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  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

Filipino Transformers and promoting the right to adequate housing

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Marawi City, Philippines – In a speech given during the launching of the joint housing and livelihood project of Social Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC) and the UN-Habitat for families displaced by the conflict in the Islamic City of Marawi, Secretary Eduardo del Rosario of the Philippines’ Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council insisted on the construction of housing units with a floor area of at least 36 square meters. He explained that in a clan-oriented culture like that of the Maranaos – where multiple families may share one house – the usual 20 to 25 square meter area of government housing units will not suffice. The concern was also echoed by SHFC president Arnolfo Ricardo Cabling, himself a long time advocate of the right to adequate housing. Sharing the views of said public officials, UN-Habitat architects – together with representatives of the displaced families, traditional local leaders and the local government – thus decided to design units with lofts, which resulted in a total floor area of more than 40 square meters per unit.

Officials of SHFC, UN-Habitat, HUDCC and the Islamic City of Marawi signing the agreement, which signalled the official launch of the project Rebuilding Marawi through Community-Driven Shelter and Livelihood. Housing projects are often complex undertakings and may require multi-stakeholder partnerships. More so in the context of post-conflict rebuilding.

Representatives of internally displaced persons (IDPs), sultans (local traditional leaders) and officials of SHFC, UN-Habitat and Islamic City of Marawi, checking out the model house designed with a loft to increase habitable space. The design was made with the participation of the stakeholders, especially the IDPs and sultans to ensure cultural adequacy as well.

I could not agree more with the push for a bigger floor area of housing units in the Marawi project and with the principle that culture should always be considered in housing. And I would go even further by saying that it is about time that we adopt a higher minimum standard floor area for all housing projects – not just those in Marawi – because such would be more attuned to the general Filipino culture, as will be explained later. I would add too that housing for Muslim communities – like that for Marawi’s Maranaos – ought to also strive for a housing finance that is consistent with Islamic principles. Aside from enhancing cultural adequacy, such effort would open the door to the flourishing of Islamic securitization (i.e. issuance of asset-back sukuk, or Shari’ah compliant bonds), which would generate funds to build more communities.

The inadequacy of public housing units in the Philippines to address the needs and aspirations of the families that would occupy them is born by the study (unpublished) of Alonso Ayala, a long-time architect and development planner at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His study in a government resettlement site in the province of Laguna in the Philippines showed that after resettlement, the families who received housing units went on to incrementally extend their 20-square meter houses to as much as 72 square meters, which was the lot size. In other words, they would go on to build on every inch and to the very edge of the parcel of land they were given. Who knows how much bigger the extensions would have been had the lots been larger? As a result, habitable space occupied per person doubled from around 4 square meters to 8 square meters. This phenomenon illustrates powerfully that, in many cases, the current small-sized housing units provided by the government are not adequate at all. If they were, why did people have to build extensions?

Illustration of how one family transformed its originally 20-square meter public housing unit (the yellow area) into a 72-square meter dwelling that would include separate rooms for boys and girls as well as a sari-sari store. (Screenshot from the presentation of Alonso Ayala in the short course DSHP 2017, which the author attended)

The extensions were made not only for physical comfort but also for cultural reasons such as to provide separate rooms for boys and girls, to make room for visiting relatives, and to add a “dirty kitchen” on top of the regular one. (My non-Filipino friends get confused whenever I tell them that every Filipino home has a “dirty kitchen.” But before they could start imagining crawling cockroaches and germs everywhere, I would explain that a “dirty kitchen” is an exterior kitchen where all the cooking – and the gossiping! – happens.) Other reasons were economic in nature such as to put up a carpentry shop or a sari-sari store (a small retail store that sells goods from rice to salt in small portions to families who do not have the means to buy in bulk).

Amusingly, these families who make changes on the units they receive are called “transformers” in academic parlance. But unlike the very quick transformation of robots we see in the sci-fi movies, theirs are incremental changes that happen slowly over months and years after moving in, depending on their changing needs and financial situation. It is no less fantastic though, seeing how these families are able to improve their lives after resettlement, as manifested in the transformation of their dwellings.

As Ayala eloquently puts it, the extensions enabled the low-income transformers to “find their own way to a better quality of life and therefore fulfil their housing needs and aspirations to a greater degree than compared to the original situation.”

This phenomenon clearly urges us to rethink the size and the design of the social housing units that we in government currently provide. We need to consider family size, cultural beliefs and attitudes, as well as economic aspirations, among others. Consequently, such phenomenon also makes the case for a participatory approach to housing. After all, what better way is there to know what families actually need and what is culturally acceptable to them than by giving them a say in the building of their own homes?

In SHFC, we let families design their own houses and we encourage those in highly urbanized cities, where residential land is scarce and expensive, to include lofts in order to increase habitable space. In less urbanized cities, we suggest that families design their bungalow houses with larger floor areas and with sturdy foundations that are strong enough to allow for a second floor should they need to expand as their families grow bigger (“Nakaabang na” – literally “already waiting for” – as hopeful community members like to put it.) Consequently, we have also increased our loan ceilings to make bigger housing units possible.

Three-story residential buildings of the ALPAS Homeowners’ Association, composed of families who organized themselves and resettled from riverbanks and waterways of Metro Manila which would overflow during storms, endangering lives and property. These buildings with lofted dwelling units were designed with the active participation of families. They also chose the in-city location of their new community to preserve social networks, and access to economic opportunities. They opted for a multi-story or vertical housing to optimize the use of land, which are very expensive within Metro Manila. They also opted to add lofts in order to increase habitable space.

View of the living room of one of the units from the top of the stairs leading to the loft.

Cecilia Santos, one of the leaders of the ALPAS Homeowners’ Association, proudly explaining how they hurdled challenges to eventually succeed in building their new community and how pleased she is with the community-driven approach of SHFC. She is also very happy with her new and safe home, which is a far cry from the old house she had by the river. She related that her children now feel secure and that one of her sons even remarked that he should stop going to the milk-feeding program for poor children at his school because they were now better off.

As for the cultural adequacy of housing financial arrangements, we are also currently in the process of building our capacity to provide Shari’ah-compliant financial arrangements. Already, we have sent some staff abroad to learn about Islamic finance, and have studied the opinion of respected Filipino banking law experts who say that Islamic finance may already be feasibly adopted now because it does not contravene the existing Philippine laws on contracts. We are also in the process of procuring the services of a Islamic housing finance expert. Once we successfully roll out our Shari’ah-compliant housing projects, we can have the said accounts securitized and issue asset-backed sukuk bonds. This can provide much-needed source of housing funds.

There is no going around it. We must provide adequate housing and allocate more budget if necessary. Providing adequate houses means safeguarding culture, aspirations, and dignity – none of which you can put a price tag to.

About the Author: Lawyer Junefe Gilig Payot is Executive Vice President of Social Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC), a government-owned and -controlled corporation. He obtained several diplomas from the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He also holds an MSc Poverty and Development degree from the University of Manchester (Chevening Scholarship).


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