After Years of Living as Squatters, These Filipino Neighbors Fought for Nice, New Homes in Their Community—And Won

When the Manila government proposed relocating squatter families out of the city, residents came together and asked for housing in their own neighborhood.

A traditional squatter settlement in Manila. Photo by Mr. Wood / Flickr.

This article was originally created for Making Contact.

Down a narrow alleyway in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is the squatter community of Estero de San Miguel. Although the primary passageway is only five or six feet wide, the neighborhood itself is often bustling with activity. Kids play basketball with homemade hoops and neighbors lean out their windows, watching the world go by. A hundred families, or about 500 people, live here in homes hammered together out of flimsy plywood and corrugated tin.

Their future homes will be  equipped with a bathroom, indoor plumbing, and electricity.

In Manila, more than 500,000 people live as squatters, or as they call themselves, informal settler families. Because they don’t have land titles, their right to live in their homes is regularly challenged by the government and private landowners. Despite this, some of Manila’s informal settlers have found power in numbers and wielded their electoral weight to their advantage.

Estero de San Miguel is typical of squatter settlements in Manila. Electricity is jumped from a main line and there is no plumbing. The canal is gray and murky from the sewage of makeshift homes, and the area floods pretty badly during typhoons. The water doesn’t smell great and the houses aren’t much to look at, but the people who live here love their neighborhood

“We like to live here because it is practical,” said Filomena Cinco, the elected leader of Estero de San Miguel. Cinco says being close to schools, hospitals, markets, and churches make the neighborhood an ideal place for local families to live. And besides the prime location, they’ve built a strong sense of camaraderie over the decades they’ve been there.

“If a family doesn’t have any food to cook, then we all get together and give food to that family,” Cinco said. “If someone loses their job, we help them out. We give him something to do, like clean the canal in exchange for some money. It’s a system of support, support of each other.”

In Tagalog, this system is called bayanihan, or communal work. When the whole neighborhood burned down a few years ago, residents got together and rebuilt each other’s homes within a week. And when an older neighbor had to go to the hospital, the community collected money to pay for her bill. For the families that live in Estero de San Miguel, that social togetherness is something worth fighting for.

“We’ve stood our ground over a relocation before,” Cinco said. “To show them how serious I was, I said, ‘Over my dead body.’ If you take down one roof or a single nail, or demolish anything, there’s going to be a revolution. We stood our ground—not just me, but the whole community.”

For decades the Philippine government had a policy of relocating squatter families “off-city,” to the outer reaches of Manila. But the relocation sites seldom had the economic infrastructure that attracted squatters to the city in the first place. There were no nearby schools, hospitals, or markets, so many ended up moving back to the urban center and starting another cycle of squatting.

People like Cinco are willing to put up with substandard housing in Manila to be close to the things they need to live. And the dependence goes both ways—residents of these neighborhoods often work jobs that the city needs in order to function. Many work as sidewalk vendors, pedicab drivers, security guards, or carpenters. Informal settler families are an important part of the economic fabric of Manila; they’re just not paid enough to live in it. Even if community members are government employees, their salaries are minimal.

“We also have skilled workers and professional workers here because many of our children have graduated also in colleges, and now they are private employees and some of them are working with the government,” Cinco said. But even if community members are government employees, Cinco said their salaries are minimal.

The minimum wage for someone with a steady job in Manila is 466 pesos, or about $10 a day. But many people don’t have regular work. Most are forced to cobble together an unstable living and rely on sporadic jobs. This type of work makes it difficult to commit to paying rent, which even at a few thousand pesos a month is already out of reach for squatter families.

But however poor Manila’s squatters are, they’re not powerless.

“If there are a lot of you, you can pressure the government,” said Luz Sudueste, a member of Urban Poor Associates (UPA). The organization helps communities like Estero de San Miguel organize and form a united front to lobby the government for squatter’s rights.

“It’s a matter of how many of you there are struggling against the issue,” said Sudueste. “If there are only a few of you, there’s no way to influence the government. You need a burst.”

Informal settler families are an important part of the economic fabric of Manila.

Several squatter communities of Manila banded together in 2010, when the government started an initiative of mass relocation of their communities. About 900 people died as a result of severe flooding in Manila back in 2009, and the aim of the initiative was to move families out of harm’s way. But when the government turned to faraway relocation sites as a solution, residents like Cinco weren’t happy.

With help from Urban Poor Associates, the informal settlers approached Benigno Aquino III, who was running for president at the time. They offered him the electoral support of the urban poor in exchange for an open dialogue on demolition, relocation, and decent housing. In May of 2010, Aquino won the presidency and Cinco’s settlers had an ally.

The Aquino government doesn’t outwardly acknowledge the electoral deal and sometimes even denies it. But it’s an open secret that the government has been hearing out the squatters’ demands. Rather than accepting a distant relocation site, the people of Estero de San Miguel proposed an alternate plan to the government and were awarded government-subsidized housing that’s a five-minute walk from their current settlement.

Their future homes will be concrete, three stories tall, and equipped with a bathroom, indoor plumbing, and electricity. The new structures are also designed to be earthquake-safe and built outside of the area’s flood zones. Families will pay between 500 and 1,000 pesos a month ($1-$22 U.S.), to live in their new homes.

The buildings are painted bright pink, turquoise, and blue. The children of Estero de San Miguel have started a mural on one of the newly built walls.

“It’s important to us because we inherited being squatters from our grandparents,” Cinco said. “We don’t want to pass that on to our children, and our grandchildren, and even the generation after that. We want their dignity as a family, as people, to be returned to them.”

There are still more than 100,000 families living along Manila’s waterways, all of whom are slated for relocation in 2015. But for Estero de San Miguel and a couple dozen other squatter communities, their in-city relocation is a victory.