Manila's biggest challenge

Like globalization itself, megacities – with populations over 10 million – are now an undeniable feature of the 21st century.

Another undeniable feature: urban poor and slum dwellers now make up about one-third of all megacity populations — a proportion that has changed little in the recent past and shows little indication of changing in the near future.

Indeed, in the fastest growing megacities, informal settlers are growing at nearly the same rate as that of the cities themselves.

The term “squatter,” which is still often used to describe these settlers, is historically lumbered with implications of being the bane of private property owners and developers and as being a fat market for corrupt politicians buying huge numbers of votes at discount prices.

Presumably, the shift in nomenclature from “squatter” to “informal settler” signals not only political correctness but a paradigm shift altogether.

Manila is presently the world’s 11th most populous city, with an official 2007 population of 11.5 million and an informal estimated count of 16 million. Not surprisingly, about 35% of Metro Manila’s households are informal settlers, according to a 2010 Asian Development Bank report.

Post-war woes

Land tenure, of course, has been an issue in the Philippines for centuries. The Americans decreed that the nation’s land titling system should change from the Spanish land grant system to the modern Torrens Title System — and a deadline was set, which passed during the Japanese Occupation in WWII.

After the war, a new deadline was set, but many land owners and mortgage holders failed to meet the new deadline, and ownership of the land passed to the government. At the same time, entire communities of squatters sprung up to occupy devastated Metro properties.

The newly minted Republic was left to solve these problems on its own. All these conditions combined to lumber the new nation with a massive amount of officially untenured, unclaimed, unimproved and/or disputed land.

They also set the stage for the tangle of legal disputes that continue to beset the nation today.

Official state policy on informal settlers primarily only began to be crafted after the 1987 Constitution of then President Corazon Aquino.

In 1992, the Urban Development and Housing Act (RA 7279) was passed, later reinforced by President Fidel Ramos’s 1994 RA 7835, the Comprehensive Shelter Finance Act (CISFA), which, at the national level, put the onus for dealing with informal settlers mainly on the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).

But as we have seen in the San Roque/North Triangle saga, agencies did not always coordinate with one another during past administrations; LGUs (local government units), for whatever reasons, sometimes failed to implement; and informal settlers often took recourse to the streets.

Policy declined during the Joseph Estrada/Gloria Arroyo era as the groundwork laid by previous administrations remained ignored and underfunded, while, in a show of traditional patronage, many informal settler issues were dealt with by a Executive Order (EO), fell back on court decisions or were postponed by long-running temporary restraining orders.

Meaningless without funding

During the Arroyo years, numerous EOs granting land tenure made it appear that personality and patronage had replaced policy entirely — which worked for those who had been granted special privileges, but moved the nation no closer to a working solution on addressing informal settler problems as a whole.

But National Anti-Poverty Commission Secretary Joel Rocamora has identified a striking sea-change: in government, after all, rhetoric (especially when it comes to the poor) is meaningless without funding.

The Aquino administration would now be investing as much as P50-B for the next 5 years to relocate informal settlers out of danger zones in Metro Manila alone – helping a total of 106,000 families.

For every tranche of P10-B, housing would be provided to 20,000 informal settler families per year. Balik Probinsya is another option that is also being carefully studied.

For areas not in danger zones, NAPC Assistant Secretary Gina de la Cruz points out that “on-site, in-city or near-city relocation is a provision of the UDHA law, which we intend to implement as long as it’s feasible.” The administration further plans to increase the number of resettlement units and housing loans.

According to the Philippine Development Plan for 2010-2016, households in informal settlements in Metro Manila increased by more than 81% between 2000 and 2006. To address this problem, the government is formulating a National Slum Upgrading Strategy to provide secure tenure for urban informal settlers.

Expanded housing, onsite and in-city resettlement will be upgraded using strategies developed and agreed upon by government and other stakeholders, including community groups like the San Roque Council and affected members of the business community.

To scale this up, the government plans to pursue some of the following reforms:

* Develop Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) for onsite upgrading and resettlement
* Create alternative funds and mobilize resources to spur housing production
* Build strong partnerships with LGUs to accelerate housing production
* Institutionalize reforms among key shelter agencies

But as important as Metro Manila is, politically and financially, it must still be remembered that only half a million (560,000) informal settlers are from the city: the number of informal settlers in the country as a whole is now pegged at more than 1.3-M families.

In other words, 1 out of 2 informal settlers still lives outside the National Capital Region.

Indeed, according to news sources, there were at least 20,120 damaged houses in Iligan City and 18,436 in Cagayan de Oro alone due to recent flooding, most of which belonged to informal settlers.

The good news: the Department of Social Welfare and Development has already been able to extend help to as many as 69,720 families throughout Region 10.

Cabinet cluster plans

Currently, a Task Force for Informal Settlers composed of such officials as Interior and Local Secretary Jesse Robredo, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman and Rocamora are working together with other members of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet cluster and other stakeholders to reform and improve the lot of informal settler families not only in Metro Manila but all over the country.

In the 609 poorest municipalities the cluster is currently focusing on, municipalities will be asked to identify danger zones and provide relocation plans in the event of calamities as part of their anti-poverty plans.

Since the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), an arm of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), has already created a full array of geo-hazard maps, there is no reason why municipalities all over the country should not be making full use of them.

But a more pertinent question still needs to be raised: when geo-hazard experts identify danger zones, what will it take to ensure that national government, local government units, law enforcement, the business community, real estate developers, real estate brokers and local politicians collectively ensure that informal settlers do not inhabit these areas?

Is legislation the answer in a country with an impressive set of laws but a woeful implementation gap? What will it take to produce the type of social overhaul required of all levels of society to protect the interests of those who are the most deeply disempowered, above all?

The overarching problem for informal settlers, of course, is not just providing them with housing, but ultimately providing them with decent employment.

Beyond relocation

Merely relocating informal settlers to housing in far-flung areas where there are no jobs to be had practically ensures their return to danger zones in order to survive – which merely perpetuates the cycle of informal settlement and, all-too-often, the cycle of tragedy and death.   

Why not provide employment (or livelihoods) and socialized housing to informal settlers once developers acquire land inhabited by them?

Providing informal settlers with security of tenure is surely in the best interests of big business and government itself – because it will ultimately ensure greater social stability in the long-term.  

As inhabitants of the world’s 11th most populous megacity, the business community would do well to partner with government and look at the Top 10: will the Manila of the 21st century move forward in the manner of Jakarta and Shanghai, or will it slip backwards into the urban horror stories of cities like Dhaka, Lagos and Karachi?

Our response as a people will determine our place in a community of nations already faced with urban poverty on a massive scale at the dawn of this new century. – Rappler.com

(Assistant Secretary Shahani heads communications for the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster and is adjunct faculty with the Center for Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management.)