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Strengthen community mortgage program to help DHSUD meet target

The Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) reports that in the first seven months of its flagship Pambansang Pabahay Para sa Pilipino Housing (4PH) Project, it has had 17 groundbreaking ceremonies in different parts of the country. More than 80 partnerships with local government units have been forged, mostly for the construction of mid- to high-rise residential buildings that, the DHSUD says, will provide “decent yet affordable” housing to informal settler families. We will have to wait a few more months—or maybe years—to see the architects’ renditions of these buildings come to life.

Whether the department will achieve its target of producing one million housing units in multilevel buildings for the first year of the 4PH is uncertain, but it may be able to do that by giving the same attention and resources to other government shelter programs. One of them is the Community Mortgage Program or CMP. The Social Housing Finance Corp. (SHFC), a government-owned and -controlled corporation, administers the program. But low-income housing advocates and practitioners are concerned that with the DHSUD’s privileging of the 4PH, the 35-year-old housing approach would be overlooked.

In a nutshell, the CMP lends funds to informal settlers, organized with the help of nongovernment organizations or local government agencies called “mobilizers,” to acquire privately owned land which they have been occupying illegally for years or on which they wish to build new houses. The program addresses the lack of access to affordable housing finance, a basic problem facing the low-income and informally employed in cities.

The sense of empowerment it builds among the organized communities has been CMP’s biggest strength. The process—from complying with the requirements to putting up collective savings and enforcing rules for living in the community—enables the poor to exercise control over common interests and shared concerns. Moreover, by allowing families to first obtain legal tenure on a piece of land and gradually improve their houses and neighborhood, the program suits the capacities of very poor households, the very target of CMP. This incremental approach of the CMP makes housing within the means of the beneficiaries.

Since its inception, the CMP has assisted more than 350,000 families, which SHFC calls “partner homeowners.” This may not be an impressive accomplishment, but this partly reflects how our socialized housing policy has leaned more toward relocating families to far-flung areas with no access to water and electricity or convenient and affordable transportation. Instead of allocating a higher budget for CMP (or similar slum upgrading programs), past administrations tended to pour more money into off-city resettlement projects with very low repayment rates. The DHSUD says it is avoiding this mistake by building condominiums within the city. But why not increase the funds for CMP? Why not restart the mandatory yearly appropriations to the CMP, like what the Comprehensive and Integrated Shelter Financing Act made available in the ’90s?

According to the 2018 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, 2.45 million Filipinos are informal settlers. We do not know how many of them illegally occupy privately owned properties whose owners are willing to sell their land at an affordable price. We do not know how many prefer acquiring a piece of land in an entirely new site because the selling price of the property they occupy is too high. SHFC must reach out to these families, and it can do so if it has the resources to lend to interested and organized communities.

If given proper attention, the demand-driven and community-focused CMP might efficiently and effectively meet not only the bold annual targets of the DHSUD but also the most basic needs of many vulnerable informal settlers in our cities. ■

First published as a Letter to the Editor in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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