Junefe Payot for Impolitikal

Junefe Gilig Payot: Collaborating with Philippine Cities for affordable housing

Last month, I meticulously made Valentine’s Day plans but ended up scrapping them to go on a business trip to a city in the southern part of the Philippines, over 400 miles from the capital Manila – with my boss. Ah, the story of my life: official duty trumps personal happiness, again.

But I made the ‘sacrifice’ for a very good reason; we went to Dapitan City to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a partnership between the city government and our agency, the Social Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC). The partnership is aimed at providing affordable housing to low-income families in the city.

Citywide development approach to promote housing rights in cities

Dapitan, with its population of just over 82,000, is small compared to most Philippine cities, many of which have populations of over 500,000. But we cannot ignore it. Housing is a right and we must uphold it in all cities, big or small – and especially in the most vulnerable ones like Dapitan, a coastal city crisscrossed by several rivers and therefore at risk from storm surges, tsunamis and riverine flooding.

Moreover, focus is now being given to small cities where there is still room to properly manage urbanization and avoid the mistakes of bigger cities that have urbanized ahead, particularly the failure to prioritize social housing for low-income families in land use plans.

“Housing is a right and we must uphold it in all cities, big or small – and especially in the most vulnerable ones, like Dapitan.”

Under the MOU, we agreed that the local government of Dapitan City would map out all the informal settlements in the whole city, organize urban poor communities, and facilitate the issuance of permits for housing projects. For its part, SHFC would fund their projects and help build the communities’ capacity for participatory mapping, settlement planning, financial management, and other skills needed for a holistic community development.

For proper implementation and to get more accurate data, the city would also coordinate with its barangays – or villages, the smallest governance units in the Philippines, that are headed by elected officials called chairmen or capitan (just one of the hundreds of Spanish words that we still use, a remnant of our colonization by Spain).

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This is what we call the Citywide and Barangay-Based Community Upgrading Strategy. It is a strategy that allows timely development of in-city housing programs for urban poor communities at scale through a participatory process orchestrated by local government units.

We have recently followed this approach because of our realization that the traditional project-by-project strategy cannot reach scale and address the urgency of the need. There has to be a programmatic approach that ideally addresses all the informal settler communities within a city.

Subsidiarity & multilevel governance collaboration for development

This approach of going to the lowest level of government is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity favored by many urban planners and development practitioners globally, which says that urban development programs – as much as possible – should be implemented by the authority closest to the people.

Indeed, our experience shows that collaborating with cities and barangays – given their local knowledge, resources, and influence – is a most efficient way of scaling up and speeding up the delivery of housing solutions. It also allows for more nuanced and more responsive interventions that are tailored to local contexts and needs.

The local authorities, however, must be supported by national agencies. As Diana Mitlin, a respected professor at the University of Manchester asserts, what is really needed for the effective implementation of development projects is a multi-level collaboration that considers the unique role and contributions of each stakeholder at various levels of government.

“Our experience shows that collaborating with cities and barangays – given their local knowledge, resources, and influence – is a most efficient way of scaling up and speeding up the delivery of housing solutions.”

The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Cities 2030, issued at the Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum in February, makes the same assertion when it says, “We encourage the acceleration of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda through… multiple collaborative governance mechanisms that actively engage national, subnational and local governments…”

Such a mechanism would “ensure continuous dialogue among different levels of government and participation of all actors, and increasing multilevel and cross-sectoral coordination, transparency and accountability.” That is exactly the mechanism that SHFC’s Citywide and Barangay-Based Community Upgrading Strategy provides.

Climate change & housing

We were travelling a day after typhoon Basyang swept through Mindanao, leaving dozens dead and thousands displaced. On our way to the MOU signing ceremony, we passed men wading through floodwaters to guide their cattle to safety while children sat by the windows unable to go out to play or go to school.

In another area, we saw bamboo and nipa houses flooded waist-deep. In my head, I pondered with concern the fact that Basyang was only the first salvo: around 20 typhoons wreck havoc in the Philippines annually. We need to brace ourselves for more.

Thus, in his inspirational message during the MOU signing, SHFC president Arnolfo Ricardo Cabling noted that Basyang was another grim reminder for us to vigorously and proactively provide adequate housing in climate change-resilient communities so that they can protect themselves from climate change impacts such as more frequent typhoons and flooding.

We just cannot afford the continuous destruction of life and property. He also noted how apt it was to sign the MOU on Valentine’s Day, since the document embodied our love for the urban poor as manifested in our desire to improve their living conditions. I was reminded of the personal plans I had to scrap, and why I chose to do so.

