A paradigm shift in resettlement policy

 

barry floor

Rep. Barry on the floor of the House. (Photo credits: InterAksyon)

Posting the first ever privilege speech Rep. Barry delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives, just this last Wednesday, 7 August 2013.

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Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on an issue that concerns millions of our fellow Filipinos: the issue of informal settlers, their human rights, and the Constitutional and statutorily-imposed mandate on the Philippine State to ensure that these rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.

Ever since the ratification of the 1987 Constitution on February 2, 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago, the State has been charged with the express obligation of ensuring the rights of informal settlers – our fellow Filipinos who in a less enlightened and compassionate time were derogatorily referred to as “squatters” – and working for the betterment of their lives. Under Article XIII, Sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution, it is provided that –

“The State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost decent housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas. It shall also promote adequate employment opportunities to such citizens. In the implementation of such program the State shall respect the rights of small property owners.

Urban or rural poor dwellers shall not be evicted nor their dwellings demolished, except in accordance with law and in a just and humane manner.”

These provisions highlight two mandates in the Philippine constitutional order. The first is the commitment of the State to undertake a continuing program of urban land reform and housing with the end view of securing affordable housing and basic services to the underprivileged. The second is the State obligation to respect and protect the right of the poor against forcible eviction.

These provisions of the Philippine Constitution were given statutory “teeth” with the enactment of Republic Act No. 7279, known as the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA), which took effect on March 28, 1992. UDHA had two major components – the first dealt with the details of the constitutionally mandated program to provide affordable housing to the underprivileged, while the second provided protection against forcible evictions.

UDHA was intended to provide a complete solution to the problem of informal settlement by ensuring that homeless Filipinos would be provided homes by the government working hand-in-hand with the private sector. Those who had set up their dwellings in “danger zones” or areas intended for public use would be provided with safer, equally accessible, and more importantly, permanent homes at affordable cost.

Unfortunately, two decades after UDHA, reality has not lived up to the intention. As of 2011, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) estimates that the total national housing backlog is at 3,756,072. This means that over 3.7 million Filipino families do not have safe and secure dwellings. Assuming an average family size of 5, this indicates that more than 18 million Filipinos live under these precarious conditions.

And by all indications, this backlog is growing as population increases, migration to urban centers intensifies, and the government continues to miss its annual housing targets. HUDCC estimates that the housing backlog rises by more than 195,000 every year. On the other hand, the government has only managed to provide resettlement to 235,214 families in the 14 year period from 1998 to 2011, or an average of 16,801 families per year.

And how many of these families that have been resettled actually went on to live permanently in their new neighborhoods as opposed to defaulting on their housing payments and going back to a condition of informal settlement? The alarming answer is, we do not know, since apparently government agencies have not tracked this statistic. There are numerous reports, however, from NGOs working with urban poor communities of families being forced to abandon their “new communities” – mainly because of lack of employment opportunities in the far flung relocation sites where they have been shipped off to – to go back to living in informal settlements in the cities from which they previously came.

Clearly, one of crucial issues in the government housing program, particularly in relation to the relocation of informal settlers, is sustainability.

Mr. Speaker, I have spent the better part of my professional life working as a lawyer and an advocate for the urban poor sector, and I have seen firsthand how indescribably awful the conditions in some government relocation sites are. Shoddily built, half-finished structures, without electrical power, without potable water, in remote, hard to reach areas – this unfortunately describes many of the relocation sites I have been to. It comes as no surprise to me personally, therefore, to hear about how many of our fellow Filipinos who have found themselves consigned to this dismal fate, have decided to simply go back to their previous state of informal settlement.

Recently, however, a glimmer of hope has emerged on the bleak landscape of government resettlement policy that may eventually lead the way to a more sustainable approach to the issue.

In 2011, the Aquino Administration released 10 Billion Pesos to the National Housing Authority (NHA) as the first tranche of a 50 Billion Peso fund intended to “to ensure safe and flood-resilient permanent housing solutions for Informal Settler Families (ISFs) living in Danger Areas of the National Capital Region” through a five-year resettlement program aimed at providing safe and permanent housing to the 104,219 ISFs in NCR by 2016. An additional 10 Billion Pesos was released to NHA in 2012, and 7.5 Billion Pesos was released for the same purpose earlier this year to the Socialized Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC), which brings the total fund released to 27.5 Billion Pesos since 2011.

But while, the huge allocation for this program is encouraging, the more innovative part comes from the framework adopted by the agencies involved in implementing it. Started during the term of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, the framework, which is now expressed in a Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) signed and adopted by the various government agencies working with the program, mandates that resettlement sites should be on-site, or, in situations where this is not possible, in-city. Furthermore, the resettlement should be conducted in accordance with a “people’s plan,” a proposal developed by the community being relocated itself, with the assistance of concerned government agencies.

The official adoption of an “on-site, in-city” policy governing resettlement, and the primary role given to the “people’s plan” in implementation, are extremely significant and groundbreaking steps that will likely prove to be crucial innovations in ensuring the sustainability of future resettlement projects. The on-site, in-city paradigm ensures continued access of ISFs to their employment and a market for their microenterprises, while the institutionalization of the people’s plan process ensures a level of participation and, more importantly, ownership of the program that will make ISFs active partners in the initiative instead of simply being passive subjects to the same. Both contribute greatly to enhancing sustainability, and ultimately, viability of the resettlement program.

In fact, Mr. Speaker, if I may venture to suggest, these two policies – on-site, in-city relocation and the reference to a people’s plan – instead of just being expressed in an executive issuance, should be considered for institutionalization through inclusion in a new statute.

But much as I would like to end on this hopeful note, I feel compelled to express my concern with the future implementation of these two crucial, one might even say revolutionary, new policies adopted in the JMC, in the light of a news article that came out two days ago in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It would be most unfortunate, in my view, that just as a new hope for future sustainability of the government housing program springs forth, that same hope would be nipped in the bud before being given a chance to fully bloom.

The article, entitled “Relocation of estero families on,” written by Niña Calleja, Marlon Ramos, and Nathaniel Melican, talks about the impending relocation of 606 ISFs in San Juan, and 871 more in Quezon City as part of the implementation of the program I mentioned before. This is part of the phase of the program which aims to relocate 19,440 ISFs within the next 12 months.

My concern stems from the fact that while the article, which quotes several department and agency heads involved in the program, talks about the numbers, the funding, and other details, it makes no mention of the JMC, which governs the relocation process under the program, or the two key policies I highlighted: on-site, in-city relocation, and the people’s plan. In fact, the article expressly mentioned that the first batch of ISFs would be moved to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan – a fine place, to be sure, but clearly not on-site or in-city.

Of course, it is difficult, not to mention ill-advised, to make snap judgments on policy implementation on the basis of a single news article – which, to be fair, mentioned that the move was “voluntary” – but still, it is somewhat disturbing that this early in the program’s implementation, with the ink barely dry on the JMC, that there is already an apparent lack of emphasis on two of its most important, and most significant, policy innovations. Time will tell whether this was mere inadvertence or something more serious.

In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, it only underscores the need to continue to monitor implementation of this program, and to take the necessary steps to further strengthen, and possibly, enshrine these principles into our government’s framework for the socialized housing program.

We will continue to watch, and to work. The millions of our fellow Filipinos who still continue to dream of having their own homes, in living sustainable communities, deserve no less.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker and good afternoon.

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