Slum upgrading in the Philippines: Where there is political will, there is a way!

Cebu City is the second largest urban center in the Philippines and has its share of illegal settlements spread along the coasts and within the texture of the cities. Governmental interventions range from slum eviction to rehabilitations and relocation, with local Government agencies given the higher levels of decision-making powers.

Last week, I had the chance to visit Lorega, one of the informal settlements in Cebu where a slum upgrading project had been recently initiated post a fire that destroyed most of the settlement.

Lorega is located in one of the prime property areas of Cebu, few minutes away from the famous Ayala Mall development, an important landmark for every Cebuan. The encroached Lorega site is property of the Municipality and was occupied in the 80's.

Interestingly almost half of the site was a cemetery that was slowly occupied over the years. The entire site consisted of about 750 families of which about 400 were located in the cemetery area. The tombs weren’t removed and in fact, being stone platforms raised couple of feet from the ground, were being used as beds.

My first impression is of a very lively site with some large empty pockets, a road network easy to identify and almost all occupants involved in self-construction housing activity. This is the burst of building was a consequence of a fire on 18th March destroyed that almost all the houses, leaving majority of the families without shelter.

Role of Department of Welfare in Community Mapping

The most fascinating aspect has been the community mapping process for the cemetery area undertaken under the leadership of the Department of Welfare (DWUP). This process wasn't planned or prescribed following policies on good practice, but rather the result of the imperative and urgency needed to find a solution by the stakeholders concerned.

Atty. Collin Rosell, head of DWUP explained that after the bulldozers cleaned up the site immediately after the fire (removing all the tombs and collecting all the remains in a container that was still parked in one corner of the site when I visited), he had to confront hundreds of families that on a near empty plot of land where demanding a piece of land and claiming to be affected families.

The obvious issue was that the number of families was more that what it should have been. Other homeless people, mostly squatting in adjacent locations saw the opportunity to get some security and start to occupy the area along with the indigenous families.

As the land was property of the Government, DWUP saw the opportunity to solve the illegality of the site and assign each family a lot. (In the same fashion, the other part of the Lorega site was previously redesigned after a fire in the 1998 that affected the area adjacent the Cemetery one.)

Mr. Collin Rosell, aware of the problem, came up with a solution. First he requested all families (with the help of a megaphone and its team) to create a map and move approximately in the same spot were their house was. At this point he said that he could see that some families looked puzzled and didn’t really know where to go. After this first cut, where some non-original resident left, he said that he could still see some, squeezed between other families.

The second step was then to create group of 10 families and ask them to guarantee for all the other 9 neighbors. Here the rule was that if the DWUP would have found even one of these families to be non-original during future assessments, all the group would have been cancelled from the program and obliged to leave. The tactic of community pressure and collateral worked; the families found the courage to point out the non-community members and the final list of families where identified and placed on the map. The most impressive aspect of this process is that it was all done in matter of one day… not a long cumbersome mapping process that is sometimes overwhelming for all concerned.

Designing the new site program- negotiating plot sizes and financial access

The redesign of the site took place to bring in a road and pedestrian network and dividing the left over area between families. As per the new program, families will have to buy the plot and the municipality will facilitate the access to finance with banks and other micro-finance institutions. Only the families that will fulfill their obligation (usually a monthly payment up to 30 years) will be final beneficiaries and will receive the title ownership of the plot.

The results of the new site design are 3 larger pockets (where the DWUP is partnership with Habitat for Humanity Philippines to build G+3 social apartments) that will be used to relocate families currently living on coastal areas, while the rest are mostly plots of 3x4 mt.. These small plots, although not in the same position of the original tombs, are in line with their original land size.

Mr. Collin explains that the size of the plot could not be higher if he wanted to accommodate the community on the same site. Since in the Philippines the minimum size for a social unit is 32 sqm, the agreement with the community has been to take the12 sqm plots in groups of 3 while registering as one, while in parallel make families (again in group of 3) signing an informal agreement to share the plot in equal parts. The families can build up to two floor that would give greater carpet area.

While the DWUP has informed the beneficiaries to occupy the plot, they have also requested to build only temporary structure with the intention to bring in a builder to construct the final units.

While there are many aspects of the process that could have been improved upon, but the pro-activeness of local government agencies must be appreciated. As far as I could see most families are investing permanent structures and some have already reached G+2 (the height limit for the units). Mr. Collin explains that not everyone believes the government will come and build as quickly as promised and they didn’t want the chance to wait for years in a tent. From what I see this time they may be wrong.

Marco Ferrario, co-founder mHS is currently working as a Consultant with Habitat for Humanity in the Philippines


I really feel dismal when seeing this kind of place not just in Philippines. I believe their government is doing great solution for that situation.

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