What do the poor want, and why?
Metro Manila’s urban poor are now engaged in a serious debate with the government and the private housing sector about the poor’s land and housing problems. No single person can speak for the five million urban poor in the metropolis, but I believe the following summary can serve as well as any, at least until Aug. 17 when the poor present their positions at the National Housing Summit to be held at the Batasang Pambansa. The summit is organized by the House of Representatives’ committee on housing and urban development and the Senate’s committee on urban planning, housing and resettlement. It can legislate changes in our laws that the summit participants will agree upon.
Precondition. The poor ask the government, as a gesture of goodwill and seriousness before the discussions begin, to impose a moratorium on all evictions. Lawyers tell us that President Noynoy can do it. I am afraid that many of our well-off people have little appreciation of the harsh reality of evictions, especially forced evictions. In the Middle East, Palestinians say they cannot conduct peace talks with Israel while the latter continues to open new settlements. In our work in Tacloban City, we have seen that the poor suffered from the winds and storm surges brought by “Yolanda” in much the same way that people in Metro Manila have suffered from forced and violent evictions. Luckily, people do not die in evictions.
It may help us situate our thinking on the poor of our cities if we start with St. John Paul II’s insight: “Any man or woman who is forced to live in inhuman housing conditions, through no fault of their own, is a victim of injustice” (Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, 1987). We, the government most of all, are all required to help them.
Life in the city. The poor believe that their true home is in the city. They say relocation should be on-site, in-city, or very-near-city. In the city are the jobs, schools and clinics they need. In the city are the people who can enrich their lives and widen their experience. In the city are the children of better-off families and the families of different backgrounds and cultures with whom poor children can play and study and become friends.
People’s planning. In the first years of President Noynoy’s term, under the care of then Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, some nongovernment organizations and people’s organizations elaborated on the people’s planning process. The process is based on democratic neighborhood people’s organizations, which, with the help of architects, develop their housing plans. These groups are many things for the poor: They are the means by which the poor resist evictions; they are the building blocks of a people’s democratic politics—and an economic base, for example, in the form of cooperatives. When he was the mayor of Naga City, Robredo had very good experience with community organizing and people’s organizations. He found that he could rely on the urban poor as a mature constituency with whom he could work. The relationship began with political usefulness and developed into one of trust and affection. The poor invite government officials to make the same journey.
Who can design neighborhood housing more sensitively than the people themselves, with professional help?
Land acquisition. Land tenure security—that is, freedom from the fear of eviction—is the most essential sine qua non of urban development, according to UN Habitat. The poor ask the government to proclaim land in the cities where they can build their homes. They ask the government to break up the large land areas held by government agencies, and give these to the poor. Does the Government Service Insurance System, the Department of Finance, or the National Housing Authority possess a better sense of the common good than the poor themselves?
Basic services. Always promised, never delivered. These services, including water, light, garbage collection, drainage, fire prevention, schools, health services and feeding programs must be improved. Malnourishment is common in our slums. Many of our children are always hungry. What will God say to us if we are well-fed and the children go hungry? I remember a statistic from long ago: 40,000 children die each day of illnesses related to malnutrition. I think it was from the United Nations. If only 1 percent of the total was made up of Filipino children, that makes 400 of our children dying each day.
Pestilences. There is a growing surge of drug production and use in our resettlement and slum areas. Young people become drug runners. In the resettlement areas around Manila, housewives become prostitutes to be able to feed their families. Young boys and girls become sex workers. Gangs and violence grow in number and strength. The government should do better.
Amortization. Poor people are willing to pay what they can afford for their housing. To pay more than that will cut into their scant food budgets. Calculations on amortization should begin with affordability.
Jobs will not be covered in the housing summit, though these should be discussed in every meeting about poor people’s problems. People are poor because they are jobless, or very much underemployed. We need low-skill manufacturing jobs that can be set up in our cities or near cities.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).