It was Valentine’s Day when the MOU signing was held. The SHFC president noted how apt it was to sign the MOU on Valentine’s Day since the document embodied our love for the urban poor as manifested in our desire to improve their living conditions. Here, the SHFC staff decided to take a photo at a restaurant that was bedecked with Valentine’s decorations, as a reminder of the dates we had had to scrap. Hahaha.

In her response, Dapitan City Mayor Rosalina Jalosjos tearfully recalled her near-death experience that morning when her plane from Cebu City made a very rough landing. She believed that by divine providence, she was meant to continue serving her poor constituents; hence, she vowed to eradicate homelessness in her city.

Colonialism, poverty reduction & heroism

I was asked to give a closing message after the signing, so I spoke of our national hero José Rizal and of my delight in being in historic Dapitan, where he was exiled in 1892 for allegedly supporting rebellious efforts against the Spanish colonizers, before being sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in 1896.

More importantly, I pointed out his pro-poor views, which he translated into action while in exile. In letters to his friends in Europe, where he had studied, Rizal described his typical day in exile as being spent treating indigent patients in the mornings, teaching poor boys in the afternoons and, in between, organizing the “poor Mindanao folk” to make them independent from usurious traders.

Thus, I exhorted the city officials to fast-track the provision of housing in Dapitan as one effective way to simultaneously address the problems that Rizal tried to address more than a hundred years ago – poor health, lack of education and livelihood. These problems are still prevalent today as a legacy of deeply-rooted colonial socio-economic structures that favoured the elite at the expense of the indios, which was what the native inhabitants were called by the colonizers.

I explained that co-benefits from housing are possible because adequate housing protects against health hazards like cold and rain, and gives children a place to study and play, while serving as sites for income generation, such as sari-sari stores (pictured above) which are very small neighborhood convenience stores that sell everything from spices to slippers. Sari-sari means “variety” or “sundry”.

Looking forward with concrete steps

We are hopeful about our partnership with the Dapitan City government. The city administrator gave us free office space in the city hall so we could immediately proceed with our collaboration. Our area manager, Gina Lumbre, was relieved that she didn’t have to request office rental budget from the head office, which usually takes a long time because of bureaucratic processes.

Concrete and voluntary gestures of resource-sharing such as this – it was not part of the MOU – are always welcome indicators of a partner’s strong commitment. When the offer of office space was made, it suddenly occurred to me that commitment or lack of it can make or break a relationship, whether romantic or professional.

Also, the city engineer brought us to a property that will be used as a resettlement site for poor families that will be displaced by the expansion of the city port. We then went to the city port to visit the communities to be resettled. This resettlement operation will be our first pilot project with the city. We had an understanding that there shall be no demolition without relocation.

“Concrete and voluntary gestures of resource-sharing such as this are always welcome indicators of a partner’s strong commitment.”

But beyond this pilot resettlement project, we envision a more proactive and programmatic strategy of mapping out the vulnerable communities in Dapitan, assessing their housing and community development needs, prioritizing the most vulnerable communities, actually implementing housing and community development projects, and monitoring them.

(While this understanding might seem logical and a no-brainer, there have been countless documented instances in the Philippines of whole communities being evicted even though no relocation site has been provided. Needless to say, such violation of rights has disastrous consequences, especially for children. It impoverishes families more).

The city also arranged for us to meet with a group of barangay chiefs to discuss the climate change vulnerability of their city, how exactly housing can lessen that vulnerability by reducing exposure, decreasing sensitivity while increasing adaptive capacity. We then discussed the government housing programs that they can avail from SHFC.

Read Junefe Gilig Payot on building sustainable communities in the Philippines

In our discussions with them, we found that each barangay has its own unique problems, priorities and resources. For example, in some barangays, in situ or onsite housing is more appropriate to prevent disruption of social networks and livelihood – while in other barangays, resettlement to another location might be necessary given the hazards and risks in their present sites. This affirms us in our strategy of really going down to the lowest level of governance for a more nuanced assessment of the situation in a certain locality, which consequently allows for more responsive interventions.

So, although the romantic date that I had planned was bumped off by official duties, my Valentine’s Day did not turn out so badly after all. We were able to start a partnership that can hopefully serve as a model for how cities and national agencies can work together to address homelessness, where cities and barangays take the lead while national agencies provide support. And that, I decided, also fills me with profound personal happiness.

Junefe Gilig Payot is Vice President for Operations at SHFC (Mindanao). A lawyer, he also holds an MSc in Poverty and Development from the University of Manchester (Chevening Scholarship). Read more by Junefe.