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The daunting task of providing decent shelter in a bustling city
by Jane Cadalig

Even the so-called “Government Center” within the central business district in Baguio has been occupied by informal settlers like those who built their homes within the city-owned property along Harrison Road. -- Harley Palangchao

The City Government of Baguio is not taking literally President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncement that his administration will not tolerate the demolition of informal settlers’ dwellings if local government units have not established resettlement sites for them.

Given the complexity of the squatting problems in Baguio City, the LGU cannot afford to interpret the President’s pronouncement verbatim.

The city government is not only dealing with informal settlers who have built their structures on road-rights-of-way or along creeks or estero, as what informal settlers in other areas and in the Metro do. The city is also dealing with informal settlers who have crept into government reservations – areas that were proclaimed as such because they either play vital roles in sustaining the lives of the city’s more than 300,000 residents and in maintaining a sound ecosystem for the city or they were segregated for purposes other than residential.

Thus, when Duterte said he will not allow LGUs to merely demolish illegal structures without allotting relocation areas for the informal settlers, the city government refuses to take the pronouncement in its literal sense.

Mayor Mauricio Domogan believes the President’s “no relocation, no demolition policy,” which he reiterated in his first State of the Nation Address in July, is intended for LGUs to comply with the provisions of Republic Act 7279 or the Urban Development Housing Act (UDHA) of 1992.

The UDHA, which is anchored on the Constitutional provision on Social Justice and Human Rights, provides that the State, in cooperation with the private sector, should formulate urban land reform and housing programs and provide decent and affordable housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and in resettlement areas.

The law provides that the urban or rural poor dwellers should not be evicted from their homes, or their dwellings should not be torn down, unless such is done in accordance with the law and in a just and humane manner. It adds that resettlement of urban or rural dwellers should be carried out only after consultations with them and the communities where they are to be relocated.

“I think what the good President means is for LGUs to strictly comply with the provisions of RA 7279 and not really for LGUs to not demolish illegal structures if they cannot provide relocation areas,” Domogan said in one of his press briefings.

The mayor has reservations on the President’s pronouncement, saying others might take advantage of it.

“Hindi naman puwede na kahit obvious na illegal ang structure, we should not demolish it unless we provide a relocation area for the occupants. If this is the case, then everyone might as well squat on any land because their structures will not be demolished if they are not provided with relocation sites,” Domogan said.

Humane implementation of demolitions

The city government is cognizant of the UDHA provisions, especially the section that provides that demolitions of illegal structures must be undertaken in a manner that respects the human rights of the informal settlers.

Domogan said the city government has to carry out the demolition of illegal structures even if it is faced with difficulties of providing relocation sites for informal settlers. He said unlike other areas, Baguio City cannot readily provide resettlement sites because of its relatively small land area.

“We have no choice but to demolish structures built in total defiance of existing laws. Even if we cannot provide the informal settlers a relocation, we have to demolish their structures, but we make sure that we carry out the demolitions in a humane manner,” he said.

Romel Daguimol, officer-in-charge of the Commission on Human Rights-Cordillera, said Baguio City’s records are clean as far as human rights violations on informal settlers are concerned.

“There are no complaints of human rights violations filed against the city. In fairness to the city government, it follows the procedures before it implements demolitions,” Daguimol said.

He said during demolitions, the CHR makes sure that LGUs observe due process, which is to give notice to the informal settlers first and that no one should be hurt during the actual demolition, among other protocols.

In Baguio, Daguimol said the mandatory pre-demolition conferences are observed before the city carries out actual demolitions. He said no violent incidences have so far been recorded in the implementation of demolition orders.

Small land area

Baguio City’s land area of 57.5 square kilometres or 5,749 hectares is one of the factors that make it difficult for the city government to identify resettlement areas for informal settlers, without compromising lands that could be used for other government needs.

Based on the May 2010 census of the Philippine Statistics Authority, Baguio’s population reached 318,676. The city’s population density or the number of people occupying every square kilometer is 5,542.1, making it one of the most congested cities in the country.

“We cannot readily provide relocation areas for the informal settlers because of our limited space. Baguio is not like other places with vast land areas.

Daguimol said LGUs need not necessarily identify resettlement sites within their jurisdiction.

“The UDHA provides that LGUs can look for other relocation sites even outside their territorial jurisdiction, as long as the areas identified are ideal for settlement. Ideal relocation sites are those that can sustain the lives of people who will be relocated there,” Daguimol said.

Socialized housing for

the genuine urban poor

LGUs across the country are mandated by the UDHA to make available for their constituents socialized or low-cost housing. The program is also eyed as a measure to abate the proliferation of informal settlers.

The city government has an ongoing socialized housing project at Cypress in Barangay Irisan, but Domogan said the project can only accommodate as much.

“The area is not wide, but we hope when the project is done, our constituents will consider availing (themselves of housing units),” the mayor said. He however, clarified that low-cost housing cannot be considered as a relocation program because under low-cost housing projects, only those who are willing to pay can avail themselves of housing units.

The city council has started paying attention to the State’s mandate of providing the urban poor with decent and affordable housing projects. Just recently, members approved on first reading a proposed ordinance that sought the allocation of funds that will be used to bolster the realization of a successful socialized housing program in Baguio.

The measure, authored by Councilor Leandro Yangot, cited the need to establish an Urban Development Housing Fund for the city’s socialized housing program.

“There are still available public and city-owned lands, which may be converted to socialized housing for qualified and deserving lesser fortunate residents of the city as well as employees of the city government who are still renting. With the establishment of an Urban Development Housing Fund, poor and deserving constituents of the city as well as employees of the city government will hopefully see the realization of this worthy program,” the proposed measure stated. It sought the allocation of P10 million as an initial housing fund.

