Junefe Payot for Impolitikal

Junefe Payot on building sustainable communities in the Philippines

It was a pleasant surprise. What was supposed to be a quiet visit to a community in Metro Manila turned into a festive affair as members of the St Hannibal Homeowners Association danced for us. I and my colleague from the Social Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC) were at the community to show an architect an example of a community-driven housing project. We had asked for the architect’s help in designing low cost housing for communities in another city in the southern part of the Philippines. But the physical design and planning process had to be participatory, an approach that many technical people like architects and engineers are not used to. That is why we brought him to the St Hannibal community.

The community has been home for 10 years now to 294 families who used to live in makeshift houses on stilts on murky waterways under very hazardous and unsanitary conditions. The waterways were also their latrine, and they were under constant threat of having their houses demolished. Now they live in brick houses with proper toilet and sewerage facilities. They have electricity and a clean water supply. The St Hannibal housing project is one of those financed by the SHFC through our Community Mortgage Program (CMP). The CMP is a housing program catering to informal settler families (ISFs) in the lowest three income deciles. Through the program, SHFC gives community loans to organized communities of urban ISFs to finance their purchase of the land they are currently illegally occupying, or another parcel that they want to relocate to. It also finances site development and house construction. Every step of the process is led by the communities themselves – from the selection of land and negotiations with the original landowners, to the design of the houses and choice of building contractors.

St Hannibal housing project, Manila
The gate of the St Hannibal housing complex

There are currently around 700,000 ISFs in the Philippines, a figure that many say is underestimated. From its inception in 1989 to the end of 2015, the CMP has assisted 283,684 ISFs, or around 10,500 ISFs annually. However, this rate makes only a small dent in the overall need. There is a need to scale up, and the decades of experience of the CMP has shown that providing land tenure and housing structures is not enough. The accepted wisdom has been that, once you provide families with the basic security of tenure – defined under a national statute as mere protection against eviction – they will automatically invest in the improvement of their houses and communities. The reality, though, has been mixed. Well-organized communities have been able to sustain and even further improve their quality of life. In less organized communities, settlements have deteriorated over time, a case of mere slum transfer.

Hence, scaling up is not enough on its own. While there is a need to increase the volume of interventions, our approach needed to be more holistic. Project development had to be coupled with intensive community development beyond the provision of physical structures. That is why SHFC has been developing a framework that includes both project development and community development components.

St Hannibal housing project, Manila, Philippines, housing
Brick housing at the St Hannibal housing project.

The mothers danced first. I could see they had really prepared for their number because there was a progression in the repertoire of songs they danced to. First they performed a traditional Filipino dance. It was nothing out of the ordinary: mothers dancing to a slow Filipino song that speaks of verdant hills, quiet farms and a life of content in the countryside. A Filipino pop song from the 80s followed. It was more upbeat but still not engaging. Then, suddenly, they danced to some K-pop music from PSY! Now, that was a surprise! The mothers became balls of pulsating energy; the tent under which the welcome program was held was vibrating from the music. I have been tricked!

According to a mother who sat beside me to cheer her colleagues, the group was called the Sexy Moms, because they could still gyrate lithely (what the young call “grind”) despite their age and being on the heavy side. She was laughing loudly while she was explaining this to me. She said that she is part of the group but could not join that day because she had not been able to attend several rehearsals. I chuckled as I glanced at the group and finally noticed that they were portly indeed. Meanwhile the K-pop song kept repeating the line “Where’d you get that body from?”

Mostly it was their happy faces that I noticed – and those of their little children, who were cheering them on. The Moms were wearing denims and yellow shirts that announced the 10th anniversary of moving into their housing settlement. They gave their all. They were very good and in step with each other. It was obvious they had been practicing. I was told that, in fact, dancing was one of the regular group activities for the mothers, along with Zumba. I was bobbing my head and clapping along by the final song. One of my colleagues whispered to me that he wished the bigger group of visitors we had brought there earlier in the week had seen the dancing mothers because that would have clearly shown how tight the community has become, or has remained, even after a decade of living together.

