urban poor in the Philippines

Fire victims living in dilapidated Cebu convention center want to go home

Neil Lorenzo Diola
Fire victims living in dilapidated Cebu convention center want to go home

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Displaced by fire in different barangays in Mandaue City, the victims have not been allowed by the local government to return to their lots after two to five years
AS PUBLISHED BYPHILIPPINE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

On the grounds of the dilapidated Cebu International Convention Center (CICC), a group of makeshift homes were crammed so tightly that sunlight barely slipped through overlapping roof panels made of corrugated iron sheets.

The scrap wood and used tarpaulins that made up the walls offered little protection from the elements. It gets boiling hot during the dry season and cold when the rains come.

“Strong winds can blow the roof of our homes,” Tomas Moron said in Cebuano.

Moron and his family have lived at the government property located in Mandaue’s city center for over five years. The city government moved them and their neighbors here after a fire in March 2016 ravaged their homes in barangays Mantuyong and Guizo.

By then, the CICC, which was built for the 12th ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in 2007, had fallen into ruin following twin disasters – an earthquake and Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. The provincial government, which could not fund the property’s repair, later sold it to the city government of Mandaue. 

Many of Moron’s neighbors have been allowed to return to their lots and rebuild their homes. But not his family. A few hundred residents who were told they would be relocated to another site were still fighting to return to their land. 

“It’s all been empty promises…. Out of the 10 things they say, 15 are lies,” said Moron, visibly upset. He had joined the urban poor group Mantuyong Guizo Homeowners Urban Poor Association (MGHUPA) in the hope of improving his chances of returning home.

Moron could not understand why they were not all allowed to return to their village. The urban groups have harbored suspicions that the city government wanted to slowly convert their lots to commercial use.

Meanwhile, Moron watched life pass him by at the CICC. His wife died without seeing her wish to return home come true. He recently lost his job as a butcher at the wet market, but his two daughters found good jobs that allowed them to escape the CICC. He decided to stay at the convention center with his son, who has been supporting him. 

In June 2019, another group of fire victims from Barangay Tipolo arrived to set up their own makeshift homes on another corner of the CICC. They did a better job managing the space they were provided, putting some distance between their temporary shelters. They were also able to grow their own gardens on patches of soil where ornamental plants used to grow when the convention center entertained VIP guests. 

Irine Indoc of Barangay Tipolo has lived at the CICC for two years. She, her husband, and their two children get by with her income as a manicurist while her husband worked construction jobs.

She’s afraid they would suffer the same fate of prolonged displacement as Moron and his neighbors. 

Indoc also joined an urban poor group, the Tipolo Residents Association (TRA), to fight for her family’s right to return to Barangay Tipolo. But these days they’re afraid to mobilize to call on the government to act on their demands.

The security sector has accused some of their members of involvement with the communist rebel group New People’s Army. In other parts of the country, allegations like this had led to extrajudicial killings

The grievances of the fire victims living on the grounds of the CICC is a common story among displaced people in the Philippines, said Ica Fernandez, an urban planning expert. 

She cited the evacuees from the 2013 siege of Zamboanga City who stayed at a gymnasium for nine years before they were relocated, and the 2017 siege of Marawi City who are still unable to go back to their land four years later.

“They compose the hidden underclass of most of our cities. Their most fundamental right to housing is not possible,” she said.

City promised to donate lot to informal settlers

The fire victims were not known to hold titles over the land they used to occupy, but residents cited commitments by the local government to donate the lot to informal settlers. They call themselves “beneficiaries” of a 9.2-hectare lot spanning the adjacent barangays of Mantuyong, Guizo, and Tipolo in Mandaue City, which the local government had agreed to donate to the residents. 

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests showed evidence of the residents’ decades-long struggle to own the land.

The 9.2-hectare lot was part of an initiative by the local government of Mandaue City to give housing to the city’s informal settlers. As early as 1992, a resolution passed by the Sangguniang Panlungsod agreed that the lot would be “converted to homesites if not affected by government projects.” 

The beneficiaries were identified to be “displaced families, migrants, and jobseekers who have occupied certain city owned, government, and foreshore lands…in good faith.” 

The resolution recognized that many of the informal settlers had been occupants “as early as the close of the last world war.” It was also based on the understanding of the local officials that simply clearing the occupants would “[disturb] their possession and occupancy” and would mean “social and economic instability” for the occupants.

In 1998, then-mayor Alfredo “Pedong” Ouano entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the urban poor group, the Federation of Mandaue Community of Urban Poor Inc. or Fedmacupi. 

The MOA covered five barangays, namely Centro, Mantuyong, Guizo, Tipolo, and Subangdaku. Each beneficiary was supposed to get a plot of land up to a maximum 50 square meters.

In 2014, under the previous tenure of incumbent Mayor Jonas Cortes, more residents were given certificates as “validated and qualified beneficiaries” of a planned socialized housing project on the donated land.

But the city government’s recent actions seemed to neglect these agreements, residents said. 

“This is a common tragedy. So many good policies are limited by political cycles. When the mayor is gone, or a governor or a president, there are no guarantees that commitments will be honored by the next administration,” said Fernandez.

It’s also a reflection of a common perspective among LGUs on urban development, which leans toward private sector partnerships, she said. “It’s the mode of urbanization they desire. If it’s commercialized, it is the highest investment of the land,” she said.

Legal cases

The fire that razed the informal settlement in barangays Mantuyong and Guizo on March 12, 2016, affected up to 2,342 households, based on a document provided by the city government. 

