IN a roundtable meeting with Cambodian business leaders this week on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Phnom Penh, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. announced a lofty goal to build 1 million affordable housing units for Filipinos per year during his term, or 6 million by the time he leaves office. If the government was successful, the initiative would nearly erase the Philippines' backlog of low-cost housing, which is estimated to be 6.5 million units.
This is not the first time a president has vowed to do something about the country's chronic lack of affordable housing, of course, and as such noble ideas in the past have had little to no practical success, it is understandable if Marcos' aspiration is viewed with some skepticism. The President's views on the issue, however, are encouraging, and provide some reason to be optimistic that substantial progress can be made this time.
In his discussion with the Cambodian business leaders, Marcos recognized that merely building houses is not enough. "You cannot just build a house, you have to build a community," he said. "Otherwise, it is not practical for people to live there. So there has to be schools nearby, work cannot be farther, commute cannot be more than one hour, there has to be a marketplace, all of this. The transportation is easy to get to."
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Recognizing that previous efforts to relocate informal settlers and homeless people failed, the President addressing the problem now holistically is a good start. The focus must be on providing people "places to live" rather than just "housing." Many projects in the past ended as incomplete and underutilized because of lack of basic services and being located in rather isolated areas.
One thing that would greatly aid the government in identifying areas where new communities can be developed is passage of the Land Use Act, the lack of which, after all, has contributed greatly to the existing problems of informal settlements and unmanageably congested populations in urban areas. It does seem that Congress appreciates the need to prioritize the Land Use Act more than it has in the past, but more prodding is needed to move that vital legislation to the President's desk.
Another key issue that needs to be resolved before one spadeful of dirt is turned is the issue of affordability, both for the prospective residents and for the government. Doing this job right is going to cost a lot of money, and the costs of the new homes will have to be comfortably within the means of low-income residents in order to attract them, which means that much of the development cost will not be recovered, at least not directly. The government will need to explore all available options for funding the venture, including realigning what may be available in its annual budget — perhaps by cutting back on the rather generous "intelligence funds" given to every department — and tapping funding partners among the multilateral development banks and development agencies.
Finally, because the goal is to build functioning communities, inputs of a variety of agencies will be needed from the outset. The usual way in which the government handles cross-disciplinary concerns is to form an ad hoc group at the Cabinet level, but this is often an inefficient approach. Instead, the government should consider a project-level model, where teams of representatives from each of the concerned agencies are formed to lead the development of individual communities under the overall leadership of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD). Thus, once the DHSUD identifies a development site and concerns itself with the actual housing, it would call on the other agencies to supply experts to focus on that project's needs in terms of financing and providing public services such as roads, water and electricity, telecommunications, health care and educational facilities, transportation and commercial development.
If the government is willing to invest the resources and effort necessary, President Marcos' ambitious goal is possible, but it will take a sustained, multiyear focus. Even if it falls short of the "one million houses per year" target, as long as it approaches the challenge in the right way, what will be accomplished is sustainable progress.