rizal, and LRT 6 from Bacoor to Dasmariñas in Cavite. And noting many old but durable buildings along the 35-year-old LRT 1 heritage line from Baclaran to Monumento that have been idle for anywhere from 10 to 30 years, he asks: “Is it not possible for the government to lease some of them for conversion into dormitories for the students of the several schools along the route? There are dozens if not hundreds of old and usually dilapidated warehouses and manufacturing plants in Metro Manila. Shouldn’t the government try to expropriate them and convert them into medium-rise low-cost apartment buildings?”

Indeed, there could be many creative approaches and solutions to our housing problem, but we have to first overcome what seems to be the foremost obstacle, and that is recognizing that there is one.

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