The second fire that hit three sitios in Barangay Tipolo on June 27, 2019 – Basubas, Maharlika, and Espina – affected 624 households, based on a report of the National Housing Authority. 

The residents were given aid money, but the amount depended on whether one was a renter or a structure owner. For Mantuyong and Guizo residents, this amounted to P3,000 and P5,000, respectively. 

The Tipolo victims received more. Structure owners were given P10,000 while renters were given P5,000. 

“I don’t think the money lasted one month,” said Ursina Torregosa, an elderly resident of Barangay Tipolo and president of the TRA.

Many of them spent the money to buy housing materials and build themselves temporary shelters. 

When they were barred from returning to their lots, the Tipolo residents also began to harbor suspicions about the city government’s plans with their land.

Giovanni “Jovy” Rosales, organizer for Panaghugpong Kadamay Cebu, another urban poor group, recalled how they never had trouble returning to their homes after a fire ravaged their community in 2007.

“The people were able to return and rebuild their homes even if they burned down,” Rosales said. 

Members of MGHUPA accused the Housing and Urban Development Office (HUDO) of destroying their homes without adequate relocation and before they were able to retrieve their personal belongings. 

HUDO is an office under the Mandaue City government that oversees the creation of homeowners associations and the demolition and clearing of informal settlements. 

These complaints led to legal proceedings accusing city officials of illegal demolition, based on Section 28 of the UDHA, which outlines the situations in which demolition or eviction is permissible. MGHUPA filed an administrative case with the Office of the Ombudsman against former Mandaue City mayor Luigi Quisumbing and HUPO officials Tony Pet Juanico and Cesar Ylanan.

MGHUPA also accused city officials of violating Memorandum No. 2010-134 and Memorandum Circular No. 2011-182 of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). They require adequate relocation before any demolition. 

Residents claimed even homeowners who were not affected by the 2016 and 2019 fires were threatened with demolition during clearing operations. 

Compromise

In 2017, during the term of Quisumbing, the city government reached a compromise with Fedmacupi to address the concerns of Mantuyong and Guizo residents. 

However, only 369 out of 657 fire victims would be accommodated, based on a government document. The city government planned to bring the remaining 288 fire victims to a different location. 

A raffle was organized by the HUDO to determine who among the residents of barangays Mantuyong and Guizo would return to the lot and who would be relocated. But structure owners complained that the raffle placed them on an equal footing with renters. Residents wanted everyone to be allowed to return to their lots. But if the slots were limited, the structure owners demanded priority over the renters.

HUDO used the 2008 census to determine who among the residents of Barangay Tipolo would go back to the lot. Some residents claimed the census did not include all the residents, however. “So many have lived on the 9.2 hectares for so many years before 2008,” said Torregosa. 

Many residents were also supposed to be relocated to a medium-rise building (MRB), a socialized housing project, based on a relocation report by the National Housing Authority. But many structure owners in Barangay Tipolo had reservations moving into the MRB, concerned that they would be made to pay rent.

Residents said HUDO had led them to believe that everyone would pay rent, including structure owners, because they were interviewed about their income. 

“Our income is small, and they expect us to rent? Even back then we were struggling,” said Torregoso.

This reporter reached out to HUDO but has not received a response as of this writing. This report will be updated as soon as they respond to our questions.

The compromise also came with several preconditions. Residents who were allowed to return to the lot were prohibited from renting out their homes, which used to be their prerogative. They were also made to waive “any and all claims…against the city of Mandaue” and cautioned against “[taking] part in any protest outside the legal means.”

Threats of demolition

Despite their circumstances, the fire victims tried their best to survive in the CICC.

They only have access to water between 5 am and 8 am and in the evening. They shell out P1 for every five gallons of water they use, to pay a fellow resident who switches the faucet on and off. 

They rely on a generator for electricity, owned by a fellow resident who charges per appliance. They pay a minimum of P20 a day to use light bulbs. 

Residents use chamber pots to relieve themselves inside their makeshift homes and dispose of their human waste in portable toilets provided by the city government. The portable toilets fill up quickly, however. Residents said they often needed to find other places to dump their waste. 

“What was done to us is too much. We suffer so much,” said Torregosa.

Yet their situation at the CICC further worsened with repeated threats of demolition to make way for the development of the city property. “The demolition team does not care if a child or a senior citizen is sleeping as long as they break something,” a resident, who didn’t want to be named, chimed in. 

The CICC occupants had some respite after the DILG issued Memorandum Circular No. 2020-068 on April 2, 2020, temporarily stopping demolitions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

But it was followed by a decision of the Office of the Ombudsman – signed in December 2020 but released only in June 2021 – dismissing MGHUPA’s case against Quisumbing and the HUDO officials for “substantial lack of evidence.” 

The Ombudsman ruled that the demolition of the residences inside the 9.2-hectare lot was done properly and the financial assistance given to affected families went beyond what was required by law.

The decision also confirmed that the relocation site for the residents of barangays Mantuyong and Guizo would be in Tuburan in Danao City, hours away from Metropolitan Cebu. MGHUPA members said the site was too far from their families’ livelihoods in Mandaue. 

“As of now, we are focusing on continuing the consolidation of our members. We plan to enter back into dialogue with the city government, especially as the presidential elections near,” said Rosales. – Rappler.com

Neil Lorenzo Diola produced this report under PCIJ’s Uncovering LGUs fellowship program.

This piece is republished with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.