Homes not hovels
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Officials from every city or province I have featured on our Cignal-TV program AGENDA have talked about their need, desire, plans or actual construction of RT-PCR laboratories. Many local government units have been announcing their continuing construction or tapping of existing hotels or dormitories and setting up isolation facilities. More recently, there is a push for the procurement of more ambulances, spending more money to hire contact tracers, redirecting unused government funds towards subsidies and hiring more health workers and buying PPEs.

But in spite of the fact that many recent cases of COVID-19 are attributed to depressed areas where families of 5, 7 or 10 people live in shanties, rooms and hovels resulting in inter-family transmission and community transmission, I have not heard of a real plan and a new program to depopulate these areas in the very near future and fast track multi-level housing that are built similar to the condominiums and townhouses that property developers sell to middle and upper class buyers.

Please don’t tell me that it will take too long to build those buildings because right here in Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig City I have witnessed two known developers construct four sites with rows of high-rise middle and upper class condominiums rising like mushrooms in a matter of two years. They work non-stop, they use a lot of precast walls, posts and beams and they have armies of men and equipment doing the projects.

For whatever shameful reason government officials and planners may have, it seems that members of the Armed Forces, the Philippine National Police and poor people living in squatter colonies are offered government housing that is half or a third in size of regular condominiums. These “boxes” barely have any ventilation, natural lighting, no proper insulation, featuring cheap disposable doors, windows, plumbing and electrical. Many are one-story/one-room units that are assigned, raffled off even before the necessary utilities and access are established. No roads, no sewage or water but they are raffled off probably so the agency and contractors can move quickly to the next project. The projects are awarded to pick and shovel contractors who get a huge mobilization fee, then take their time in constructing the projects at such a slow pace that the structures are aged and deteriorated even before beneficiaries get hold of their certificate of ownership. By and large, these so-called housing units are more like bodegas or storage compartments rather than housing, and definitely impossible to label as proper homes for human beings.

No one can argue against the need to immediately depopulate the depressed and over populated areas because if we don’t, we will surely continue to recirculate and spread COVID-19 not just in the poor areas but as well as offices, public areas, schools, etc. I have long been suggesting in this column that the national government, perhaps President Duterte, can copy what Lee Kwan Yew did at the start of his career as prime minister of Singapore, which was to put up the Housing and Development Board (1960). The board was tasked to immediately address the serious lack of affordable housing for lower and middle class Singaporeans.

The HDB then set a goal to build 51,031 units by 1965. By the middle of 1965 all the units were built and distributed to 400,000 Singaporeans equivalent to one-fourth of the population of Singapore at that time. Instead of investing on infrastructure projects such as circumferential roads that are designed to get congressmen re-elected etc., the Duterte administration should consider a massive housing project that many Filipinos would want to live in and can afford to pay back. Many hard working and entrepreneurial Filipinos have proven during the time of the pandemic that they will find ways and means to survive, earn a living and responsibly keep their commitments in terms of rent, mortgages or loans. But only the Philippine government has the funds, the social responsibility and the power to initiate in the Philippines what the late Lee Kwan Yew did in Singapore.

Housing and relocation is a multi-win solution because we can depopulate Metro Manila, incentivize the economy through massive construction projects that will generate jobs, supply chains, real estate, etc. With proper planning and coordination, those housing projects can even be aligned or located in “future cities” where jobs are or will be, such as New Clark and SMC Bulacan economic zone, Laguna and Batangas. If people had a shot or were guaranteed real housing and not hovels in the middle of nowhere, many people would willingly relocate. We won’t even have to pay relocation fees because they will be getting real homes in an area where there are real jobs.

For starters, the government could survey, partner and build such condominiums with companies located in eco-zones or industrial centers. By providing housing, employers would have longer staying, motivated workers who live almost on-site. Such a set-up makes the monitoring and management of current and future pandemics easier. Instead of kicking people out of long established squatter colonies, why not partner with them or involve them in the construction of such housing facilities. The only reasons those people persist in staying in those hovels is because it’s free and near some source of livelihood. But the fact is, it’s never free. Some thugs or small time politicians are almost always collecting “fees” on a weekly basis. They pay for water by the jug etc. and in every election they kiss the hand that “houses” them by voting for TRAPOS in local government. But now those hovels have become production sites for COVID-19.

Let us stop calling them informal settlers. Let us stop giving them lip service. Treat them equally as citizens of the republic and as human beings just like us. Build them homes, not hovels!

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