MANILA, Philippines – When Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, the number of families without their own homes was at 5.5 million – 1.5 million of them informal settlers. At the same time, resettlement sites developed by the National Housing Authority (NHA) were mostly unoccupied.
Not until thousands of informal settlers of the urban poor group Kadamay forcibly occupied housing sites in Pandi, Bulacan, last March did the extent of the sector's problems came to the fore.
After several congressional hearings on the takeover, policymakers came to accept that housing units had gone unoccupied because they are far from urban centers, where the settlers work and earn a living. The past approach only gave birth to twin problems: low-to-almost-zero occupancy rate in housing sites outside the city centers, and, in the case of occupied units, the beneficiaries’ failure to pay monthly amortizations due to unemployment.
Policymakers reached a consensus then to develop in-city housing sites instead.
But where do you build in the already congested metropolis?
Government lands in Metro Manila
During the April 18 congressional hearing on the Kadamay occupation, Negros Occidental 3rd District Representative Alfredo Benitez, chairperson of the House committee on housing and urban development, said there are around 3,400 hectares of government lands in Metro Manila. This is equivalent to 58 times the size of the Luneta National Park complex, from the Quirino Grandstand up to the area bounded by Taft Avenue.
NHA general manager Marcelino Escalada clarified that, out of the 5.5-million housing backlog, only 1.5 million are informal sector families (ISFs) – the NHA’s market. The remaining 3 million are salaried families in the formal sector who have yet to purchase houses.
This makes the NHA leadership positive that the ISFs can fit in urban centers or in areas near it.
“All over the globe, people would tend to live in an urban center because the opportunity is there,” said Escalada.
“We have available lands. That is why under the Duterte administration we are [using] the idle inventory of the NHA. First, we have to consolidate the inventories of NHA offices across the country,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Aside from the NHA inventory, Escalada said, they will use the lands owned by local government units (LGUs) and national agencies on the list of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).
HUDCC is in the process of integrating various agencies' inventory of public lands they own.
Local government participation
Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler
Land, of course, is a major factor in deciding the locations of housing projects, especially given the NHA's limited budget. Land acquisition would take the biggest chunk of project expenses that, in the past, housing sites were built in rural areas for cheaper land cost.
To maximize the budget they are alloted, housing officials are banking on utilizing in-city government lands – and local government units have them. The HUDCC, therefore, is going to involve LGUs in every step of the way – from design to development.
In negotiating with LGUs, top housing officials draw confidence from the fact that most of them came from local governments – they speak the language. The HUDCC chairperson, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, was mayor of Maribojoc town in Bohol; NHA's Escalada served as Davao City administrator and head of the City Planning and Development Office. Lawyer John Vistal, HUDCC secretary general, concurrently serves as Bohol’s provincial development and planning officer.
“Sometimes you give them something they didn’t really want,” said Vistal. “[Instead], get them involved, [put them] on the same page from the start. It works out better for everyone.”
The issue of local governments' minimal involvement in housing projects surfaced in the legislative hearings. The mayor of Pandi told lawmakers how the LGU grappled with the influx of new residents to their underdeveloped town.
“The national agency should not bear all the brunt of the problem. The local government should [have] the first accountability,” NHA assistant general manager Froilan Kampitan said during the April 18 hearing.
As incentive to cooperative LGUs, Escalada said he has proposed to the HUDCC to double the grant money of the Resettlement Assistance Project for the LGU (RAP-LGU). It’s a partnership where the LGU provides the land and the NHA allocates P24 million to develop it. Half of the amount will be recoverable to the LGU.
He stressed that the fastest way to close the housing gap is to decentralize the construction of resettlement sites, and to encourage towns to implement their own housing projects through the RAP-LGU.
P500 billion to close the gap
To accommodate more resettlers in smaller lands, low-rise buildings – up to 5 storeys – will be constructed. Each unit will measure between 22 and 44 square meters.
The construction cost of a condo-type building is double the cost of a residential house. Data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2016 show a house costs an average of P10,465 per square meter to build, versus the P18,515-per-square-meter average of a condominium.
Because multi-storey buildings require more stable foundation, stairs, and additional water piping that drive up the cost, condominiums will mean double financial requirements for the government's in-city housing scheme.
Escalada estimates the NHA will need around P500 billion to address the housing backlog. (READ: Robredo: Gov't must build over 2,600 homes a day to beat backlog)
“If you want to address the gap, there [should be] a fresh funding of P100 billion every year. That’s just to address the gap. You have a parallel problem as you fix the gap – the urbanization also increases. P500 billion easily is the money we would need for the share of 1.5 million ISFs,” he said.
The government can barely fund this requirement. In the 2017 budget, NHA only received P27 billion. Budget for the housing sector has not even surpassed the 1% mark in the past.
The need to recover the expenses rules out the possibility of government providing free mass housing. The NHA considers renting out the new housing sites for P450 a month per unit.
Payment for the ownership of an awarded land starts at P600 per month. This will eventually increase to P4,800 per month after 30 years. (Why P600-a-month housing is still a burden to the poor)
Escalada said the NHA has started construction of 5 sites in Davao City, Zamboanga City, and Mati City, while other sites are also being planned. Housing officials expect these sites to be finished in the next 3 years. (READ: NHA targets to build 500,000 houses in 2017 to solve backlog)
Several bills have been filed in the Senate and the House of Representatives to establish a Department of Housing to bring this vision closer to reality. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said last year the Duterte administration is keen on this proposal.
HUDCC's Evasco committed to provide a decent housing for the urban homeless: “The guiding principle would be to listen to the people to whom we will be delivering these houses. For all you know, we might be delivering these houses, which you think are decent, but not decent enough for the people.”
He added, “You have to make houses which are decent for Filipinos to make them feel proud of their own houses.” – Rappler.com