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Housing is a human right

One of the small joys that has kept me sane through this pandemic is our new dog, Fanis. Fanis is from Santorini and we adopted him after meeting him in the streets there in our trip in January 2019.

He’s a sweet dog who used to be frightened of everything and it has been a delight to see how he’s changed and how he has become more sure and comfortable of his surroundings.There is a strong and very instinctive bond between man and his best friend—much as there is a strong bond between us and our own homes.

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Shelter is one of the most basic needs of our species even before we first evolved into modern humans. It is the first thing we look for wherever we travel or move to. Shelter is a basic human right.

Garden City residential development in Bacoor, Cavite

Housing crisis

Why is it then that after 200,000 years of human evolution, 10 millennia after we first built our shelter, after building cities and wonders of technology, we are still unable to grasp this most basic challenge? This housing crisis we are facing, which is much more dire than anything else, is the single greatest sin of our urban societies.

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The current solution of relocating and expelling our problems outside of the metropolis is a disgraceful failure of planning and governance.

We have generations of homeless people on our streets. We have multiple generations being born and growing up in informal settlements without proper sanitation, and we are further promoting for generations of our people to accept a lifestyle that forces them into horrendous 4-hour daily commutes that rob them of time and sap them of vitality.

Our housing crisis is at the root of so many of our urban ills. The uncontrollable spread of this pandemic in our vulnerable communities, our immense transportation crisis, the endemic malaise of our citizenry, the pervasive corruption at all levels, and the low productivity of our labor force—they are all, in one way or another, linked to housing. Every sector of our community is affected by this crisis.

There are no simple answers to the housing problem.

Yet to allow it to fester and grow without redress is itself a crime to the next generation. Shelter is the most basic and primary issue that every architect learns about. We have learned that housing is not an architectural problem, nor is it a financial or spatial one. It is one borne out of weak political will and weaker cities.

Much of our housing policy in Metro Manila is centered around relocating and uprooting our own citizens. This is a problem not just for the people we relocate but for everyone else as well. Every city and society will always need the people who provide the labor and essential services that allow it to function.

San Juan in-city housing in Barangay St. Joseph, San Juan City

Space

Observe our urban housing projects and you will realize that most, if not all of them, do not maximize the most valuable resource that they have: land. Most of them would be less built up than adjacent or nearby private sector developments. These housing projects treat the available land as a free resource and do not value it appropriately. Land is precious, we need to maximize its use.

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Each home in the exclusive private subdivisions of our city centers can potentially house a thousand people. Bad enough that we have these enclaves choking our city, but we also place restrictions on the surrounding properties to further restrict development. Where do your laborers, drivers or helpers come from? How about your health workers or your teachers? How far do you want them to travel?

Proposed AFP affordable housing in Cubao, Quezon City.

Funding

How much does it cost to house a thousand citizens? A billion pesos can build you more than 500 apartments and acquire the land needed at market rates. Successful housing programs show that these can be leased or sold to recoup the cost and more to continue these programs.

Government funding costs are at such low rates that a 20-year mortgage could cost about P10,000 to P12,000 a month for an apartment unit including interest—affordable for a pair of urban workers especially once you factor in the cost of transportation that they currently incur. The value of housing will always correlate with proximity to work.

Fanis in Oia, Santorini.

Architecture

Housing is not and cannot be primarily an engineering problem. Architects must take on the role and challenge of developing liveable and efficient affordable housing for our communities. Housing can be done efficiently and provide comfortable and adequate living conditions.

There will inherently be a cost calculus in every housing project. There will always be a need to balance cost with liveability. It is not a question of how to build it but a question of what, where and when to build.

Our housing crisis often seems to be insurmountable and impossible. Yet it can also be construed as a great and momentous national endeavor. Imagine how much can be achieved if we can assure every person in our cities a proper place for them. We will be removing so much of the anxieties and stresses that push our people into unconscionable dilemmas.

Let this be a challenge to all of us, “that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

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