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There is nothing new about the issue of “squatting”. It has been a phenomenon in Metro Manila for more than 50 years now.

Squatting became a stark phenomenon in Manila after the Second World War, when a large number of war victims built houses around Intramuros and Tondo Foreshoreland, which were reserved spaces for the expansion of the Manila Port.

The national capital opened opportunities after the war. Factories opened, commerce and services regained traction and offices of the neocolonial government, which were being organized along the “independence” that the US granted the Philippines, implemented a recruitment program. New migrants arrived continually. According to official estimates, Manila and suburbs had around 46,000 squatters in 1946; it rose to 98,000 in 1956 and to 283,000 in 1963.

As early as 1960, hundreds of thousands of families have been feeling the strain of housing problems and relocation in Metro Manila.

Migrants continued to flow to the national capital even after factories were not allowed within a 50-kilometer radius from Manila and incentives were offered for businesses to operate in the provinces. According to a 1984 USAID study, from 1970-1980, the population of Quezon City increased by 48.6%, much faster than the increase in Manila at the same period. The number of squatters in Metro Manila was estimated at 1.6 million in 1981. When Ferdinand Marcos fell in 1986, new communities emerged in estates owned by Marcos cronies. The houses (shanties) along Roxas Boulevard and in river banks and waterways became dense.

Despite massive and forcible eviction from private lots and public lands, new groups of informal communities continue to mushroom. According to the MMDA’s records, Metro Manila had 2.8 million (556, 526 families) “squatters” in 2010.


Land monopoly in the rural and urban areas

As a result of the expansion of production for export and for food, arable lands have reached their limits. Conflicts ignited due to land grabbing. This pushed the impoverished population to migrate to new places to look for livelihood opportunities. Central Luzon first experienced this during the first decade of the 1900s. This is also what happened during the 1950s (until the 1970s) in Northern Luzon and Mindanao, the last frontiers of the Philippines.

Because of migration, populations in these places grew faster, compared to those in other parts of the country. Government agencies intervened while local and foreign capital poured into these areas. Like what happened in Central Luzon, the influx of migrants intensified and widened the struggle for land rights and production relations.

At the start of 1970, powerful families, insisting that the tillers were squatters, persecuted many settlers including their grandchildren who thought that the land they were tilling were theirs. They either evicted or forced settlers to become tenants. Most of those who agreed to become tenants underwent severe exploitative conditions.

The expansion of agribusinesses in Mindanao hastened accumulation of land by landlords and foreign companies. Meanwhile, people from the lowlands raced to corner natives’ lands in the hilly areas as these were “public lands” and “could be developed.” Construction of dams and roads and the expansion of logging companies further reduced the lands once occupied by the indigenous populations.

In the urban areas, private entities, if not speculators, owned or controlled large vacant lots that could otherwise have been available for housing. Because the minimum wage has usually been not enough to afford a lot and build a house or rent an apartment, workers’ families and seasonal workers get perennially trapped in renting units in informal communities. A big number have also built shanties in private lands that are not guarded, with some amount paid to syndicates controlling these lands. When these reached their limits and squatting became strictly forbidden, the people have no other recourse but to build in high-risk areas like sea shores and riversides, under bridges and transmission lines, in garbage dumps and in other dangerous places.

Laws governing housing and relocation

During the American occupation, housing policies in Manila dealt with the problem of sanitation and concentration of settlers around business areas. Among those implemented were business codes and sanitation laws in slum areas in the 1930s.

During this period and until the 1950s, new communities were opened for relocation. Among these were Projects 1 − 8 in Diliman, Quezon City and the Vitas tenement houses in Tondo.

The government implemented the Public Housing Policy (1947) that established the People’s Homesite and Housing Corporation (PHHC). A few years later, it put up the Slum Clearance Committee which, with the help of the PHHC, relocated thousands of families from Tondo and Quezon City to Sapang Palay in Bulacan in the 1960s.

During President Marcos’ time, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank supported the programs for the “development of relocation” and “on-site development.” Carmona and Dasmariňas in Cavite and San Pedro in Laguna opened as relocation sites. Along with the establishment of the National Housing Authority, PD 772 made squatting a crime, making the Philippines one of only two countries (the other is South Africa) where squatting is a crime. The government formulated the National Shelter Program which became the over-all framework for dealing with housing needs of all income classes.

Imelda Marcos held both the position as Governor of Metro Manila (established in 1975) and as Minister of Human Settlements and Ecology or MHSE until the downfall of the dictatorship in 1986. The MHSE, through loans from the World Bank, initiated the Bagong Lipunan Improvement of Sites and Services (BLISS) housing projects not only in Metro Manila but also in other provinces.

From 1960 to 1992, the government transferred some 328,000 families to resettlement sites 25−40 kms from Metro Manila. According to the Asian Coalition on Housing Rights, during Corazon C. Aquino’s time, the government would bring some 100,000 persons to relocation sites yearly. During the said period, Sapang Palay and Carmona had a 60% abandonment rate.

