After weeks of uncertainty, President Rodrigo Duterte has made a definitive statement regarding the occupation of government housing units by activist group KADAMAY. True to his roots as a left-leaning politico, he declared that the urban poor who stormed the houses should be allowed to stay despite an eviction notice being served prior.
The debate centered around the legitimacy of the occupation. Members of the group justified their actions by stating that government housing is intended for the poor and to curb homelessness in the country. The government agency facilitating social housing however, the National Housing Authority (NHA), argued that the housing units that have been occupied by KADAMAY were intended for the families of soldiers and policemen. Despite this, Duterte gave his verdict in front of soldiers during a speech given at the 120th anniversary celebrations of the Philippine Army.
In effect, Duterte asked the Army to stop any eviction process. Instead, he promised the soldiers who were affected by the occupation new housing units at another relocation area. Officials present at the ceremony promised to adhere to the President’s request and to back off from the government housing area in Bulacan, which has been the site of tensions between activists and members of the Army waiting for orders to evict the former.
The decision is monumental, not only for the occupiers who are mostly made up of urban poor who are squatting in the slums of Metro Manila but also for advocates of social housing in the Philippines. The entire ordeal highlighted the problem of homelessness in the country, which puts the poor in inhumane conditions but also presents problems in the Metropolis. Slums are an eyesore for any developing city, they also deprive the local economy of prime land that could have been used for potential development.
Despite obvious reasons why government should invest more in social housing and in resettling the urban poor, sectors have voiced their opposition to Duterte’s recent decision. Their main gripe is that the activists were able to get a “free lunch” despite their actions being illegal, while concluding that the President “surrendered” to their demands.
These assessments could not be any further from the truth.
First of all, the housing units occupied by the activists had been unoccupied for five years. The NHA does fulfill its purpose of building housing units, but forgets its other mandate of identifying beneficiaries to resettle in these houses. The agency criticized the occupiers claiming that due process has to be followed for potential beneficiaries to be selected.
However, members of KADAMAY retorted that they have been applying to be relocated to social housing for many years but never received a response. The inept nature of the NHA’s procedures is what drove many of these activists to force their resettlement instead. Hence, if anyone had a “free lunch” it would have to be the NHA since the urban poor did their work for them by settling into the new houses by themselves.
Secondly, President Duterte’s move can hardly be called a “surrender” – in fact, he made a principled move that was consistent with his campaign promise. From his days as Davao City mayor Duterte had been staunchly pro-poor, his popularity among rural and lower class voters is a testament to this. The move to allow the occupiers to settle in these housing units is a continuation of this philosophy, despite it being largely unpopular and even generated criticism from his own allies. Rather than a cowardly surrender, President Duterte stood his ground and defended the poor.
If anything, the conclusion of this ordeal can only be a victory for the poor given that the issue of social housing was brought to the fore and struggling urban slum dwellers were given humane accommodations. This can also be struck down as a political win for President Duterte, who has demonstrated his willingness to go with the unpopular so long as the welfare of the poor is at stake.