FOR all the noise that surrounded the housing office at the tail end of 2016, given the Vice President’s decision to resign, and the President’s decision to put Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco as her replacement, very little relevant conversation was had about the housing crisis in this country. The tendency after all is to get caught up in the he-said-she-said, like the personal squabbles are more important than, oh I don’t know, providing decent shelter for all Filipinos.
And have we heard anything at all from new housing chief Evasco? Of course not. Which makes one wonder: where is the promise of change for a sector that is constantly faced with the urgency of housing for all?
Growing up in Tatalon
I grew up at my paternal grandparents’ house, at Victory Avenue in Barangay Tatalon, Quezon City.
Ever since I can remember, the house had stood in front of Mang Bert’s makeshift home, one that was part of an informal settlement. Mang Bert was a sapatero, and his son Jimmy was someone my brother and I grew up knowing. Spending my childhood in the concrete house built by my grandparents meant growing up with the knowledge of this discrepancy between my life and other children’s, between those of us who live in a gated house and those who live with no security, between those who have and those who don’t.
My father spoke to Mang Bert regularly, and engaging with him and his family, as well as many others who lived in Tatalon, further down our street, was part of the daily routine.
In adulthood I would realize why these communities exist, and how it is not only a measure of the lack of opportunities in the provinces, it is also an urban existence encouraged by the city itself.
Go to the bowels of any city, and find there the people who win elections for local officials. There is a reason why these informal settlement communities have access to an elementary or high school, a church, a barangay hall and health care: the little they are provided is enough to win elections with.
Of course once those leaders are in position, there is little fundamental change in these people’s lives.
In November 2016, the land where Mang Bert’s home stood, now the home of son Jimmy and his family (Mang Bert has long died), was demolished. The private owner of the land on which their house had stood all these years–I count at least three decades–was taking over.
With no relocation or resettlement plan, members of the community were left with no choice but to rebuild their makeshift homes on half of Victory Avenue. Yup, the street itself.
It is clear the situation is untenable. The street is narrow enough as it is, and this is a street that is busy enough during the day, with the Tatalon Elementary School further down the street, and many businesses on the street itself.
An aunt and uncle who have renovated and now live in my grandparents’ house have tried to understand the situation as best they can, and have tried (and failed) to find options as provided by the barangay. Right now, there does not seem to be any options for the community. They were on private land, and apparently that means they have no choice but to leave, and government need not care about where they might go.
Yet if we cannot expect the government to care about communities like Jimmy’s, who will?
There is no doubt that if you live at all in a city like Metro Manila you will have encountered the congestion of informal settlements on government land, communities on private land, and ill-maintained and neglected Bliss housing as a vestige of Marcosian times.
For many of us, this is what city living is about: we learn to live with the guilt of knowing that we might have more than the next person. We fall silent when we suffer the repercussions of the injustice that befall these communities, such as it has over at Victory Avenue.
It is clear to us that what we want is for Jimmy and his family, and the rest of this community, to be given the chance to live better, without displacing them further, and forcing them to live away from where they work and earn a living.
Because we have heard this story told often enough: while those who suffer the demolition of their homes might be resettled, these housing projects are usually far from the city where jobs are available and earnings possible. People flock to the city to find work. That they decide to be part of informal settler communities because it is still a “better life” than the one they might have in the province should be the premise of any housing resettlement project.
This is the responsibility of the government to its people. When you’ve lived at least three decades in the same spot, have voted in the past three or four elections, you should be able to expect that you will be housed properly and safely by government in the event of a demolition like this one. You should not suffer any more than you have all these years, and you should not be left with no choice but to take over the street.
It seems it’s time for Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista and housing chief Evasco to prove that sheltering the people is a priority, not an afterthought.