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What Type of Project Is Appropriate?

Three general approaches can be taken when upgrading: upgrade in place, clear and redevelop, and clear and relocate. Considerations in deciding include the impact of highrises and the poor when redeveloping or relocating, the notion of ‘temporary’ upgrading in particularly problematic areas, and demolition.

A Story

High Rises and the Poor

Excerpt from:
Housing by People. Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. No 12, April, 1999, p 9.

Editors’ Note:
Housing by People is a rich source for news about planning and development at the ground level. It is published by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Somsook Boonyabanch, Secretariat, Maurice Leonhardt, TP. 73 Soi Sonthiwattana 4, Ladprao 110, Bangkok 10310, Thailand, Telephone: (662) 538 0919, Fax: (662) 539 9950, E-mail:

Vitas Housing in Tondo:
How NOT to Design a Medium-Rise Building for the Poor

What happens when poor people who live on the ground, are 'upgraded' into flats that are up in the air? There are some obvious benefits in "going up," since more people can be packed into less land. But it's expensive, hard to maintain and the complex web of connections which knit poor communities together do not always survive the transition from street to sky.

The National Housing Authority's enormous Vitas Housing Project was built in Tondo, Manila, in the 1980s to resettle families displaced by the Port Authority's new container terminal. Ten of the project's 27 buildings were allocated for socialized housing while the rest were sold on the open market. The brand-new, engineer-designed, pink-painted buildings were inaugurated in 1990, and marked a revival of NHA's medium-rise housing program.

A recent study by Urban Poor Associates examines the project's planning, design, construction and management, and uses extensive interviews with residents to find out how the occupants are adapting to a “vertical environment.” In a time when many slum redevelopment programs are opting for similar high-density housing types, the study makes a valuable catalogue of all the things NOT to do.*

It's hard to imagine a project doing more wrong than Vitas, which in just nine years has deteriorated into what one Manila journalist called "a nuthouse." The buildings are falling apart, uncollected garbage is piling up, walls and roofs in every unit leak, drains are clogged, broken sewage stacks ooze excrement, stairways are crumbling, gangster-like syndicates have taken control of the supply mains and extract fees for water and electricity. Forty-three percent of the occupants are no longer paying their rent or making their mortgage payments, and nearly half perceive their stay in Vitas as temporary, “until they can no longer bear to stay, or the NHA throws them out for not paying.” Court cases against the NHA, and by the NHA, abound.

Almost every aspect of the project seems to destroy community rather than create it. Physical segregation of different types of "beneficiaries" has exacerbated "us and them" divisions within Vitas. Some residents are extremely poor relocatees from nearby Smokey Mountain (the former city dump), who continue sorting recyclable waste within the grounds, to the chagrin of better-off neighbors who bought their units at market rates, and who resent their mortgage payments subsidizing these scavengers.

Vitas Housing Project, Philippines.

Vitas Housing Project, Philippines.

Sketch of bay units

Vitas Housing Project, Philippines.
Typical 1-bay (18sq.m.) and
2-bay (36sq.m.) units.

Contact between neighbors on different floors is due mostly to quarrels. In one instance, a woman hacked down her upstairs neighbor's door with a jungle bodo when there was a leak. Unoccupied buildings elsewhere have been invaded by squatters and social divisions throughout the project have made the entire area into a war-zone. Drugs, crime and violence are getting worse, kids are kept locked inside their small units for safety. Only 33% of the residents belong to one of the 18 residents organizations which have formed in different buildings. There is no project-wide community association.
Vitas Site Plan

Vitas Housing Project, Philippines.
Site Plan.

The real bad guy at Vitas is not design. The buildings there aren't much different from the standard walkup tenements you find all over Asian cities, and not all of them are this bad.

What if strong, organized communities had been central in the planning, allotment and management of the Vitas housing project? If people had felt they had a stake in Vitas, if they felt this was their own community, would things have gotten so out of hand?

*Urban Poor Associates can be reached by contacting: Urban Poor Associates, Ananeza Aban, Ana Marie Dizon, 80-A, Malakas Street, Barangay Pinyahan, Diliman, Quezon City 1116, Philippines, Telephone: (632) 426 4119/926 6755 Fax: (632)426 4118, E-mail:

Temporary Upgrading?

