Poor people are losing their homes everywhere


For two days recently, violent clashes broke out between the police and informal settlers resisting the demolition of their homes (about 100 families) in a privately claimed lot in Culiat, Quezon City. These were but the latest of similar scenes in the metropolis and elsewhere in the country.

Demolition – or the threat of it – has become the bane for urban poor families living in mostly makeshift dwellings (with some relatively permanent houses gradually improved over the years) built on lots they do not own. Their perception is that government is not on their side.

Expanding urbanization is accompanied by more demolition moves backed up by the courts. Land values are rising, and the owners of what used to be idle lands settled on by the homeless poor are finding an opportunity to cash in on their properties.

On recent electoral-campaign sorties, I came upon such communities where the residents invariably expressed fears of impending demolition of their homes built on privately owned lots. Local government officials, they complained, have not been sympathetic to their plight.

In one small community in Malanday, Valenzuela City, the residents have organized themselves to deal collectively with the landowner, a family-owned real-estate firm. The latter refuses to recognize their collective action. It has been filing individual court suits and in some instances has obtained orders for eviction or demolition from the municipal trial court. The firm has been collecting a monthly rental of P250 without any written contract. A court order shown to me refers to an “implied” agreement between the landowner and the resident who allegedly had failed to pay the rent over a long period.

In another community in Rodriguez, Rizal, homeowners were surprised when the landowner (who had been intermittently collecting rent) suddenly offered to sell them the lots they are occupying. The catch: the landowner is demanding to be paid in full, outright.

Across the globe, in Brazil, last March 8 (International Women’s Day) the demolition at dawn of a single home turned into a poignant offshoot of renewed mass protests by favela (urban poor community) residents and their supporters in Rio de Janeiro.

Torn down by bulldozers was the home of Maria da Penha in Vila Autodroma, a community built 50 years ago on what used to be a motorcycle racing track. Ironically, later that morning the state legislature honored Penha for her role in “defense of home and community” against the forced eviction of some 170,000 Brazilians since before 2014. The widespread evictions were in connection with the construction of gyms and related facilities for Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup soccer games and the 2016 Olympics starting this August.

Supported by social media, the Rio protesters trooped before the city hall, denounced the mayor and chanted: “We are all Dona Penha!” Community leaders believe the evictions are being carried out because land developers plan to transform their areas into upscale residences for the rich after the Olympics.

In the United States, the living conditions for the homeless poor are no less heart-tugging. A microcosmic view of decrepit housing and residential-landlord profiteering on poverty is provided in a recent book by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who teaches at Harvard University.

The book depicts the conditions in Milwaukee where Desmond had stayed in a trailer park and then a rooming house. He took notes on the lives of people who pay 70-80 percent of their incomes for homes that “objectively speaking, are unfit for human habitation.” He tells the following stories:

• Lamar, a double-amputee handyman, earns $628 a month but pays $550 in rent, leaving only $2.10 daily for his family. When he took over his two-bedroom apartment he found “maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the sink.”

• Larraine, 54, once spent an entire month’s worth of food stamps on expensive seafood washed down with Pepsi in trying “to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure.”

• Landlords call the police when children are noisy and engage in mischief. When an address generates three police calls a month, the landlord is issued a “nuisance citation,” which leads to evicting the tenant family.

• Tenants are often tempted to skip a month’s rent, using the money to buy groceries, or pay a utility bill. A family threatened with eviction can complain about nonworking drains or holes in the wall, and get a chance to protest in court. However, 70 percent of tenants summoned to court don’t appear because they can’t miss work or find someone to look after the children. Or, they don’t receive the summons.

• Eviction scars the children; they are pulled from one school to another. Grown-ups have problems keeping jobs, lacking an address can deny them of benefits for which they are eligible.

• The landlord vacations in the Caribbean while the tenants shiver in the cold in Milwaukee. The trailer park owner makes $400,000 a year, an income “made possible by the extreme poverty of the tenants, who are afraid to complain and lack any form of legal representation.”

It’s a different situation in China, where a huge housing glut contributes to dragging the economy down. State leaders are now coaxing 270 million migrant workers from the hinterlands to buy the vacant houses. Despite offers of liberal terms of payment and socio-economic perks, some workers aren’t biting. They want to return to their rural homes where development has been ongoing. Besides, they say, the cities are just too polluted for them.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in the Philippine Star
March 12, 2016

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