Field Notes

Dreaming of own home in Manila's slums

Millions, including graduates and white-collar workers, live in slums around the metropolitan Manila area, priced out of a property boom

MANILA • I grew up in one of the many slums scattered all around metropolitan Manila. Ours was just south of Manila, in Baclaran, a district known for a sprawling shrine dedicated to the version of the Virgin Mary known as the Lady of Perpetual Help.

It was fitting, really. I always felt our neighbourhood was in perpetual need of help. We lived in one of the upper floors of a row of decrepit two-storey flats our landlord somehow managed to build on land he did not own. It was government land.

It was in the middle of thousands of shacks that were really nothing more than cardboard, plywood and tin sewn together with nails, chicken wire and adhesive tape covered with galvanised steel and held in place with cement blocks, used tyres and other heavy debris.

Such neighbourhoods have become a common sight across the city. Now, nearly one in four of metropolitan Manila's population of about 12 million is a slum dweller. They live along creeks, rivers and canals, on the sides of railroads and highways, under bridges, and inside cemeteries and dump sites.

Even a college degree is no longer a ticket out of the slums. Growth has fuelled a property boom that, unfortunately, is not inclusive, jacking up property prices beyond the reach of most workers. Houses billed as "affordable" now start at 1.8 million pesos (S$54,200), which is not really affordable for many of the capital's residents, whose median salary is 18,500 pesos per month.

In the prime financial district of Makati, monthly leases now range from 32,000 pesos for a 60 sq m one-bedroom flat to 285,000 pesos for a 300 sq m unit at the swanky Pacific Plaza Towers at Bonifacio Global City, 10 times what a professional in the city makes monthly - 25,000-30,000 pesos.

These price out 99 per cent of the four million people who work in Makati, including civil servants, teachers, soldiers, accountants, and call-centre employees.

Makati's residential population is about 530,000. Most live in the poorer part of the city, where houses clog street blocks, roads are narrow and often dirty and flooded, and power and water supply are erratic. About 30,000 people live in slums. They are squeezing into this part of the city because it is all they can afford. Living in, or near, Makati saves them both time - commuting from the suburbs to Makati can take up to four hours because of metropolitan Manila's horrendous traffic - and money, at least 10,000 pesos a month in public transport costs.

Yet, even in Makati's shanty towns, few can afford the rentals.

Ms Jeremy Valdeleon, whose family hails from the province of Cavite, south of Manila, has always wanted to work in Makati. But the 21-year-old, fresh out of college, makes only 15,000 pesos a month as a librarian at Southeastern College in Pasay, a city adjacent to Makati. That much money will only cover rent for a two-level unit with a floor area just slightly bigger than a parking space in a Makati slum.

Her father Jaime, 45, works in Makati. As a credit and collection officer at Toshiba distributor Tricom, he makes just 5,000 pesos more than his daughter.

So, the family of four, including Ms Valdeleon's two college-going siblings, have had to settle for the nearest place they can get - a shack in Baclaran that is 5km away from Makati. It's a modest place of two rooms with a bathroom shared with an adjacent unit. They rent it for 3,500 pesos a month.

"That's all we can afford," Mr Valdeleon told The Straits Times. "I have two children who are still in college."

A row of decrepit apartments built on government land in Baclaran, a sprawling poor district south of Manila. In 1946, there were about 46,000 slum dwellers in Manila. Now, metropolitan Manila is host to about 2.1 million slum dwellers. -ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL

The prospect of employment in Manila triggered the rural-urban migration in the 1950s, when reconstruction after World War II provided thousands of factory and construction jobs to farmers seeking salaries they could not get from tilling the land.

Just after the war in 1946, there were about 46,000 slum dwellers in Manila. That number more than doubled to 100,000 a decade later, and then hit 300,000 in 1963. By 1981, the number had swollen to 1.6 million. Today, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority estimates there are 2.7 million in all.


Mr Chris Roilo, a programme manager at Habitat for Humanity Philippines, said Makati in particular represents a failure in urban planning. Makati's Bonifacio Global City, an upscale commercial district carved out of a former naval base, is a case in point. "It is very well planned, but is it inclusive? Did it include in its plan places for the workers, for the poor?" said Mr Roilo. "Outside of the planned cities, that's where you see the informal settlements, and that kind of model is replicated in many parts of the country."

