Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 22 November 2017


If there is any disheartening sight of poverty in the country, it is the growth and universal presence of unsightly urban squatting.

The existence and continued growth of squatter communities have led to the ever-present sight of other indicators of poverty. They are also found on the margins where economic activity and progress abound.

Where such communities intersect with areas of progress, one often finds the sight of listless children wanting food, care and support. The impoverished parents are often absent, their children used as fronts for begging and for charity.

In squatter communities, sanitation and cleanliness is wanting, sickness, crime and drugs are rampant. These are places where the seeds of social and civil disorder, resentment, anarchy and rebellion are nourished.

Historical roots of urban squatting. At the end of the World War II in 1945, war destruction rendered many Filipinos homeless. Manila was a devastated city. This was across the city, but most serious was the destruction south of the Pasig River where the battle for Manila was intense and brutal. After the war, the US declared Manila as one of the most badly destroyed cities of the war.

This period coincided with the birth of the new nation. Political independence led to the Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. US colonial rule ended. The remedies for solving the consequences of the war on homelessness fell on our leaders, an independent nation, no longer on colonials who had ruled us.

The breakdown of law and order during the war carried on as we learned the ropes of running the country and as the nation’s leaders faced many other problems of a growing nation. Along the way, the rampant case of people in need of housing shelter led to open squatting on land whenever and wherever possible.

Open spaces, public property, destroyed and unattended property, and open lands such as waterways, riverways and bay-shores became fair game for those who wanted to put up temporary live-in quarters.

As often happens in life, temporary plans overstay and prolong forever.

The Manila squatters exemplified and magnified the problems: The destruction or displacement of people from their homes was not only in Manila.

Manila’s near total destruction south of the Pasig during the war for liberation reduced to rubble the government center of Manila and that of the national government.

Many private institutions and public facilities were damaged by artillery, bombing, and uncontrolled fire that consumed the Ermita district. The many residential houses along the district where the pre-war gentry had lived were obliterated by fire and destruction.

The temporary remedies from the misery of those who had lost much and those who had been reduced to destitution and poverty during the war was to set up housing where temporary shelters could be built against standing concrete walls and abandoned housing after the war.

Thus, the solid walls and dungeons of Intramuros became one of the earliest concentrations of large groups of squatters. It took years and a legendary brave mayor (Arsenio Lacson) to move the bulk of the Intramuros squatters to other resettlement sites.

In the early postwar years, the Tondo district on the shorelands of Manila became a prime squatting area in view of its nearness to the thriving port city. Instead of being isolated, the garbage dumpsite in the foreshore (and later, in Payatas, where a replacement inland hillsite dump was created), became a a magnet for the very poor to settle nearby. The dumpsite provided them marginal livelihood by finding garbage free recyclables to be sold.

The peripheries of Manila leading to the northern provinces (Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan) and to the southern provinces were filled up with new settlements (Paranaque, the banks of the Pasig, and after its construction as a major dike, the Manggahan Floodway project).

The flow of squatter settlements favored foreshore areas along the bay, areas near waterways, especially along the Pasig River, garbage dump sights, and public right-of-ways for the transport networks as planned are common attraction sights for squatting.

These places are in part within the metropolis where the center of commerce and industry is located. They are closer to the access points to transport where jobs are available.

Magnitude of the problem. A birds-eye view of Metro Manila’s housing problem could be discerned by a trained eye when arriving from the air.

Surrounding the centers of growth and prosperity are settlements that are crowded small dwelling units across the land. They are particularly dense near the bay-shores, along waterways (rivers and canals or esteros), and in particular pockets of land near hillsides and, which, on land, can only be associated with squatted public and private lands.

Although the squatter settlements might not be easily visible from this perspective, what the trained eye can discern is that of a highly crowded metropolis with a big housing problem facing it.

It is estimated that the current problem of squatter housing affects 4 million people. The problem of housing these communities poses a major challenge. Certainly, job creation and programs to build human skills are part of the challenge.

The other part is to design affordable housing in livable communities. A design is needed so that provision of affordable housing is linked to those who have jobs and income so that housing construction becomes an economic enterprise. Many policies have to be crafted to make this a workable reality.

Jobs, development and affordable housing are synergies that did not fully mature. The growth of those living in poor housing conditions reflect in part the failure of good jobs for all workers. This means the failure of government to provide the means to make affordable housing for the poor working man.

But in the course of history, early generations of poor living in such dire housing conditions bred their own kind further over time. Also, new migrants from the provinces joined, further swamping already crowded squatter communities.

Housing, jobs and economic development are highly intertwined. The growth of industry and commerce in the country has failed so far to provide sufficiently the jobs needed to make the common Filipino prosperous in his own land.

In part, this has been complicated by the fact that the Filipino family has a large number of members, meaning, population growth is high.