Jose Morales has made an unusual vow: He’ll have a set of false teeth made for him once he and 2,610 families in barangay Dona Imelda get their new homes in Quezon City, the most populous part of Metro Manila.
Morales, one of the informal settlers living under a bridge on Araneta Avenue in Dona Imelda, only has two front teeth, but no one dares make fun of him. When he speaks, everyone listens. A leader of a people’s organization in their area, the Ugnayang Lakas ng mga Apektadong Pamilya sa Baybayin ng Ilog Pasig at mga Tributaries, Dona Imelda (ULAP-Dona Imelda), he can go toe-to-toe with seasoned lawmakers with his firm grasp of legislative procedures and his passionate style of debate. Morales’s voice thunders when he talks, but he laces his words with humor and self-deprecation.
“I don’t know why they suddenly want me to be handsome,” he jokes. “They told me I should have my teeth fixed because I will now appear on TV. But I will only do that once I see our homes built already.”
The homes Morales is referring to are the medium-rise buildings (MRBs) that he and the organization in Dona Imelda have envisioned in the People’s Plan.
The People’s Plan is an alternative housing plan that organizations of informal settlers have prepared and presented to government authorities. Its main objective is to prove to officials that in-city or on-site relocation is plausible. This is the opposite of the government’s typical go-to plan, which is to uproot informal settlers from Manila and transfer them to the provinces. The people’s plan is an old tool for empowering informal settlers, but Morales said it is only under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III that it has been given attention.
The Plan was part of the contract Aquino signed with the Urban Poor Alliance, or UP-ALL, the biggest coalition of urban poor organizations in Manila, a coalition that Morales’s own organization belongs to. Morales said it was in 2009 — a year before the 2010 presidential elections — that Aquino signed the covenant with them, which states that he will support in-city relocation. Prior to this, said Morales, as a senator Aquino also helped them push for the amendment of the UDHA, the Urban Development Housing Act.
During the heat of the 2010 campaign, Aquino would bring Morales to political gatherings and refer to him as his “best friend,” Jessica Amon of the Community Organizers’ Multiversity said. COM helped ULAP-Dona Imelda organize themselves in 2009.
Morales said Aquino has not left them hanging with his promise to prioritize in-city relocation, but a recent move by the administration could trigger difficulties in realizing the People’s Plan.
The government has been aggressively pushing for the relocation of some 104,000 families that live along riverbanks or estuaries so that waterways would not be constricted, a policy initiated following the 2009 flooding of Metro Manila by Typhoon Ketsana. The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) said it would give families living within the three-meter easement of riverbanks or waterways P18,000 ($412 USD), which they could use to pay rental fees while living somewhere else for one year. The idea is for them to have the funds to move to a temporary shelter and leave their houses, which are situated along flooding zones. The government said they could return to the area once their new MRB homes had been built.
But the move has been heavily criticized. The idea of giving informal settlers $412 in “rental funds” was slammed as a buy-off by urban-poor advocates. And judging from the reactions from the public, the kerfuffle has also shown the informal settlers in a bad light.
“It’s a divide-and-conquer tactic,” said Morales, adding that some informal settlers wanted to take the money while others did not. Morales, for his part, believes the people should not take it. “We don’t need P18,000. We need our homes.”
“Our homes are our economy,” he added. “We don’t want to move because this is where our jobs and lives are.”
His organization could also lose members — it would be a challenge to monitor where those families who have to leave would be transferred to. Morales is concerned that some might not return at all.
What worries Morales the most, however, is that these families aren’t “organized.” As members of ULAP-Dona Imelda, they have a mechanism to bargain with authorities, contribute to the development of their new houses and have a say in building their communities. But once they’re scattered to other locations, they won’t have the same political power.
Morales said one possible solution could be to move all the affected families to a single area. All of them would be on that site for a year, until the MRBs are finished. That way the community can remain intact and the organization can keep track of how they are doing.
The primary objective is to make sure that the spirit of empowerment stays with them. This is vital, said Morales, as the people fought hard to create a paradigm shift in the complex issue of relocation in the first place. The case of Dona Imelda is considered an example of how resettlement could work, as this is the closest to having a relocation site that was designed, paid for and managed by informal settlers.
To keep this spirit alive, they used a technique called backtracking — they held a groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the future MRBs long before they sorted out the thorny issues of property ownership and land suitability. No less than the mayor of Quezon City and then-DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo attended the ceremony in 2012. Morales recalled how he convinced Aquino to approve the groundbreaking. “I drank wine to have the guts to tell him our plan,” he said.
The plan worked. They held the groundbreaking ceremony in January 2012, two years after Aquino won. That event, said Morales, “maintained the optimism of the people.” They still, however, have to find a way to convince the owner of the land to donate it to them, then raise their own funds to have the soil tested to find out if it can support a five-story building. The challenges don’t end there. They have to clarify what the three-meter easement covers, decide how they’ll manage the building, and even before that, find a way to make sure the $412 rental fee from the government doesn’t divide them.
Morales believes they will accomplish all of this and protect the integrity of the People’s Plan. He is a hands-on leader, and said the demands of being one has kept him from having a regular job. He receives an allowance for serving as a consultant to DILG on the urban poor, but it is only enough for his transportation expenses. “My wife is the breadwinner now,” he said.
But no regrets. All Morales wants to do now is to prove that the People’s Plan can work. When that time comes, he’ll have his teeth on, ready for a big smile.