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[OPINION] A roof for baby: Panunuluyan hopes for 2021

Just before Christmas 2020, 4 Mother Marys who has just given birth to their babies joined the annual, now virtual, panunuluyan of the urban poor. Recorded on video were their hopes for their newborns. Like the Baby in the Bethlehem manger, the 4 infants lay in the Filipino-poor version of swaddling clothes, and for 3 of the 4, in a makeshift stable-shack. What were their hopes for their little ones? Where would the Christmas star take them as they searched for a place at the inn?

Erlyn of Estero de San Miguel reflected: “I dream of having our own home – larger and [more] spacious than what we have now – and [made of] concrete. A place you can really call your own and which can be your children’s home throughout their lifetime."

Khimverlie, her neighbor, remarked, “My plywood floor right over the river gave way a while ago and I nearly fell into the water. Who knows if there might have been a snake down there!”

Erlyn comforts her, saying that the land for their new housing has already been acquired by the government. Construction of the Jesse Robredo Village HOA may start anytime.

Berla of BASECO added, “We have it worst off. Our house stands on stilts along the river with Manila Bay on the other side. When we know a storm is coming, we loop a line under the house and across the roof in hopes the second-hand GI sheet won’t fly away in the strong gusts. Someday I want our children to grow up in a good house.”  

Aira, who recently moved into her government-provided apartment in Manggahan Residences, Pasig City praised her new home in the five-storey complex. Remembering the Floodway shack she had left behind, she reflected, “When we lived there, every typhoon meant a flood leaving a huge mess all over the place. That was dangerous to our health. On top of all that, eviction notices came every year, [so we] lived in constant fear of demolition. Now that we have our own home, what becomes important to me as a Filipino and a member of this community are 3 things: eating 3 times a day, having a good job, and not worrying about any dangers around us. You can ask anyone; that’s what we aspire for in our lives.” 

Erly spoke for the wishes for all 4 babies, saying that when she heard that the land for their new apartments was now available, she went to look at it.  “The first time I set foot on our site, I said to myself, ‘Yes! I have a home!’” 

Yet, for some 200,000 of Metro Manila’s informal settler families, these hopes are dashed every day. Most of them have lived for decades in their  settlements of makeshift houses, densely packed neighborhoods, and unsanitary environments lacking clean water and air, which are also plagued with poor internet signal.

Although residents gradually improve their housing over time, the surrounding public spaces stagnate with virtually no improvements offered by government. Contrast this with the pages and pages of advertising in weekly broadsheets, featuring fancy luxury apartments for the well-heeled.

Where is the justice and compassion of which Pope Francis speaks, considering especially that this is the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines? In his words, “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. God asks us to dare to create something new.”

The urban poor have long struggled for a place in the city where their families have a chance at a better life. That place has necessarily been near their in-city sources of livelihood. Metro Manila could not survive without the services of thousands of male security guards, messengers, tricycle, jeepney and family drivers, waiters, barbers, auto mechanics, computer repair technicians, and more.  The city’s economy would similarly flounder without the support of thousands of women serving as sari-sari store and sidewalk vendors, contractual saleswomen, domestic helpers, laundresses, beauty parlor attendants, and home manufacturers of uniforms, masks, cheap jewelry, paper bags, packaged goods, and more. 

The dominant informal economy therefore continues to subsidize our better-off urban residents, comfortable with the uncertain employment and low remuneration levels they expect the urban poor to accept while serving them. Rights to decent housing for thousands of Filipino baby Jesuses, although affirmed in international legal instruments and the Philippine Constitution, are conveniently set aside. 

As everywhere, the COVID-19 virus has brought further misery to the already beleaguered lives of the urban poor. Yet, what do we know about the number of malnourished children or senior citizens in informal settlements who have died? Of young teens who for survival engage in cybersex at the behest of their own parents? Of women whose desperately idle husbands have taken out their frustrations in violent rage against their wife-partner? Of school children who have given up on their education online, stymied by limited e-tablets, low-level cellphones, poor internet signal, and parents unable to assist?

Access to decent affordable housing is crucial to addressing the COVID-19 disaster. Just as the private sector and government have combined forces to address the pandemic, housing for the urban poor is in a similar state of crisis. Virus outbreaks will continue to afflict rich and poor alike if thousands of poor families continue to live in contagious slum conditions. Issues of land availability for social housing in the city need serious attention, notably by local governments housing their own populations, as some are already doing. 

In-city high density housing has already been shown to be feasible, provided those scheduled to live in them have a say in their planning and implementation through genuine consultation and a workable People’s Plan. The evidence of effective people’s participation abounds in several onsite housing successes on the Manggahan Floodway, Pasig City; Estero de San Miguel and Jesse Robredo Homeowners Association, Manila; Gulod Urban Poor Aliance, Novaliches, Quezon City; Disciplinaville, Valenzuela; Almanova housing projects; and more. 

Despite their COVID-provoking surroundings, our Marias maintain an astonishing positivity and sense of agency. Erlyn affirms, “It’s our duty to save money so that once construction is done, we can pay our obligations and have a concrete home. If you’re poor, don’t stop and let yourself think that’s as far as you can go.”

Berla adds, “It’s not as though because we’re poor, we should think, that’s it. We have our hopes and dreams too! So, we just keep going and going, fighting and fighting as needed.”

Aira believes in the continuing struggle for decent affordable housing and the right of the urban poor to the city, 

Urban poor communities ably participating in local planning and implementation enable them to create sustainable communities. NGO partners help with organizing and technical support. Bringing POs and NGOs together with government and the private sector can provide homes for thousands of poor babies. Perhaps that is what Pope Francis’ “daring to create something new” means. – Rappler.com

Mary Racelis teaches social anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines. She participates actively in NGO partnerships with People’s Organizations.