OPINION: Housing Headaches
In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared, “Property is theft.” Someone’s asset is someone else’s misfortune, in a place like Metro Manila, which has one of the highest levels of congestion in the region. As of 2010, we have 13,000 persons crammed into every square kilometer of the metropolis. Too many people, too little land.
Former President Ramos about a decade ago liked to point out the window of his Urban Bank office, and warn that unless something was done, the teeming hundreds of thousands in the slums might one day simply invade the homes and properties of the middle class and the wealthy, and take it for themselves.
In the countryside, the alternative to this has been land reform, unevenly implemented because many of the rule-makers belong to the landed class themselves, and because lacking the will to assume the costs of acquiring land for distribution, the cost of land is born by the impoverished farmers themselves. But if you can imagine a worse situation, consider urban land reform. It simply doesn’t exist, unless you count the so-called Lina Law, which property owners hate for conceding minimal rights to those who occupy the land of others.
There have been initial, very tentative, steps towards urban land reform. The previous administration shifted to a policy of in-city development, which means instead of evicting the urban poor and exiling them to the outskirts of the metropolis, there would be a preference, instead, to acquire the land occupied by the urban poor, and develop that. But the catch is that this policy expects the impoverished to somehow cough up the money to rent to own the property.
In the end complications at the expense of human dignity and opportunity arise because governments lack the nerve to forcibly acquire property, and develop it for the use of the urban poor. Doing this would require government not only to make a substantial investment of both money and political will, it would mean having to operate the housing projects: by build vertically and further subsidizing the rent, it could provide humane living conditions until beneficiaries could then hopefully work hard, and afford to move out and make way for others. But doing this would mean denying the beneficiaries permanent ownership of the units –but this is how many other governments do it, for socialized housing. Consider Quezon City which was meant to provide land for government buildings and socialized housing for government workers and the poor, with huge parks to ensure rest and recreation to communities designed to be fairly congested to make them affordable. The parks disappeared, given up to private commercial development, and large tracts of government land also ended up used for malls and the private sector, instead of public housing.
So we have the worst of all worlds. The poor are evicted, they are forced to move to far-flung areas, and told to buy houses they cannot afford and which occupies much more land than building vertically could provide, leaving many others without any access to housing whatsoever. What this does provide is financial opportunities aplenty: to land developers, contractors, and officials, while keeping the poor in a state of dependency and helplessness that is politically beneficial.
This is the heart of the matter when it comes to the drastic steps we’ve been seeing some organized urban poor groups doing lately. Mao Zedong once said, “…this protracted war will pass through three stages. The first stage covers the period of the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive. The second stage will be the period of the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counter-offensive. The third stage will be the period of our strategic counter-offensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.” For nearly fifty years that protracted war has taken place. In the previous administration, the government claimed the Communists were nearly extinct. Today, they hold seats in the cabinet and on March 27, the unthinkable happened. People claiming to be members of the New People’s Army appeared on EDSA and held a parade. That was a show of strength, in terms of the communist’s armed component. There are other ways of showing strength and commitment, as well.
After all, Karl Marx once wrote, “The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.”
Lenin once also wrote, “Only by abolishing private property in land and building cheap and hygienic dwellings can the housing problem be solved.”
So for local followers of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, the transfer of property from private to collective hands, is among their paramount objectives. Looking around, a specific type of housing development provided a strategic opportunity. Meant for military and the police, as of March 20, the NHA reported a total of 5,262 units from Pandi and San Jose del Monte were taken over by an organization calling itself KADAMAY, supported by comrades from Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Akbayan, Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Anak Pawis and Kabataan Partylist. The ultimate fate of these housing units is within the influence of the president, whom both the military and police are trained not to question. These groups also hate the military and police. Occupying the units is thus a win-win: demonstrating, in graphic terms, the lack of housing for the poor, calling the President to turn his rhetoric into reality, and denying the enemies of these groups the housing they were promised.
There is also the opportunity to make an appeal for wider support from the public. In a Lenten message, Kadamay pointed out Bulacan is significant because a Commission on Audit report from 2013 said “the region had the highest number of amortization payments in arrears and accumulated debts.” Kadamay objects to housing problems being solved by means of businesses building low-quality housing which people cannot afford.
Why are there so many completed but empty housing units in the first place? People familiar with the dysfunctional workings of government will often tell you the reason is simple: a lack of cooperation and coordination. The government can, and does, build housing. But the utilities –water and electricity, specifically—required to have a viable housing estate, is the job of the local government. While we like to think of the national government as all-powerful, the reality is that LGUs are quite powerful, too: and if an LGU can’t, or won’t, do its part for any reason, the result is standoff that leaves the potential housing beneficiaries waiting in vain.
The problem with this sort of direct action is that our Constitution says the following: “The maintenance of peace and order, the protection of life, liberty, and property, and promotion of the general welfare are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.” It also guarantees that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
Why is why suggesting to just give it to the occupiers, is problematic. NHA is among government agencies under the umbrella of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) now headed by Cabinet Secretary Chair Leoncio B. Evasco Jr. When he proposed giving the units to the occupiers, he was warned of a thing known as technical malversation of funds.
As the Supreme Court said in Parungao vs. Sandiganbayan, this happens when “the public officer applies public funds under his administration not for his or another’s personal use, but to a public use other than that for which the fund was appropriated by law or ordinance.”
So the ball is in the hands of the government. Kadamay and friends have raised the ante, calling for all vacant housing units nationwide to be given away, an end to monthly dues, and access to electricity and water.
On April 4, prosecutors in Quezon City filed charges against 41 Kadamay members for trespassing and grave coercion. Police also filed charges against members of Kadamay for destroyed the fence of a lot along Apollo street in Barangay Tandang Sora when they forced their way into the property. The next day, the President said in a speech in Fort Bonifacio that he was urging the military beneficiaries to let go of their claims to the housing and let the urban poor occupying the houses to keep them.
But the matter has come to a head: and for radical groups, neither the spirit nor the letter of the law has any meaning; it is demanding political will and social justice from institutions used to providing only partial solutions.
Which brings us back to Mao Zedong and something else he said: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”