On professional squatters

It’s like saying there’s professional corruption.

It’s that sexy is preferred over ugly. No one’s stopping any one from coining terminologies, if it’s just for the exercise there’s a thousand plus permutations that can be had out of many English words. But, the problem with sexy and politically correct terminologies is that these oftentimes mask and maintain what is in fact ugly. These terminologies are more for the benefit of persons and personalities other than those who are referred to by the terms. Take the ‘politically correct’ term for squatting which is ‘informal settlement’. The term ‘informal settlement’ somehow condones trespassing but then there’s the law on the crime of trespassing – so which is which? It sends out mixed signals, keeping the ‘informal settler’ in a really confused place and the general public blissfully ignorant.

Because the clear-as-day truth is: Squatting or trespassing on and pilfering of property that is not yours (including products of the intellect) is illegal and a crime. Period.

Professional squatters, supposedly, are so named because of their unique work objective which is to protect (amateur?) squatters from eviction by property owners, for a fee. How, you wonder, these professionals are able to carry out their objective when, in this country, trespassing on properties is criminalized? Common sense will tell you they can’t, unless they’re connected and/or are themselves protected by like-minded professionals higher up.

This makes the profession as sticky and sinister as the Mafia. The fact that these professionals pick on the homeless, gullible, and lacking-in-choices migrant poor — the apt description, whether or not they are aware of this in themselves, is depraved. And the irony is not lost. They’re quite the professionals there.

Let’s take as example the squatting on the QC property, formerly owned by a national government agency, the National Housing Authority, who later sold it to Ayala Land, the current property owner. It is reported that squatting on the property has been possible no thanks to professional squatters.

But that’s old news. What was not mentioned in the news is, what did the then property owner, the NHA, do about it? Apparently, whatever the NHA did, the trespassers stayed, for years, too. And this is the crux of the squatting problem in this country.

What are owners doing about the squatting on their properties, especially at the first instance that trespassing occurred? The law is on their side in this. The fact that one or two trespassers on the first instance mushroomed into thousands over the years — the first thing off my mind – or any observer’s for that matter – is that the property owner has been negligent.

Or —

This is a speculation and only to demonstrate a point: An informal arrangement may have been in order, which is, within the time that the property was idle, trespassing was allowed or tolerated, for a fee (in effect, squatters pay for the right to trespass – also illegal, which if the poor knew better should render the contract null and void). It is difficult to process mentally that the NHA, being then the property owner, remained unknowing of the squatting on its property – the physical evidence is glaring – or impassive to whoever allowed the entry of trespassers. If I were the property owner, I’d go ballistic the first instance. As to the trespassers, the question is, do the rural poor migrating to a relatively new environment, a mega city, just up and squat on a property there? Common sense will tell you, it’s highly improbable and not as easily. So, prior to their arrival in the Metro, they must have been tipped off and connected with professionals there who can provide them safe and carte blanche access on a property. This news about “guardian angels” in the city always travel fast and far, and before you know it, there’s a colony on the property.

The point of this illustration is that professional squatters are entrenched, within a wicked structure, from which they derive their power and continuity.

Professional squatters and squatting are clearly not sexy. Or politically correct. It is criminal.

The (amateur?) squatters (or, informal settlers if you like) are both victims and perpetuators (by their gullible assent) of the crime of trespassing. They are dragged into the crime. Like the temptation of Adam and then Eve. They are made to believe trespassing is an option. They are made to believe that the city is the wilderness of old where pioneers claim the land and settle. Everyone involved in the trespassing can unceasingly point at and blame each other, but the truth is unflinching, murder is murder. The mastermind(s) will have to receive the greatest penalty, of course. But thing is the spotlight in the squatting problem is trained only at the (amateur?) squatters.

What if there were no professional squatters and property owners do not tolerate trespassing what will happen to the poor migrating to the city? Well, as with the rest of the migrants, rich or poor, they will have to review their options seriously: if they decide to go to the city, they will have to think about renting a place for some time at least and calculate whether or not their work or livelihood in the city will afford them a semblance of decent living; otherwise, they will have to postpone their plan of moving into the city until such time that they have better means to carry out that plan. Or, if the mega city is beyond their means they could opt for alternative locations they can afford at the same time where their desire for a more vibrant community can be fulfilled. These decision points are precisely what the squatters are forced to face, later, when the property owner has finally woken from its slumber to shoo them away. The sooner the migrating poor review their goals vis-a-vis their capacities, the better.

For urban managers – city halls – this means housing should address the needs of a wide range of consumers. The hotels provide a model: there are the hotel brands catering to those who can easily pay up PHP10,000+ per night, brands for those limited to the PHP2,000+ per night, and so on. Housing options, as shaped by the private sector, in the Metro is limited and skewed toward catering to people who are making more than PHP50,000 monthly and prefer condo living. Condo living, though I love its allure in the glossies, clashes with my type of personality. I can probably stay in it one week max and beyond that I’ll expire. There is happiness derived from having a space that wholly satisfies your needs and preferences. Your living space is and should be your happy place, one which you can’t wait to go home to. When I was working in the Metro, I’ve a very specific preference which is, a loft or renovated warehouse – I like open floor plans – with floor-to-ceiling (or large) windows toward a large body of water (preferably with little pollution — maybe Manila Bay) or toward an open green space (maybe a park) but I couldn’t find one, given there was my day job and I only had the weekends off to look (information pertaining to housing in the city, whether for sale or rent, is in need of much improvement, by the way). I can’t be looking forever and so, much to my unhappiness, I had to contend with available housing options there. It has come to my notice as well that majority of young workers in the City have very little option — mostly they have to contend with bedspacing, three or four in a room. (The analogy here is, if young urbanites making PHP20,000-50,000+ monthly are bedspacing, can you imagine the deal for people who are making less than USD2 daily?) I’m not sure how this living design and use of small space figure with standards in the national Building Code and local building standards, but I admire these workers’ capacity to tolerate – and be really happy – sharing a bedroom with relative strangers 24/7 for so long a time, years! But many do it for practical reasons, it is so much cheaper than sharing a condo. And let’s not forget retirees who’d prefer a smaller house, in a more quiet neighborhood, where they can maintain an active lifestyle appropriate to their physical and social needs. Back to housing catering to those making PHP50,000+ monthly. Obviously, the migrating rural poor are out of the current housing equation here. So, yes, a wider array of housing options in cities and towns.

I’ve come across informal settlers who like to return to their hometowns but were ashamed to because they’d be returning no better than when they first came to the City. Folks apparently believed (or are made to believe) that living in the city is like striking gold, and who are we to put a clamp on this dream? That is the promise of the city — get a job in the city, work hard, and you’ll strike gold. (If I don’t believe this, then the theories of Habermas, Lefebre, etc. might as well be filed under Mythology and urban planning and management phased out of the academe!) When the Metro or cities in the country do not come up to par to what folks dream them to be, their alternative is to get out of the country. This in turn highlights a disturbing disparity — that folks who leave and work abroad in jobs even as “lowly” as a cook are soon able to buy a house and lot back in their hometowns whereas the long-time farmer, choosing to stay, even if he produced for others and worked his ass off until his death could not afford even a square meter of land or get his children into good schools. Heart breaking.

Delving even deeper, the decision of the rural poor to migrate in the Metro or cities, especially when this is made without thoughtful preparation, reflects the stifling and less vibrant socio-economic and political situation in rural Philippines they can’t wait a day longer to get away from, which is another subject altogether.

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