• Urban housing


    Ma. Isabel Ongpin

    MARAWI City will have to be done over. News headlines say that P3 billion will be needed for housing alone. How that money will be spent is the question. Let us hope that what is built or made is planned first in the context of modern-day needs and technology, environment and the humanity that will use it. It should not merely replicate the past but make for a better future.

    As it is, urban life in the Philippines is density plus. This means crowding, lack of open spaces, short shrift given to environmental factors like trees, grass, no playgrounds for children, free rein to contagious diseases at such close quarters, etc. All of these conditions have been allowed to proliferate as no one seems to be following a plan, the National Building Code, or conserving a historical or environmental legacy of the places affected.

    Developers can be the first culprits despite their available capital which they use unimaginatively, sometimes illegally (when greed demands more profit), with an almost utter lack of attention to real humanitarian needs.

    The above situations arise in cities where uncontrolled growth and unmet needs are so obvious in housing. The result is either a concrete jungle or slums depending on residents’ means. Shelter can take two extremes. Yet urban living ideally is not only for the rich but for all. The reality that most employees or workers in cities cannot afford decent shelter and have to commute from distant places without efficient public transportation that is affordable is virtually a crime against them.

    The local governments of these cities when they finally pay attention to the above conditions have a default option that has so far proven to be unsustainable and impractical – send off informal settlers or slum dwellers (when someone owns the land and wants it back) to the hinterlands far from places of employment, schools, commercial areas, hospitals and such necessities of daily living. They may even buy the land in these places because it is cheap and here is where the removed populations are dumped. My question is why not buy land in the city and pay the fair market price to the owner and use it for popular housing? No need to put in further amenities as above as they are already in place in urban areas.

    One wonders why local governments do not allocate budgets to buy land in the city. It will be more expensive but it will be a long-term solution. A local government can start modestly by buying small pieces of land from private owners, pay them the market price and then doing some kind of easy payment terms for those who will be its new owners. This is an investment in shelter for constituents who need it badly. The use of taxpayers’ money is justified in cases where shelter needs must be answered. In fact, the national government and its agencies should lead the way in this solution.

    This is not a new idea. The Community Mortgage housing projects which pool resources to buy land for low-cost housing or for shelter needs have done this before. They should keep on and do more. Other local government officials like Mayor Antonio Villegas in his time and now Mayor Joseph Estrada recently have bought land for public or low-cost housing within the city. Mandaluyong City has also managed modest low-cost housing within the city by buying small lots from private owners. The lots have been modest in size (Mayor Estrada bought 2,000 sq m). But they can continue doing so from property owners who are willing to part with them at market prices.

    These modest initiatives will not solve the huge housing problem we are saddled with at this time but it may make a dent and bring up standards of living if strict rules are followed when building housing on them. For instance, the National Building Code which requires that adequate passageways, open spaces, privacy needs and environmental factors are considered. Aesthetics like felicitous and healthy design, constant maintenance like painting, cleaning must also be emphasized so as to be modestly attractive, dignified and on a human scale.

    Buying small properties is even a good way of mixing different income levels within urban areas as long as rules of urban living and standards are followed – sanitary facilities, water, power, communication and the other amenities cited above.

    One mistake or so-called easy solution to be avoided is taking over public space such as plazas, open areas, schools or other government agency premises to answer shelter needs. That would be unfair to the rest of the public and mess up urban conditions. The Quezon Memorial Circle may not have been used for shelter needs but it has been used as a default location for government, local government, national or barangay structures plus commercial ventures (in a way shelter needs of these mentioned entities) which have crowded and mutilated this vast and attractive open space that could have been the signature of Quezon City. As it is, no one any more has had the experience of its true identity as a park or breathing space. Let Marawi not make that mistake with or without the money allotted for its recovery.

    There are many creative ways of providing shelter using the technical skills, experience and vision of professionals in the field. One place to look is developing countries which solve their housing needs in economical and practical terms, such as some low-cost housing in India where the environmental factors of heat, monsoon rains, extended families etc. are taken into account. It may also be noted that India keeps its traditional open spaces exactly as mandated from the past with a respect that allows no cluttering of buildings on them. And yet it has the same needs and similar conditions that we have.

    For Marawi, let us hope there will be a master plan for it as a city, an urban center for all walks of life that will put order, open spaces, trees, grass, and all the other urban institutions in place as practically as possible. It looks like a challenge that should go beyond just throwing money at it, which just makes for waste and permanent errors. Let intelligence and vision rule.


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