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Finding shelter amid adversity

As though overnight, the skyline in the metro and other urban areas nationwide has become studded by residential towers targeting students, young professionals, newlyweds delighted to be in each other’s hair all day, retired couples moving from empty nests, a sudden surge of foreign nationals in town for the long haul, and, in a certain rarefied level, folks with money to burn and the inclination to do exactly that.

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“Location, location, location” is ever the mantra, the best come-on being proximity to malls and commercial centers, schools, government offices, hospitals, hotels. “Transit-oriented”—meaning near MRT, LRT and bus stations—is a great selling factor for a specific market, and for another market, patches of lush greenery and sunrise/sunset views to soothe the soul.

To live in business and lifestyle districts and be done with the torturous commute, to be high and dry while elsewhere floodwaters churn, to find shelter not only in a loved one’s arms but also within four protective walls: It’s the ideal scenario in these schizophrenic parts, where in posh addresses, every square foot reeks of leisure and luxury, and in can-afford condo buildings, students or office girls cheerfully live cheek by jowl three to a unit.

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Oil prices may rise and fall,  yet the housing boom in the private sector shows no sign of weakening.

Fundamental right

But there’s a troubling side to the housing coin that mainly involves the weak and vulnerable, such as disaster victims, informal settlers and the elderly.

In civilized societies, it is acknowledged that shelter is a fundamental right and that the government has the obligation to guarantee everyone’s access to this right. Indeed, the Philippine Development Plan of 2017-2022 declares that it “aims to support” the building of communities where more families can enjoy “strongly rooted, comfortable and secure” lives — “matatag, maginhawa at panatag na buhay.”

“The housing sector continues to provide decent shelter to the underprivileged while striving to keep up with growing housing needs and limited resources allotted to the sector,” the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) states.

It’s a bewildering claim. That the government through the National Housing Authority (NHA) is falling short of its declared aim is evident, most especially  to the families whose lives were devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in November 2013.

Five years after the fact and despite the government’s promises and a veritable flood of support from the international community, a big number of those families are still awaiting resettlement. To compound matters, according to a special report by Inquirer Visayas, the families are dismayed that the houses being offered to them are built with materials so substandard as to render these unsafe and unfit to live in.

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Another lament, aired by fishermen, is that the NHA relocation site in Barangay Cansumangkay, Balangiga, in the province of Eastern Samar is too far from their old fishing village.

In-city housing

Before he fell ill and and eventually passed on in October 2016, the tireless community organizer Denis Murphy was spending much of his time in Tacloban City helping those left homeless by Yolanda to pick up the pieces of their lives. In their behalf and with the active participation of their representatives, he sought from the government in-city housing projects that would allow them proximity to their workplaces, among other things.

In-city relocation had been a long-time advocacy of Murphy, founder of the Urban Poor Associates and a former Jesuit missionary. “[It] will allow every member of the family to earn a decent income and children to play in the playground,” he once said poignantly.

Relocation is a recurring nightmare for informal-settler families (ISFs), as well as for the urban households that benefit from their services. More often than not, relocated ISFs find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere with little work opportunities. Their children are unable to return to school. Paved roads are a rarity. Light and water connections are nonexistent and take forever to be installed. The expense of public transport is a constant problem.

It is thus hardly surprising that relocated ISFs ultimately move back to the city that they left, to once more clutch at the knife’s edge and take up whatever casual jobs they had as construction workers, washerwomen, cooks, gardeners or live-out maids.

How important is housing to the body politic? The American Bar Association puts it well: “Without adequate housing, employment is difficult to secure and maintain, health is threatened, education is impeded, violence is more easily perpetrated, privacy is impaired, and social relationships are frequently strained.”

To appreciate the clarity of that statement, one need only recall the agony of the 120,000 residents of Zamboanga City who were displaced by the siege of Moro National Liberation Front members in September 2013, and the resulting battle between that renegade group and government forces.

Many of the evacuees had to take shelter for a prolonged period in a stadium marked by squalor, hunger and violence, particularly against women and children. Despite government reassurances, a number of displaced families were still living in government-run shelters as of September 2017, or four years later. (And MNLF founder Nur Misuari has yet to be held accountable for his men’s rampage.)

Major challenges

Here, according to the Philippine Development Plan, are the “major challenges” that beset the public housing sector:

“Lack of affordable land, which forces the government to relocate communities off-city where opportunities are scarce, or resort to in-city, high-density mass housing. Local government units are also reluctant to accept more ISFs;

Limited appropriations for the sector;

Cumbersome bureaucratic process;

Delayed or inadequate provision of basic and other services;

Institutional limitations of national and local government entities to fulfill their respective roles in providing decent shelter.”

It’s fairly obvious that a serious concerted effort propelled by political will is imperative to address these institutional challenges as a step toward ultimately solving the housing problem that has long plagued Philippine society. Empathetic consultation with involved families is key to this effort: a give and take of ideas and strategies that will involve rethinking customary solutions and, most important, rooting out corrupt contractors and their enablers in the government.

Most basic need

In the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, shelter is listed as among the most basic, along with food and water.

Safe, decent and affordable shelter—from the elements, from predators including the human kind—is essential for survival, particularly of the very young and the very old.

The gravity of the Philippines’ housing problem is highlighted by the fact that as of 2017, there were only four government-run shelters nationwide for elderly citizens neglected or abandoned by their next of kin. In a society that purports to value and respect its elders, the state of these facilities—in Quezon City; Tanay, Rizal; Zamboanga City; and Tagum City—leaves much to be desired; in an economy touted to be fast-growing, the budget for the residents’ upkeep—for example, P85 for three meals a day in Graces in Quezon City—is heartrending.

“We can find no social or moral justification whatsoever, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Pope Francis said in September 2015 in Washington, D.C., where he skipped an event with politicians to meet with the homeless.

It’s a point to ponder in this season of hope and goodwill, when humankind commemorates the birth of the Child for whom there was no room at the inn.

chatogarcellano@gmail.com

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