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In-city housing for poverty reduction

No eviction without relocation: This was one of the first policy pronouncements of President Duterte immediately after his election last May. It is a step in the right direction because, as the experiences of urban communities here and abroad show, eviction without relocation further impoverishes already poor families. The policy would later prove to be consistent with the promise that he made in his inaugural speech: “Tinud-anay nga kabag-ohan” (genuine change) by “provid[ing] for those who have little.”

That first policy pronouncement hints at Mr. Duterte’s understanding of the crucial role that housing plays in poverty reduction. Indeed, housing is crucial to poverty reduction for several reasons. For one, a sturdy house protects not only property but also people’s health and safety so that they can pursue productive activities and improve their quality of life. Moreover, a house can be a site of production as evident in the ubiquitous sari-sari store and other home-based livelihoods, in which families can engage to get themselves out of poverty.

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Additionally, according to Carolyn Moser, an expert in urban poverty reduction in developing countries, housing tenure security facilitates the acquisition of other assets that enable poverty reduction. For instance, it facilitates access to basic services such as electricity and water—which are important to livelihood, sanitation and health—as utility companies often require families to show proof of security of tenure before they provide services. Also, when people have a proper address, it facilitates job applications and procurement of services.

Given the significance of housing to poverty reduction, the President sent a clear message that he was serious about his propoor inaugural promise by appointing Vice President Leni Robredo as housing czar. After all, the Office of the Vice President is the second highest executive office, with all the prestige and wherewithal to influence stakeholders, rally different sectors, and mobilize resources for propoor housing and inclusive urban development. Additionally, its present occupant has made it her mission to alleviate the plight of marginalized communities. This she can accomplish through affordable housing for the poorest.

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Indeed, the VP’s statements in the days after her appointment confirm this. In her closing address at the 2016 International Conference on Urban Development, with the theme “Accelerating Resilience and Inclusive Growth” and organized by USAid, we got our initial insight into the directions she will take and the principles that will guide her implementation of urbanization and housing programs.

Among the many policy directions she discussed in that speech, one stood out: in-city or near-city housing. This policy makes a lot of sense if housing is to be truly an antipoverty reduction tool. Off-city relocation—just like eviction without relocation—further impoverishes relocated families, as shown by local and international experience. It disrupts employment, livelihood, access to basic services, education of children—to name a few pernicious effects—resulting in greater poverty. It also disrupts vital social networks, which oftentimes is all the support that the poor have.

In contrast, in-city or near-city relocation ensures continued access of families to economic, cultural and educational opportunities that abound in cities. It also preserves the social networks that urban poor families have built over the years to mutually sustain themselves. Because it preserves these physical and nonphysical assets of the poor, an in-city approach gives the poor a better fighting chance to improve their lives and get out of poverty. On the other hand, it allows the cities to continue to benefit from the important services that residents in low-income communities have been providing, often at very subsidized rates (Think of your neighborhood washerwoman, driver, nanny, and, yes, even teachers and policemen). The policy makes sociopolitical and economic sense. This is why in 2001, Brazil passed the Estatuto da Cidade (City Statute), which protected in no uncertain terms the “right to the city” of poor communities. More recently, the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines came out in support of in-city relocation for precisely the same reasons, and urged the government to allocate idle government-owned land for this purpose (“ECCP: No need to relocate urban poor outside NCR,” Business, 8/10/16).

The High Density Housing (HDH) program of the Social Housing Finance Corp. (SHFC) shows that an in-city relocation is possible, even in Metro Manila where land prices have become exorbitant.  Under the HDH program, multistory residential buildings are constructed, thereby generating more housing units from a small parcel of valuable land within the city. (The problem of high land prices for housing in Metro Manila could have been altogether avoided had its cities adhered to Republic Act No. 7279 or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, which enjoined local governments to do land banking for socialized housing as early as 24 years ago. Other cities where inexpensive land is still available had better do land banking now before it is too late.)

VP Robredo reiterated this direction toward an in-city or near-city housing policy in her recent visit to Bistekville 1 and 2, a housing project of the Quezon City government, which the SHFC happened to refinance (I leave it to the reader to guess the origin of the project’s imaginative name). She repeated it in Davao City at the Social Development Initiatives Summit organized by the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

She cannot overemphasize this policy enough. Only through in-city or near-city housing that gives families the tools to get themselves out of poverty will we see Duterte-style tinud-anay nga kabag-ohan in the lives of poor families.

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

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TAGS: housing, Poverty Reduction, Social Housing Finance Corp.
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