Squatters in Manila

Something I noticed on my first visit to the Philippines two years ago was that people seem to live anywhere there’s room enough to set up shelter.  I thought that there must be no sort of zoning regulations or building codes, both of which would prevent this sort of thing in the US.  I still don’t know if there are building codes and zoning regulations in the Philippines, but I know why there are houses everywhere.  People just do what they want to do and because so many of them do it, it’s too costly for the government to try to stop it; they just ignore it instead.  This has led to a class of people who are locally called ‘squatters’, at least in English.

Squatters are people who don’t own the land they’re living on.  They have no legal agreement, tenancy or title, or anything of the sort.  They just see an area that looks like a good spot for a house (or in some cases just a ramshackle shelter) and they start building with whatever they have the means to afford or acquire.

No area is off-limits to squatters, in their own minds at least.  If there’s a 10 feet of ledge along the top of a sharp ridge by the road, they’ll build on it.  If there’s a space under a bridge, they’ll build on it.  If there’s an empty lot near a major mall that’s not being patrolled regularly, they’ll build on it.

What you wind up with, at least in Manila itself, is something that looks like this:


I don’t remember the name of the area where I took this photo.  It’s where two major train lines intersect and you pass between them using a covered walkway.  One of the protective grills was missing so it gave me the perfect spot to take a photo.  The squatters homes are made of pretty much anything they can find and put to use.

The most bizarre thing about squatters is that they have electricity.  Some of them even have air conditioners and they usually have running water too.  In the interests of earning money, the utility companies in Manila have done installations to provide them with their basic needs, further legitimizing their claims to their homes, and the land they sit on.  Imagine being a politician and trying to shut down all of the areas like this in Manila.  Imagine the public outcry over the ‘inhumanity’ of it.  So, despite the fact that these people don’t own the land, it’s not likely they’ll be removed any time soon.

Montage of Poverty and Upscale Construction

While we were commuting back and forth through the Philippines I noticed something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  The Philippines is like a montage of poverty, middle class, and upper-class establishments and homes.

What I mean is that in, say, the US, you have neighborhoods that are well-to-do.  The houses are all very nice.  Then you have middle class neighborhoods, lower class neighborhoods, and poverty level neighborhoods.  In the commercial areas, everything is fairly well put together.  Everything has a sort of continuity to it.  You see what you expect to see for the area of town you’re in.  Maybe it has something to do with zoning, or with developers buying large plots of land.  I don’t know.

In the Philippines, however, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of zoning.  There doesn’t seem to be any sort of building code either.  You might be standing in front of a popular mall that’s as modern and attractive as any mall in the US or Singapore, but right next to it, or across the street, are buildings that look like they were constructed entirely of plywood and sheet metal.  You could be standing in front of a McDonalds, but when you look down the alley next to it, you see shanties that would make the Red Cross cringe for the lack of quality of life.  It’s an incredibly jarring experience.

This seems to be common to almost every part of the Philippines.  The old and the new, the ultra-poor and the ultra-posh, set up right next to each other.  You can even see this in the housing areas, such as they are.  You might have a nicely built home right next to a house that even bums wouldn’t want to live in, in the US.  From what I can see, as long as the land is yours, you can put whatever you want to on it, of whatever quality you want.  There was one instance where I wondered about whether or not the homes were built legally.  We were riding a bus on the highway between Angeles City and Manila.  The portion of the highway we were on was raised about two stories above the ground.  I’m not sure why it was raised, except maybe that there were quite a few little streams passing below the road.  What caught my attention is that people who were farming the land had set up their houses below the road, in the shade it created.  Maybe laws are different in the Philippines, but I assumed that doing something like that would be considered unsafe and illegal.

There are areas where land developers seem to be trying to build a more modern type of sub-division.  One in particular comes to mind, near the housing area where my wife’s family lives in Antipolo.  It’s walled off, gated, and the houses inside have a modern construction to them.  Just outside the wall, though, is the normal eye-jarring experience.  I’ve also seen posh, walled and gated apartment complexes situated in the middle of an area that looks like a slum.

On my next trip I’ll try to take a few pictures to add to this post as examples.