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Opinion

Homeless kasambahay

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

We so readily entrust the care of people who are precious to us to those we employ. Our children, elderly relatives and guests are nurtured, nourished and protected by staff as though they were their own. The reward for such service varies from the provision of basic subsistence, topped up with pocket money, to what is a generally accepted living wage. The more fortunate ones have a space in our home to sleep.

As employers, we think of our co-workers in the office, factory or malls in the context of the role they play. Out of sight and minds are the contrasting conditions they live in. Whereas we may have our entire extended family in our household, our employee may well be living in isolation in a bed space with their loved ones left in the province. Our children are collected from school and escorted home but many others run the gauntlet of tambays and strangers as they wend their way through narrow alleys to the single room that is home for a family of four or more. We have documents that secure our tenure, whereas the tenant of a squatter landlord faces the ever present risk of sudden eviction. We pamper ourselves with the latest miracle cleanser and place great faith in sprays that apparently kill all known viruses. And yet, many search for a place to wash away the daily grime of city life and find some dignity in their personal hygiene needs.

Vice President Robredo says that there is a 5.6 million backlog in housing with majority of informal settlers living in dangerous areas. This means building 2,600 houses per day within the next six years to fill the gap. The task facing the government is a daunting one. Public funding for housing is a never ending challenge facing all countries. Real change will come only when employers think about their staff as members of their community. Britain went through this fundamental realisation when the Industrial Revolution of the 1850’s created the phenomenon of urban deprivation. The first wave of change came from those who were charitable. Religious orders ran soup kitchens. The Peabody Trust built housing estates in the heart of the city.

Enlightened self interest, now more commonly known as Corporate Social Responsibility, was born in the UK. Cadbury created a whole community in Bournville where people worked, lived and played. Rowntrees invested in social research and responded with action beyond the factory gates. Lever Brothers revolutionised employee welfare with practices that are now the norm.

Philippine businesses need to fast forward from the endo mindset and achieve in a decade what has taken us well over a century. Sustainable business is not possible if employees lack sustenance. Special economic zones alone cannot succeed if there are no special housing zones. Social harmony requires an understanding by employers of the human misery of dormitory living and the dysfunction of resettlement sites far from the workplace. It is vital that all new residential developments incorporate social housing in the same vicinity.

Policy makers in the Philippines may wish to look at the transition we made in Britain in social housing. Ours is not a perfect model and adequate provision of housing remains a challenge. Post War Britain saw a surge in public house building. Affordable rents and welfare benefits gave people the option of living in properties that belonged to local government. From 1980 onwards, tenants were given the right to buy their home at a discounted rate from the government. This made homeownership more socially inclusive. Perhaps a mistake was not to reinvest the revenue from property sales into new housing projects. The gap in social housing today is met by the Housing Association model. The private sector, some are not for profit, can redevelop publicly owned sites with a commitment to providing mixed housing that includes low cost units as well as revenue generating retail space. The finance model ranges from outright sales, to rent only as well as the more recent innovation of renting whilst acquiring incremental ownership.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, the British government and partners in civil society, built thousands of houses for the homeless using innovative approaches. Villagers built their own homes using materials that were pre-fabricated in their communities. The material was robust, the design was more resistant and each had a cooking area and a septic tank. These communities were back onto their feet long before those who are still left in bunkhouses or awaiting electricity and water supplies. 

Economic growth cannot be inclusive until the most basic of human needs are met. A society cannot feel secure or healthy unless the most vulnerable people enjoy protection and live in a conducive environment. If our house is to be a home, our kasambahay cannot be homeless.

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