Congress enacted RA 7279 or the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) in 1992. The law gave a new name for the squatters: informal settlers. Essentially, UDHA gives protection for big private ownership of land in the urban areas, ensuring that these are protected from illegal occupants. The law also widened the scope of private sector participation in the National Shelter Program (NSP).

In the middle of the Arroyo administration’s term, infrastructure projects of the government led to the demolition of hundreds of thousands of families (from along railways, C4 road, C5 road, and from Fort Bonifacio). During the same period, new relocation sites in Bulacan, Valenzuela and Caloocan opened.

Under the PNoy administration, 556,526 families in Metro Manila have to be brought to relocation sites not only to solve the problem of flooding but also to give way to infrastructure projects and private real estate developments.

Neoliberalism in the housing program

The World Bank started allotting funds for loans for housing programs in the Philippines in the 1970s as part of its push to create a huge housing industry worldwide and a market that can sustain this. The participation of the private sector was encouraged, especially of the banks, while governments gradually decreased their subsidies for affordable housing.

The WB funded the “slum upgrading projects” and “on-site developments (BLISS) in the country towards the end of the 1970s. It lent P672M for the Dagat-Dagatan project (1976) and P317M for 13 other slum areas in other parts of Metro Manila (1980-84). It also allotted $115M for projects such as slum upgrading in Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo city and Bacolod.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, the WB forced upon the Philippines Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) as a way of restructuring the country’s worsening external debt. Among the WB’s other impositions were reduction in government spending and minimizing if not totally doing away with its hand in any type of business. Deregulation was to be operational in all industries, entry of foreign commodities had to be liberalized, companies and services including housing projects were to be privatized.

Private banks that got the big role and benefitted from the implementation of neoliberal policies in the housing program reaped windfall profits. They principally funded loans and mortgage plans and even the speculation in land pricing and capital for construction.

Loans for housing from private banks started at PhP41M in 1975; it rose to PhP1B in 1980, became PhP123B in 1995 and ballooned to PhP821B in 2012. Loans that represent 20% of the total loan portfolio of private banks in the Philippines widened their scope to include property development and securities. International banks’ subsidiaries or stocks could be traced in these local banks.

A broad market among different income classes in the Philippines has been created and real estate companies, construction companies and banks have largely merged for this industry. Among the biggest property developers in the Philippines are Ayala Land that launched 67 projects valued at PhP90B in 2012 and profited PhP6.6B during the first quarter of 2013; SM Land (which, in the third quarter of 2012 alone, profited PhP3.3B); and Megaworld, which allotted PhP25B for its present projects and an additional PhP65B for the development of Uptown Bonifacio in the next few years. Next to these are Robinsons Land, Federal Land Inc., Eton Properties, Shang Properties, Vista Land, DMCI Homes and Filinvest Land Inc.

These developers compete for the income that OFWs set aside for housing and residence for the relatively increasing workers in the outsourcing business. They benefit from the continuing reclamation of thousands of hectares in Manila Bay.

The National Informal Settlers Slum Upgrading Strategy (NISUS) is being finalized under the “guidance” of the WB. NISUS is a comprehensive shelter program of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) for the last three years of the PNoy administration. The Cities Alliance, a WB initiative, will fund the study worth $450,000.

The PDP is the blueprint for the intensification of neoliberalism in the Philippines, with the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) as its primary component. Under such a scheme, “informalization” will be solved not in the context of addressing the root of the problem (i.e., the growing number of squatters), but by having informal settlers covered by the distribution of goods and services (construction, electricity, water, etc.) and let corporations and banks earn large profits from all the poverty-stricken families.

Aside from the occasional increase in employment in the construction business, neoliberal policies have over-powered the already underdeveloped local manufacturing; it has also kept the country’s agricultural sector backward. Neoliberal policies have only exacerbated the unemployment problem in the Philippines. It is not surprising then that informal settlers continue to increase not only in Metro Manila but also in other cities. According to the National Statistics Office (2010), there are 1.4M “squatter” families in the whole country (or an estimated 8.5M persons, comprising about 10% of the country’s population).

A product of an exploitative system

Safe and adequate housing is a human right.

people’s right and a serious people’s movement should desire to bring endangered families to the safest relocation sites.

The backward economy has given birth to hundreds of thousands of labor power that compete for a few jobs. This is a situation that cannot be avoided by any serious program to solve the problem of “squatting”. The implementation of neoliberalism has further aggravated this.

The increase in number of “squatters” will continue for as long as the social roots that produced this remain. The “squatting” phenomenon in the country is a product of the neocolonial order and it is imperative to continue exposing and solving the roots of this order regardless of whether the struggle for safe, affordable, and appropriate relocation is achieved or not.

In relocation sites, the people should go on and fight for job creation and oppose economic policies that stunt the nation’s growth. And this demand can be achieved if the nation upholds national industrialization and agricultural modernization.

To do this, however, the Philippines has to assert national sovereignty and freedom from US imperialist control.

As the people dismantle the backward order, they will solve the housing problem by using state power over lands, beyond the right of private individuals (imminent domain) and by deciding to distribute residential places to the population as their priority in land-use planning.


A version of this article was originally published in Filipino in 3rd Quarter 2013 issue of Kilusan