High-rise housing for the urban poor?
Don’t build houses for poor families unless the poor can afford them! Make sure they are at least adequate for decent living!”
These are the caveats given by people long involved in urban poor housing to those in charge of the national housing program. The need to call attention to what actually works for the urban poor stems from President Marcos Jr.’s recent announcement that his new Pambansang Pabahay Para sa Pilipino Program, or 5Ps, will build one million homes per year over his six-year term. The impetus presumably comes from reports that the current housing backlog of 6.5 million could easily balloon to 11 million by 2028 if drastic steps are not taken.
The President’s 5Ps will reportedly see the construction in cities all over the country of hundreds of residential buildings as high as 21 stories, with 24-square meter units. This could possibly be pared down to 18 sqm, or what the urban poor call kulungan ng kalapati (pigeon coops). The program draws on the combined efforts of all stakeholders: local governments, government financial institutions, the private sector, property developers, private banks, and intended beneficiaries.
Informal settlers welcome the program’s recognition of their need for housing in the city, where their sources of livelihood and basic services are. The government is at last admitting that the ill-conceived, remote off-city resettlement schemes, inflicted on the urban poor by past administrations, have largely aggravated poverty and traumatized relocated families.
Should social housing be high-rise? Experience predicts that this one-size-fits-all construction, organized in top-down fashion without the users’ participation, will flounder on both affordability and adequacy criteria. Why not learn from the successful onsite and in-city housing solutions achieved over decades by informal settler communities?
Many of the medium-rise buildings constructed by the government for social housing have remained empty and deteriorating. The intended beneficiaries simply cannot afford the down payment or remit the required monthly installments on time. Their irregular low earnings in the informal economy have made that prospect virtually impossible. After months and even years of no takers, the government invites low middle-income families with regular salaries to occupy the units, an option that seems appropriate since those with lower-level jobs at city hall and its vicinity also need affordable, adequate housing. However, this means that subsidies intended for poorer informal settler communities are going to somewhat better-off beneficiaries.
Ample evidence in Philippine cities shows what has worked for the bottom 40 percent. It starts with communities developing their own “people’s plans.” Impressive examples abound: in Manila, Baseco, Zoto, and Estero de San Miguel, Sampaloc, Jesse M. Robredo Village HOA near Malacañang; in Pasay City, the Manggahan Residences; in Quezon City, Ernestville and Sama-Sama Fairview; in Valenzuela City, Barangay Ugong; in Naga City, Kaantabay sa Kauswagan settlements; in Cebu City, Pagtambayayong neighborhoods; and in Tacloban City, Pope Francis Village. There are many more. If the President wants to visit any of these sites, the community leaders, mostly women, will welcome them and explain how local residents have made it happen.
Each one of these communities illustrates the importance of people’s planning to accommodate its distinctive profile. The key lesson is that no one size or scheme fits all. Rather, a wide range of options gives mixed communities a chance to assess what is feasible for their particular families and incomes: onsite upgrading or nearby detached houses, row housing, medium-rise buildings, cooperative housing, rental or rent-to-own apartments, and perhaps for some able to afford it, a unit owned, leased, or rented in a high-rise building.
National Housing Authority or Social Housing Finance Corporation officials who have listened to, negotiated with, and respected the people’s wishes and rights have contributed to the favorable outcomes. Housing units are constructed in stages following people’s plan and assisted by nongovernment agencies and technical support groups. Cooperating government personnel adapt the charges and procedures to fit the residents’ earning capacity and achieve a win-win outcome. This incremental approach succeeds by responding to people’s day-to-day realities.
Where government bureaucracies have been flexible and open to innovation by providing workable financing and processes that accommodate the people’s plans, there the President will find examples of thriving self-managed communities.
Why, then, are high-rise buildings suddenly sprung on the bottom 40 percent as the one-size-fits all “solution” of this administration? It appears the President is listening to planners and developers who have never lived in an urban poor community to be able to understand what works. Isn’t it time, Mr. President, to visit sustainable settlements created by striving communities? They would welcome your visit, since most of them voted for you.
Dr. Mary Racelis is a research scientist at the Institute of Philippine Culture, and a professorial lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, School of Social Sciences.
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