Hundreds of hoses make up the water distribution system at a squatter colony in the Culiat district of Quezon City. There are more than one million squatters - making up one in three residents - in the city. -ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL

Architect Felino Palafox Jr, who has been advocating a shift in urban planning, said the problem has been that the model is obsolete: It is still based on segregating the haves and have-nots. "Urban planning-wise, our obsolete practices have not progressed from the 16th century practice of intramuros and extramuros. You live inside the walls (intramuros) if you're rich and powerful, and outside the walls (extramuros) if you're a peasant, which today is the equivalent of the modern-day city employee," he said.

Governments sought to transform metropolitan Manila into the beating economic heart of the nation, with high-rises and exclusive enclaves where millions go to work, and then surround the capital with suburbs where the workers can retire to after a hard day's work. The plan required infrastructure outlays that were never fully pursued, for reasons including political upheavals and economic reversals. For instance, six ring and radial roads were planned for the metropolis as early as the 1940s, but only two have been built. While the Philippines was the first in South-east Asia to have a mass rapid transit railway in 1984, it took over a decade before another line would be in service.

Even within metropolitan Manila's cities and towns, segregation had been the essence of urban planning. Property developers were allowed to buy vast tracts of land that they then turned into gated communities and sold to whoever could afford their price, usually the rich.

Little regard was given to those displaced by these developments, mostly farmers or factory workers. They were simply pushed further outward. Those who insisted on staying became squatters, their numbers rising as the population grew and poverty from the countryside fuelled a migration to urban centres.

As for "socialised housing", the term did not even figure in government policy till 1982, when Parliament passed a law that pushed for housing projects with mortgage prices not exceeding 30 per cent of a family's gross income.

At current income levels, an "affordable" home is worth 700,000 pesos. For developers, this amount, given land prices and building costs, is too low, even with government subsidies.

In my family's case, we lived in the slums till a big fire gutted our entire neighbourhood in 1989. By then, my father had found a job driving a bulldozer in Iraq. I was working as a reporter, my brother was in Mexico as a civil engineer for Mitsubishi and my sister was copy-editing for the defence ministry. With our combined incomes, we could afford a two-storey, two-bedroom unit, but further south of Baclaran.

It is therefore not surprising that some young professionals in Manila today find themselves still living in slums.


So what can be done now?

There is little consensus among politicians, with some believing building more affordable housing is the solution and others thinking moving slum dwellers out of cities is the answer.

Representative Alfredo Benitez, chairman of the congressional committee on housing and urban development, believes there is enough land in metropolitan Manila the government can give away, and enough money around to finance affordable housing.

Nearly half - 41 per cent - of slum dwellers are already on government land. Mr Benitez said the government can distribute these lands, and then increase their capacity by building taller units. To finance construction, the government can levy taxes on property developers. They are already supposed to set aside 20 per cent of their project budgets for socialised housing.

Mr Benitez said local governments can do like Quezon City, the largest city in metropolitan Manila, about 10km north of the capital. It imposes taxes on the rich to finance housing programmes for the poor.

However, Quezon City mayor Herbert Bautista, while addressing the problem of the city's slums, does not see building more affordable housing as a main solution. A former actor with the moniker "Bistek", Mr Bautista is building eight settlements known as "Bistekvilles" for slum dwellers living in danger zones - near rivers, fault lines and areas prone to landslides. Government subsidies trim the price of each house to 450,000 pesos, a quarter of what it usually costs. When all eight Bistekvilles are completed, nearly 12,000 slum dwellers will have a proper house to their names.

But that number is just a drop in the bucket. Quezon City has over one million squatters and it will be impossible to build "Bistekvilles" for all of them, Mr Bautista told me.

Apart from the problem of finding enough land - much of the government land is in prime commercial districts or earmarked for infrastructure projects such as rail lines - money is also hard to come by. Mr Bautista's additional taxes are mired in some legal problems still being untangled.

He said while in-city relocation is ideal, many of his city's squatters will have to be moved elsewhere. The solution would be to give slum dwellers incentives to move out of metropolitan Manila and live in the suburbs, or return to where they came from, he added.

Growth is slowly spilling into less developed parts of the country, with many call-centre firms setting up shop in secondary cities - like Cebu - in central Philippines.

"We should really have more of these, so that our population of informal settlers (in metropolitan Manila) can be dispersed," said Mr Bautista.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline Dreaming of own home in Manila's slums. Subscribe