Aileen Monsale, a resident of Iloilo City, Philippines, lost her home in 2008 after devastating floods hit the low-lying city following Typhoon Fengshen – which many called a “storm of the century.” Like thousands of people in Iloilo City, her family’s home was located on an informal settlement on the most flood-prone land in the city.
Experts predict that sea-level rise is inevitable, and that over 800 million people across 570 cities will be affected by more frequent storms and coastal flooding linked to climate change. Widespread negative impacts are expected including damage to roads, farmland, sanitation systems and mass transit.
To minimize impact, Iloilo City’s local government and community groups, like the city’s chapter of the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines Inc. (HPFPI), have been working for several decades to find an inclusive solution for delivering flood-proofing infrastructure in vulnerable areas, while respecting the needs of urban poor communities living on the water’s edge. Together, their work has evolved into a coalition of stakeholders championing Iloilo City’s Participatory Housing and Development project.
Thanks to these pioneering efforts, today, Monsale lives in a secure brick house in a central location, far from a flood zone. The HPFPI’s work has supported 1,250 households in resettlement projects within the city, providing greater access to employment opportunities, schools and health care facilities.
Iloilo City’s Participatory Housing and Urban Development project demonstrates that it is possible to build resilient cities and homes while improving the quality-of-life for the urban poor – a critical lesson for cities around the world facing similar challenges. Community-led housing projects in Iloilo City have already inspired similar efforts in other cities in the Philippines and the Southeast Asian region.
A Complex Housing Crisis Emerges
With several major flood events affecting the city every year, the local government made flood-proofing Iloilo City – located in the heart of the Philippine archipelago – a priority. However, the much-needed flood control interventions, including new drainage systems and embankments, needed to be constructed in areas along the waterways, where thousands of rural migrants had established informal settlements since the early 2000s.
When city authorities began reclaiming land for flood control, they conducted painful forced evictions of settler communities, who did not have any formal claims to the land. Sonia Cadornigara, who subsequently became a housing activist and community leader, recalls the fear and disruption it caused her family. “Trucks of police and armies were coming down to demolish the house,” she said. “The sound of the demolition is just like a chopper or a helicopter. And I have children, small children. They were very scared and they’re hiding behind my back.”
In many cases, the trauma of forced eviction was followed by relocation to underdeveloped sites outside of city limits – land without infrastructure, housing, and far away from economic opportunities and familiar support networks.
In response, Cardonigara and other community organizers began seeking alternatives and lobbying the local government to change its approach. At the forefront was the HPFPI in Iloilo City, often called “the Federation,” a national organization of community groups focused on housing for the urban poor.
In 2005, HPFPI co-founded the Iloilo City Urban Poor Network (ICUPN), an alliance of local urban poor organizations that would work closely with the local government. At the heart of the new collaboration was the principle that settlements in unsafe conditions and in at-risk areas should be resettled, but that the process must be collaborative, community-driven and not deepen poverty.
In 2007, the Federation led a set of citywide surveys that revealed the magnitude and distribution of the city’s housing challenges, leveraging community organizations for data collection and developing productive relationships between city government and urban poor federations. By 2009, HPFPI estimated 9,700 households lived in informal settlements with no formal tenure, with thousands of additional households classified as ‘urban poor’ based on their housing and living conditions.
The enumeration program and effort to unify community organizers set the stage for the Participatory Housing and Urban Development program, an evolving program of activism, housebuilding, and collaboration with city authorities. Over time, the work of HPFPI and its partners has transformed housing governance in Iloilo City.
The Local Government Listens, Delivers and Collaborates
The election of Mayor Jerry P. Treñas in 2001 marked a turning point in how Iloilo City engaged with its informal communities. As early as 2002, the city committed to promote secure land tenure for families living in informal settlements and purchased a 16.2-hectare parcel for “within city” relocations of households in the path of a major flood-control project. The Treñas administration delivered on its promise of government-banked land, which eventually included 23 sites throughout Iloilo City.
“We started talking about getting a definite percentage of the budget for relocation sites,” Treñas said. “When I was still campaigning, we started talking with different urban poor groups and we committed to involve them in the planning and even in the identification of the relocation sites.”
In 2008, the Iloilo City Urban Poor Network’s collaborative capacity was put to the test when the city was hit by Typhoon Fengshen which submerged 80% of Iloilo City and displaced thousands of families. Community organizations and the city worked according to their strengths: the Federation selected households to be prioritized for new housing, while the government allocated a portion of their relocation site and helped speed up bureaucratic processes.
Creative Community-Sourced Solutions
Over the years, the Federation experimented with different ways of working around the constraints that prevented the urban poor from accessing safe and decent housing. Before the availability of government-banked land, the Federation acquired a 7,000-square-meter foreclosed parcel of land and helped 20 households, evicted from nearby private and public lands, to form the Kabalaka Homeowners Association. Later, in 2009, the Federation took on a much larger housing project, the 157-household Riverview Homeowners Association.
Through these experiments, the Federation developed their community-managed design and construction expertise and established an innovative financing scheme – using community savings and low-interest loans – that enabled urban poor communities to finance land acquisition, housing construction and repairs.
Eufemia Castro, president of the Project 5 Homeowners Association, explained what happened after a particularly damaging flood: “Sonia came here and offered help from [the Federation] … We relayed our problems to them. Then they responded that we could get a loan from them. They offered that we could build a bamboo bridge and that the builders could all come from the community members. Now people and their children no longer had to go through the mud.”
Offering solutions outside of mainstream finance was groundbreaking, as it provided a viable alternative to the central government’s principal housing finance scheme, the Community Mortgage Program, which is not tailored to reach the lowest income segment of the housing market. This work supported the establishment of more than 560 collective savings groups across Iloilo City, with more than 4,500 household members, changing what’s possible for the urban poor.
Rewriting Flood and Housing Governance
Through two decades of dedicated and persistent engagement, the Iloilo City’s HPFPI chapter and its partners were able to impact housing governance at the city level. Over time, its leaders have been invited to serve as representatives of the urban poor on city government boards related to resettlement and disaster risk, as well as act as a recognized stakeholder in city land use planning.
Civil society’s dedicated engagement has changed how government leaders think about housing in Iloilo City. “I believe that having a house that one can call his own or her own is a basic right,” Treñas said.
The 2021-2022 WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities celebrates projects and initiatives showing how to live and thrive in turbulent times. From five finalists, one grand prize winner will be announced February 1, 2023.
Salome Gongadze is the Evaluation, Learning, and Engagement Specialist for WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities.
Anne Maassen is the Global Lead for WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities.