The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


NGOs in Manila unite the poor to fight for housing rights

Abidemi Coker discusses how NGOs in Manila are mobilizing poor urban residents to work together in community associations so they can access land and housing.

Cities: Manila

Topics: Housing, Property, rights and evictions, Participatory governance, Property and real estate, Community organisation, Informal settlements

Houses in an informal settlement along a tributary of the Pasay River, Manila (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
A photo of a street in Ulingan, an informal settlement by Manila Bay that is awaiting government relocation (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
Smoke from charcoal production rises above Ulingan, an informal settlement by Manila Bay that is awaiting government relocation (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
Two women in housing constructed by St. Hannibal Empowerment Centre in Pasay, a district of Manila. They became friends through participation in a housing association (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
Houses in Ulingan, an informal settlement by Manila Bay that is awaiting government relocation and considered a "danger zone" unfit for settlement (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
Housing in Pasay, a district of Manila, constructed by St. Hannibal Empowerment Centre (Photo: Abidemi Coker).
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The demand for prime land in Manila, a growing megacity with over 13.1 million inhabitants, is soaring. As more people move into the metropolis, where the poor often live in informal settlements or slums alongside the walls of the gated communities of the rich, poor residents are struggling to realise their right to adequate housing. Priced out of the formal housing market, they live in informal settlements from which they can be evicted at a moment’s notice.  Within this context, dozens of local “urban poor groups” and NGOs have begun to promote the housing rights of the poor and helped them access land.

But only a few of these organisations have been successful at maintaining working relationships with powerful elites that help informal settlers gain access to housing within Manila. They do so by departing from the approach of the government housing programs of the 1980s and 1990s that focused on relocation or upgrading using top-down approaches without input from the affected families. Instead, these groups acquire local government or private land and, at times, public funds for housing informal settlers. They do so by identifying families or neighbourhoods in need of housing, bringing them together into associations and giving them opportunities to be involved in negotiations with the government. Then, once the land and funds have been secured, they use the construction of new housing to build community morale and unity.

 ‘Values formation’: Building both communities and homes

Two NGOs called St. Hannibal Empowerment Center (SHEC) and Gawad Kalinga (“to give care”) have been so successful at this approach that they have caught the attention of the Philippine government  by building two-storey communities for poor families in Manila at a minimal cost. Both organisations work directly in urban districts and with the assistance of local government to identify families in need and to attain land to relocate them within Manila. They focus on families living in areas unfit for habitation – called “danger zones” – such as squatter settlements alongside train tracks or next to the sea.

But these organizations work on entirely different scales. St. Hannibal Empowerment Center (SHEC), which is run by Rogationist priests, built at least two new communities housing over 200 families in Pasay City, a district of Manila, after it estimated about 9,600 people in Pasay were informal settlers (or squatters) without secure housing. On the other hand, Gawad Kalinga is a national NGO with over 1 billion Philippine pesos (£16.1 million) in assets that works in dozens of sites in metro Manila. Up to 50% of their donations come from corporations. The organisation also carries out campaigns to encourage volunteers to help build homes.

In spite of their differences, both organizations run housing programs that target some of the poorest families in precarious alcoves of Manila with similar participatory processes that involve consistent engagement of the families through “values formation.” The process is as broad as it sounds. Values formation begins much before the actual construction of housing and is essentially a community-building process with the goal of creating “empowered” communities that are secure, clean and harmonious. Association members participate in workshops, training and couples counselling to improve all aspects of their lives. In fact, many of the activities that are part of values formation, such as reading the bible and prayer sessions, do not address housing issues directly.

Values formation begins once families in a neighbourhood have been identified and registered for a housing program.  They can participate only if they have lived in the area for some time and have not availed of such housing programs before. Once the families are registered, they are encouraged to form or join the housing association, through which they can air their concerns and meet with the NGOs and government partners involved. Before a housing project can begin, all members of the association have to agree on terms of housing, including the location. In the case of SHEC, they must also pay small membership fees before actual housing construction begins.

When agreement between all parties is reached and construction begins, the families provide “sweat equity” towards their housing by contributing up to 1,400 hours to the actual building of their homes. This is part of values formation, since it helps foster bonds between families and encourages them to cherish their homes, and is used by the NGOs to reduce the costs of the homes.

The success of this approach when it comes to community-building was highlighted by more than a dozen interviews with the beneficiaries of such programs that I conducted for my doctoral research. “Here at our compound, we feel for the other’s problems. We need to look after one another,” said one homeowner and community association president in new SHEC housing, who was a homemaker. “That’s the task of the leaders. You must not be too proud of yourself because you are a leader. You must be patient at all times.” Many others said similar things, emphasizing responsibility to others in the community and a feeling of camaraderie in their new communities.

Similarly, during interviews in new communities in Manila, women said they valued friends they had made through the housing association because they shared a common past of dangers, fears and insecurity in the slums, as well as a future together in their new community. As daily life became safer from gang violence and other threats, they felt proud of their modest homes and could concentrate on improving opportunities for themselves and their children together.

The resettled families do not necessarily earn more than they did while living in the slums or danger zones, but, since housing is such a core expense and was previously a source of stress, the reality of living in a safer community with tenure security and amenities seems to have enormous impact on morale. Many women also expressed the importance of their new community in helping families cope with or avoid problems prevalent in slums, including drinking and violence.  In fact, after the housing project is complete, the NGOs urge new residents to continue helping each other, such as by forming associations for fathers and mothers, and collecting monthly fees that can help community members when in dire need.

To be sure, values formation is not without challenges. The process is demanding of families and the organisations.  Divisions can surface between residents prior to relocation, as well as between residents and the communities in which they relocated. Even so, most people interviewed, as well as the community leaders of the NGOs, felt values formation was important for building bonds between community members after relocation.

Building a community to negotiate with the state

Unlike with state socialised housing programs, the process of housing acquisition can be considerably shorter with NGOs, who cut the length by being the main organiser and mediator between all actors, especially where land is bought from private owners or donated from the local government. The NGOs also focus on families living in danger zones who are already motivated to resettle, which can make consensus easier to attain.  In contrast, state programs are usually larger, targeting bigger informal areas with more families that need to meet bureaucratic requirements and agree to the plan. 

The NGOs focus on values formation also plays a critical role in their success, especially in the housing programs involving state funders like the Community Mortgage Program (CMP), which loans millions to associations of squatter families each year so they can buy the land on which they live or relocate. In order to get funds from the CMP, families need to come together in housing associations and work with a “mobiliser” –  an urban poor group or NGO with knowledge of the complex CMP process. On eof the reasons NGOs conduct values formation is to try and encourage families in need to join the programs. Building a sense of community can help NGOs bring in families who might have initially opted out of the housing program because they prefer to avoid paying for housing, wish to remain on that land where they currently live, or distrust the program or the NGOs involved.

It is critical for the NGOs to get the whole community on board because those who do not join the associations do not qualify for housing and ultimately, pose a risk to the project. Disagreements within the association, as well as between the association and residents who are not members of it, can drag out the housing schemes for years, making it extremely challenging for the association and, particularly, state housing providers, to proceed on a relocation plan.

The housing NGOs are not only housing suppliers for the poor, but also bridges between informal settlers and state actors. By employing participatory processes during housing construction and following relocation, the NGOs give communities an opportunity to voice their concerns to local authorities. They can also draw attention to the needs of informal settlers so they are not relocated into the hinterlands of the city. These are key networks in the harsh megacity setting, where the inequality and minimal social safety nets contribute to the cycle of poverty.

In the process, non-governmental actors in Manila have penetrated political structures and the bureaucracy of complex institutions by taking on roles that are traditionally expected of the state.  As one Gawad Kalinga housing officer said, “It’s about modelling…a holistic integrated community development where everyone [is] really connected. So…it’s not all about money, but it’s all about empowerment.”

NGOs have a double role of engaging with the community associations by providing information, guidance and sometimes, other social services, while opening the space for negotiation with state agencies and the local government. Critically, allowing NGOs to work closely with community to air concerns and wishes may be a way to minimise expensive mistakes, such as the ones committed by government housing programs that relocated thousands of squatters outside Manila without their input. The programs failed because most of those resettled simply returned to the areas from where they were moved.  

The housing provision models of Gawad Kalinga and St. Hannibal Empowerment Center  are especially relevant considering the extent of low income housing shortage in Manila, which is expected to become the 14th largest city in the world with 13.4 million inhabitants by 2020 and 22.9 million by 2030. By emphasizing the importance of relocating poor families, who do crucial jobs throughout the city, in central areas, instead of the hinterlands, and ensuring services and utilities are provided in their new homes, these NGOs can help ensure successful access to housing for all. In the long haul, their efforts will contribute to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals and other global calls for inclusive policies to tackle poverty. 


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