The ordinance was referred to the committee on housing and land use for its action.

The continued protection and preservation of the Busol Watershed from further encroachment by informal settlers is also one of the major challenges that have to be addressed with urgency by incumbent and future officials of Baguio. -- Harley Palangchao

Humanitarian consideration

or lack of political will?

While the city government is bent on protecting its natural resources and other reservations from encroachment, informal settlers who have established their dwellings in reservations have yet to be evicted from the areas they currently occupy. Worse, their number is growing as demolitions remain unsuccessful.

The Busol Watershed Reservation, for example, is yet to be freed from intruders. The 336-hectare watershed is shared by Baguio City and La Trinidad, Benguet. It supplies the water requirement of a huge number of households in Baguio and nearby La Trinidad.

Based on a census conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2007, there are 1,084 structures built within the watershed where 623 are found at the Baguio side and 461 structures are built at the La Trinidad side. However, Rosalio Goze, a volunteer for the city’s environmental programs, in one of the assessment meetings on the squatting problems in Busol, said the data needs to be updated as the number might have changed over the years.

The Supreme Court put an end to the battle between the city government and Busol structure owners when it decided the latter could not be allowed to dwell in the area. Up to now however, the structures there have yet to be torn down.

Another squatting problem faced by the city involves the occupants of the 5,000-square meter lot along Harrison Road who claim ownership of the area that was segregated for the housing needs of students from the different provinces of the Cordillera who came to the city to pursue their college education way back in the ‘60s.

The BIBAK lot, named after the Cordillera provinces Bontoc, Ifugao, Benguet, Abra, and Kalinga, was awarded to the BIBAK Dormitories, Inc., purposely for the housing needs of Cordillera students.

Today, 58 occupants are now claiming ownership of the area. Several demolition orders were issued including those by the past administrations, but the occupants remain in the area. In 2014, the city government again issued a demolition order but occupants challenged the city’s move and invoked their entitlement to the UDHA. They sought the intervention of the Presidential Commission on Urban Poor and asked the latter to halt the city government’s plan of evicting them from the area.

The PCUP, however, found the occupants unqualified for the UDHA provisions as they do not belong to the urban poor.

The city government said it will finally implement the demolition of the illegal BIBAK structures next month.

Squatting at the Baguio Dairy Farm is yet another problem besetting the city government and the Department of Agriculture, which manages the reservation. Latest count of informal settlers within the Dairy Farm reached 322.

The reservation, located in Green Valley, was segregated for livestock production, particularly cow-raising for the production of dairy products.

Informal settlers however intruded into the reservation using the Certificate of Ancestral Land Title (CALT) issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples to the heirs of an Ibaloy claimant as their shield from eviction.

The government challenged this and filed for a nullification of the CALT with the Supreme Court.

The Busol Watershed, the BIBAK lot, and the Baguio Dairy Farm are only among the areas beset with squatting problems.

Intrusions are also rampant along road rights-of-way and on public lands or those tagged as alienable and disposable (A and D) lands. If demolition of structures built on reservations is tough, the same is more difficult on illegal structures built on A and D lands.

Daguimol said while the city government is showing compassion for the informal settlers, it also has to be firm in exercising its power to protect public lands and reservations and tear down structures built without the necessary permits. He said political will is needed in addressing squatting problems.

“Let us take the case of the BIBAK lot as an example. The occupants there clearly do not have the right to be there. They should have been evicted a long time ago. The local government should have evicted them years back,” Daguimol said.

Demolition not easy

The city has not been remiss on issuing several orders to tear down illegal structures but it can hardly implement its demolition plans.

Demolitions have not been successful because the implementation is often blocked by the informal settlers either by setting up barricades or by going to the courts.

In the case of Busol, owners of the illegal structures ran to the NCIP for a restraining order and successfully acquired one. The same was challenged by the city up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the city’s demolition plan is valid. The latest demolition again failed as the informal settlers barricaded their premises.

In the case of the BIBAK lot occupants, they sought help from the PCUP, which held in abeyance the plan of the city government to demolish the structures in 2014. The PCUP eventually agreed with the city government’s plan to implement the demolition after finding out the occupants in the area do not belong to the urban poor. The city government said it will eventually demolish the structures in September this year.

At the Baguio Dairy Farm, the government is waiting for the writ of execution from the court to enable it to carry out the demolition of illegal structures within the reservation.

Visions for Baguio

Several measures have been proposed to address the city’s problem on squatting. One of these is the BLISTT urban development concept, which was proposed for the city after the devastating earthquake that jolted Baguio in 1990.

BLISTT is an acronym for Baguio and its neighboring Benguet towns – La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay, which intends to spread out economic development in these towns, in effect decongesting the city.

The BLISTT remains a work in progress.

During the campaign for the elections in May, mayoralty candidates were asked on how they intend to address the squatting problems in the city.

Then mayoralty bet Edilberto Claravall said instead of the city allowing the construction of high rise buildings for the rich, it would be better for the city government to focus on providing socialized housing for the poor.

The same vision was shared by then mayoralty candidate Jose Molintas who said the city government should build low-cost housing projects outside Baguio and offer these to the city’s informal settlers.

Socialized or low-cost housing has been a staple solution offered by well-meaning groups and individuals, including candidates for elective posts, to the city’s squatting problems.

The vision is very ideal, but its realization remains far-off, especially that among politicians, their plans often take a twist once they are given the mandate.
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