Beyond the dancing, the sense of community could be seen in how clean, orderly and peaceful the settlement was. The president of the Association, Ate Noemi (“Ate” is the Filipino honorific for older sister) explained that the St Hannibal community had come up with a set of rules to keep it tidy and peaceful. Each household representative then signed a document to signify his or her agreement. The community has also assigned tasks and obligations to keep it peaceful and safe. At the entrance gate, for instance, I saw a chart listing the names of pairs of individuals assigned to watch the gate at particular hours.

St Hannibal housing project, Philippines, gate roster
A list of people task to “guard” the community on 8-hour shifts. The yellow sheet is a reminder to pay parking fees. There’s also a reminder on the upper right corner to pay realty tax.

One of the fathers proudly shared that they have also managed to keep drugs out of the community, despite the fact that drug use was a huge problem in surrounding areas. He attributed the community’s maintenance of peace and their ability to keep drugs out to their strong organizational and governance structure, which includes a Peace and Justice committee that enforces the community rules and mediates among families to resolve conflicts. The regular sports activities, which include basketball tournaments, also help foster camaraderie among the members of the community, especially the young boys.

Even before they transferred to the new location, the community members underwent values formation, visioning and leadership workshops, among other social preparations. They were assisted by the St Hannibal Empowerment Center (SHEC), which was founded by a group of Catholic priests belonging to the Rogationists of the Heart of Jesus. As a result, the community knows its shared goals and dreams and what they need to do to achieve them. This is reflected in their repayment rate, which at 103% is very high. This high rate is partly because of the values formation workshops, which among other things emphasize the need to repay loans for the good of the community. It is also partly because of financial literacy seminars.

This achievement of forming a sense of community becomes even more remarkable if one looks at the diversity of the members, in terms of their varied occupations, faiths, regional origins, languages – even accents. It is really the continuous values formation workshops that helped them to develop unity. It is also testament to their strong sense of community that residents were able to agree on an arrangement that remains unusual in the Philippines: each family lives in units they own, in several two-storey buildings – but the land on which the buildings are located is commonly owned. In most other projects, families opt for individual houses with individual land titles, so they can dispose of them or use them as collateral for loans. It takes a tight community to give up these conveniences.

St Hannibal housing project, Manila, Philippines, community rules
A resident sits in front of the collectively decided community rules.

All of this highlights the crucial role of social preparation, community development and community organizing in housing interventions. Many housing projects in the Philippines focus only on project development or the physical development of a community. In many projects, there is not even a real sense of community to speak of, but rather individual families who relocate and then have to fend for themselves individually. To build truly sustainable communities, however, project development must go hand-in-hand with community development. This is the only way to ensure the unity and viability of communities and enable them to resolve whatever challenges they will face in the future.

It may seem intuitive that housing projects should happen this way. But the case of St Hannibal offers a stark contrast to most government-run housing initiatives in the Philippines. Firstly, many government initiatives involve off-city relocation. The St Hannibal project involved in-city relocation to an area near the murky waterways where community members used to live. In-city relocation is the ideal approach because it minimizes disruption in the livelihoods of the families, their social networks, access to education of the children, and access to economic, social, cultural and political opportunities in the city.

To enable communities to organize themselves properly, they need support for various capacity-building needs. This used to be done by NGOs, but with a dearth of international funding a need arose for the government to take charge of what should have been its responsibility in the first place. The government, however, cannot do it alone. It will have to enlist the assistance of other resource organizations. At the 2015 People’s Housing Summit, organized jointly by people’s organizations (POs) and the Philippine Congress, one of the things the POs and homeowners’ associations demanded of the government was a program, and funding, for capacity-building. They hoped that the new Philippine president, elected earlier this month, will prioritize a holistic approach to housing, and go beyond providing physical housing structures only.

After the mothers’ dance, it was the turn of the youth to strut their stuff. They first danced to Little Mix’s ‘Salute’, as if to salute their parents who danced before them. The mothers were trying to dance along at the side of the tent, even though it was no longer their turn. They really liked to dance. In them, I think I saw a glimpse of the future – a community that will continue to be united and living harmoniously with each other as the young take on the challenge of preserving what their parents have fought to build.

Junefe Gilig Payot is a lawyer and Corporate Executive Officer at the Social Housing Finance Corporation in Manila, and an advocate for inclusive urban development.