The phenomenon of urban slums in Metro Manila was not widely documented until the 1960’s, when the Philippines experienced rapid urbanization and an astounding influx of squatter populations. Earlier in the 50’s, the squatter population grew in check with the pace of urban development. By the 60’s, the squatter population started to swell along with the accelerated urbanization. Rural migrants streamed in from the largely agricultural countryside, lured by the promise of jobs and wealth, found themselves landless and eventually settled near swamplands and creeks, on idle government properties (like the Tondo foreshore area, now a large squatter colony, which was formerly slated for development into an international port and shipping facility, or Brgy. Commonwealth, which was intended to house an aggregate of government houses and offices-the development of both properties were subsequently neglected due to lack of funds) and disputed private lands. A United Nations survey pegged the slum population to be at 370,000 in 1964 and only four years later, it swelled to 1.1 million (Keyes 1983). By the 1980s, the National Housing Authority reported that one out of four residents of Metro Manila was a squatter-an astounding 150 percent increase within only a decade (U.S. Library of Congress).
With less than one percent of the country’s total land area, Manila is home to nearly 15.5% of the population. Metro Manila is growing so rapidly as the most densely inhabited locale with the Commission on Population’s 2003 report putting the figure at 15,617 persons per square kilometer of land. The United Nations Population Division ranked Metro Manila as 19th out of the 20 densest megacities in the world in 2003 (Inquirer News Service 2004). At the current rate, Metro Manila’s population continues to grow at 5 percent each year, making the competition for limited resources more and more evident. Among them, land is one of the most precious resources. Hence, the two most pressing issues affecting the housing problem in Metro Manila are congestion and-to be discussed in brief-poverty (Antonilao 2004).
Land ownership in Metro Manila is inevitably tied to income levels. Estimates reflect 20 percent of the city’s population to have incomes under or near the poverty line, with 35 percent of the total population of the city residing in informal shantytowns or slums (ADB 2001). According to a survey conducted by the Asian Development Bank’s Metro Manila Urban Services For The Poor Project, the mean unemployment rate in depressed areas is 40 percent, three times higher than Metro Manila’s average of 10 to 12 percent (ADB 1999). Of the employed sector in depressed areas, only half is involved in the formal sector of industry, while the rest engage in informal activities such as vending, tricycle driving, construction, and domestic help, among others.
For many middle class and lower income households, urban land ownership is an impossibility. The lower income bracket often cannot afford to rent centrally located lodging, either. Average monthly rental rates for apartments or condominium units in prime business districts like Makati or Ortigas run upwards of PHP35,000, while in the older parts of Manila or Quezon City, they run upwards of PHP5000 a month. For middle class earners, which comprise nearly half of Metro Manila’s population, the average monthly income of PHP 20,000 may barely be enough to make ends meet (ADB 2001). For minimum wage earners who make on average PHP 7500 a month, rental is far from affordable. The poverty situation is so dire that most slum settlers put up with subhuman living conditions by squatting on private or more often, government property, that are conveniently located within reach of city centers.
Historically, the trains of urban migrants hailed from the rural country. Recent studies, however, challenge the common belief that majority of the inhabitants of urban slums are rural migrants who have since come to the city, lured by false promises of stable jobs and costless land. A study conducted of the extensive shantytowns in Brgy. Commonwealth reveals that most of the residents are, in fact, second or third-generation migrants. It seems that temporary settlement areas, over time, become permanent, ever-expanding tracts of informal dwellings, helped on by skyrocketing costs of living, the inability by the urban poor to afford land and government’s lack of foresight and motivation to address the housing problem. Generations of families grow up in the same shantytowns, inheriting both the makeshift settlement and a life of poverty. As of 2002, an alarming 55 percent of poor households in the country were classified as urban poor, with 1.4 million situated in informal settlements. This figure is expected to grow as a result of multiple factors, including natural growth, sustained urban migration by rural folk, unemployment, and inflation (Antonilao 2004). Overall, squatting does not only entail the squatters to be at fault, but is also largely an undesired by-product of the growing economic disparity between urban centers and the largely agricultural, underdeveloped countryside, as well as the irreconcilable discrepancies between wages and housing costs, and between average household income levels and urban land values (Keyes 1983).
Government performance has been dismal in addressing the housing issue. The government has traditionally prioritized industrialization, infrastructure and export development while neglecting housing issues. UN recommendations peg housing investments for developing nations at 5 to 6 percent of the GNP, but up till the 1970s, housing expenditures only averaged two percent (Tan 1976). UN recommendations propose the establishment of 10 housing units per 1000 heads per annum, while the National Economic and Development Authority targets 7 units per 1000. This has only been followed through with the construction of 3 units per 1000 (Keyes, Burcroft).
To consolidate all efforts to address the housing problem, the National Housing Authority (NHA) was created in 1975 as a centralized “superbody” that would assume the duties of the various housing bodies. In 1979, it inaugurated the highly controversial BLISS program, which stands for Bagong Lipunan Improvement of Sites and Service, which will be discussed shortly.
Looking into past failed government projects should serve as excellent case analyses from whence we could trace the flaws in project design and execution, and a blueprint for the planning of future projects. One such infamous undertaking was Imelda Marcos’ ambitious project Urban BLISS. Entailing the construction of professionally-designed, multi-storey apartment housing which would have the capacity of accommodating up to 48 families for every hectare of land, one such settlement area was envisioned for each town and city in the country (Keyes 1983). It was an ambitious project, but it far from solved the country’s housing problem. While it was intended to provide low cost housing for the poor, which comprised four-story tenement blocks that came out so expensive that only the upper 10 percent of the people of Metro Manila could afford them. Overall, the BLISS program, together with other government-funded housing projects and indirect provident fund schemes like PAG-IBIG, has had negligible impact on housing allocations. They were found to favor middle-income households, especially government employees, and sometimes even at the expense of the poor In total, an output of less than 2,500 units were created and many squatter houses were abolished to make more room for them (Antonilao 2001).
US Library of Congress. Accessed on the World Wide Web at http://countrystudies.us/philippines/34.htm
Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report On Human Settlements 2003. Accessed on the World Wide Web at
Makil, P. No Space in the City for the Country’s Poor. Sta. Ana: Human Development and Research Documentation. 1982
Antonilao, Lou. Culture of Improvisation: Informal Slum Settlements and Slum Upgrading in a Metro Manila Locality. IPC Reports (Inst. Of Phil. Culture, ADMU) (2004): 51-83.
Keyes, W.J. and M.C. Burcroft. Housing The Urban Poor. IPC Poverty Research Series No.4 (Quezon City, Ateneo de Manila University)
Keyes, W.J. (1993). Philippine Shelter System and Human Settlements. Human Settlements Series, Monograph Series No.1.