Two crises collide: The pandemic is a grave subplot in Metro Manila's housing horror story

As the Philippines locked down and “stay at home” became the worldwide battle cry against a new coronavirus, the irony was not lost on Analyn Ronald.* 

“There’s already enough sickness and disease in this neighborhood. We live among garbage – they think staying at home is going to save us?”

Analyn and her family of 10 live in Tondo, Manila – widely regarded as the largest slum in Southeast Asia. Her tiny home is made from scrap wood, plastic and iron sheeting. Her young triplets’ arms and legs are peppered with insect bites and smothered in rashes.  

“We’re originally from Masbate, Bicol, and first came here in 2004 to visit my sister. At the time, we decided to stay so our children could have more opportunities and better schooling. My husband also struggled to find stable work in the province,” she said. 

“We know living here isn’t good for our health, but it’s all we can afford in Manila,” she added.   

Like many Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has long had a burgeoning housing crisis. Analyn and her family are among the estimated 3 million people in Metro Manila alone who desperately need an adequate home. 

Labor surpluses and low incomes in the provinces force thousands of Filipinos to migrate to urban areas every year. With a lack of affordable housing options, many opt to live in slums. The poorest build shanties in “danger zones” – along waterways, or under bridges and powerlines.  

And while COVID-19 continues to spread through communities nationwide, experts warn the housing shortage may only worsen as the government attempts to reignite the economy and more Filipinos flock to the capital desperate for work.  

“We all saw the images – thousands of people fleeing the cities after governments announced lockdowns. Those people are coming back. The question is: how many more will join them?" Yap Kioe Shung, author of Urbanization In Southeast Asia, said in an interview with Rappler. 

“It’s too early to predict precisely what will happen, but in the developing world – with increased poverty levels in the pandemic's aftermath – many people can’t wait for things to normalize in the province. They need to work, and the city will be the best place to do that,” he added.  

“For the government, economically, this type of migration makes sense as they try to kick-start their industries. But socially, for housing, it’s a massive problem,” he said.

Further compounding the housing woes of the poor, congestion inside slums has left the health of millions on a knife's edge. With large, extended families often living together in tiny spaces, social distancing is almost impossible.  

“People returning to slum areas from the provinces will be a big headache for the government. Are they going to bring the virus back and infect the broader community? We know it spreads very rapidly in those environments,” said Yap.  

Mass housing mess 

Gross shortcomings and missteps in the government's approach to the housing dilemma are well documented. 

A World Bank report from 2016 cited an absence of coherent role assignment between government agencies as one of the biggest shortfalls. While the National Land Use Act has languished in Congress for over 20 years – a bill which would consolidate a host of overlapping laws, helping the government better manage land distribution for socialized housing projects. 

And for decades, a slew of "off-city" resettlement attempts have infamously misfired. None more disastrous than the botched handling of the "P50-billion resettlement fund" harking back to the prior Aquino administration. 

Under the Oplan LIKAS program, funds were initially used by the National Housing Authority to relocate roughly 55,000 families from Metro Manila’s waterways and danger zones to 18 resettlement sites in Bulacan, Laguna, Rizal and Cavite. 

Upon arrival, some occupants were greeted with a lack of running water and no electricity. Testimonies recounted by families to the House Committee on Housing and Urban Development revealed vast deficiencies in access to schools, health centers, and livelihoods.  

The World Bank estimated close to 70% of informal settlers rehoused under Oplan LIKAS were in off-city sites, and due to a lack of job opportunities, many simply returned to the city, leaving their units vacant.  

For housing practitioners and urban planners, the failures of Oplan LIKAS brought a silver lining, as the government became willing to adopt more inclusive, in-city housing programs.  

One approach coined the “People’s Plan” allows organized communities to craft their own housing proposal. Alongside local government units, community leaders can source land, negotiate with developers, apply for permits, and ultimately secure financing via the Social Housing Finance Corporation.  

While several communities have successfully used this method, the process is brutally long-winded, often taking up to 5 years to complete. Yap Kioe Shung says scalability is also a massive problem. 

“There are lots of approaches like this which provide great housing, but it generally stops after a few small projects. Firstly, because the government always reaches bottlenecks in sourcing land, and secondly, because private developers are not interested in housing the poor when the demand for middle to high end projects is so large,” he said. 

Housing is health 

With glaring inequalities between classes in sharp focus amid the pandemic, the United Nations says housing has now revealed itself as the “frontline of defense” against future viruses and health challenges. 

Peter Russell, author of Planning for Poverty, suggested that these are not groundbreaking insights.  

“This is something we’ve all known for years – housing is paramount to general health. And even from a purely economical perspective, housing should be a top priority for governments,” he said. 

“If people are dying of preventable diseases due to their built environment, that’s terrible for productivity, and the government is missing out on a tax payer. This is unfortunately the situation in the Philippines, ” he added.     

Just last year, in one of the largest housing policy reforms in decades, the government merged the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) and the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB).  

The creation of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) was seen by many as a huge step in prioritizing housing and resettlement for the future, building on amendments to the Balanced Housing Act from 2017 which mandated a 15%  socialized housing component within private housing developments.  

And as the government maps out its exit strategy from an enhanced community quarantine, Russell suggested that socialized housing would be an ideal focal point for the country’s economic recovery beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Investment in housing is not only for welfare and health – it creates thousands of jobs and stimulates the economy. In terms of a country’s economic recovery, it should be one of the key drivers. For this, it’s vital that government agencies take a more active role in brokering worthwhile deals between lenders, private developers, urban poor communities and NGOs – there are plenty of models from other countries,” he said.

“Unfortunately, however, I don’t believe the Philippines is agile enough to prioritize in-city social housing as a core component of it’s post-pandemic plans. The institutional strength just isn’t there," Russel added.

He said that for now, "an intensified focus on water, sanitation and hygiene – in both slum and new resettlement areas – will likely be the most important shift for the sector – lessons learned in the months ahead will improve the urban poor’s health outcomes and save lives during future epidemics." 

Habitat for Humanity Philippines’ Chief Operating Officer Lili Fuentes said the government must stop repeating past mistakes if the sector is to make any progress on the eye-watering housing backlog.  

“A housing project should address four major concerns: safety and security, mobility, sources of livelihood and access to social services. The old off-city projects only met the first of these. Any future budgets and fund allocations must be more integrative and address each and every concern properly – not just the physical house itself,” she said. 

“We also need the government to streamline social housing policies and roll-out more incentives for NGOs, civil society organizations, and developers. Without these, we just won’t have the foundation to scale-up housing production for the millions in need,” Fuentes added. 

In February, Human Settlements and Urban Development Secretary Eduardo del Rosario claimed his department would “raise the bar” of integrity in the housing sector and set a “new standard of doing business.”  

In the meantime, sitting in her shanty in Tondo, Analyn Ronald isn’t banking on change anytime soon.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever leave here.... I just hope my children are gone before the next virus.” – Rappler.com 

* Subject requested to change surname to protect identity.