The Newspaper Headline:

“Tragedy that was predictable: Shacks of Venezuelan poor perched precariously on hills. An estimated 5,000 people died in December when heavy rains triggered mudslides on hills surrounding Caracas, washing away many squatter settlements.”

“Sure I knew it was dangerous. But it’s the land I live on. Only the rich get to choose,” said Andres Eloy Guillen, 32, a squatter living on mudslide prone hillsides surrounding Caracas, Venezuela.
- The Boston Globe, December 20, 1999, p A8.

Is it conceivable that upgrading can be carried out on a temporary basis? Can minor improvements be prudent even when the location is clearly inappropriate and even unsafe?
The Story

Bart Jones, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, December 20, 1999. p 8.

Nearly half of Caracas’s 6 million people live in shacks perched precariously on the slopes of surrounding mountains. Specialists say that people should not be living on the mountainside at all, because its surface often gives way from heavy rains and mudslides are common. Houses are makeshift, built of scrap materials, tin sheets for roofs, with minimum services, if at all.

Millions of poor Venezuela's illegally invaded the mountains in recent decades, settling on the only land available. The invasions started several years ago when waves of poor migrated to the capital in search of work and a better life. Officials tried to stop the influx and sporadically tried to oust them. An effective housing plan was never found. Moreover, once squatters were firmly established, authorities helped consolidate them by granting home improvement loans, installing public services and providing other services.

But above all, the location is ideal from a standpoint of employment opportunities.

But not only the poor squatters suffered: bribes to officials allowed the construction of upscale neighborhoods on the hillsides in these dangerous zones, and now most are buried also.

Photo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Many other cities also exhibit precariously located settlements. Settlements in dangerous areas are widespread.

What are the Issues to address?

When is it appropriate?
What do you do?
What don't
you do?
How long is temporary?

Consider areas clearly inappropriate for use but with a history of clearance and subsequent rebuilding?

Consider the range of inappropriate location:

- in riverbeds: subject to flooding
- on hillsides: mudslide danger

Difficulty in upgrading:
- on bedrock, costly to install utilities in standard manner
- very unclear tenure

- areas intended for other uses: ROWs, public space
- watershed areas

Encourage improvements that can be taken along when moving. Perhaps encourage the use of movable structures?

Make ‘minor improvements’ necessary for the short lifespan of the area: but what could these be?

Address basic health concerns?

Whatever is done, stress that measures are only temporary.

No heavy capital investments, no long-term projects: nothing that will give the false perception that the area will be made permanent

Is Demolition the Way to Go?

Excerpted from:
Shelter, Infrastructure, and Services for the Poor in Developing Countries: Some Policy Options. UNCHS (Habitat). (Nairobi: UNCHS (Habitat), 1987) 5-7.

Slum Clearance and Public Housing

For nearly 40 years, developing countries sought to solve the problems of poverty and housing deficiencies by removing the poor from slum neighbourhoods and rehousing them in more durable shelter. The failure of these policies led many developing countries during the 1960s and 1970s to try massive public housing construction. The problems of the poor were defined primarily by the condition of their housing, and the solution was to construct public units with relatively low rents. Again, neither services nor employment opportunities were usually provided, and the results were equally disappointing. The cost of public housing construction was high and rentals were expensive. As a result, these policies benefited middle-income rather than the poorest families. Most slum dwellers were merely pushed from cleared sites to other parts of the city. In Madras, India, for example, slums containing more than 58,000 families were cleared between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s, replacing their shanties with public housing tenements. As in many other cities that attempted to solve shelter problems through public housing programmes, the costs of construction in Madras were much higher than expected and the acquisition of private land was seriously delayed by litigation. In the meantime, the slum population continued to grow rapidly. As a result, in the mid-1970s the Slum Clearance Board restricted such activities to floodprone areas and to those places in the city where land would be taken for highways or other public purposes (Seguchi, 1985).

Countries with rapidly growing economies were no more successful with slum removal and public housing for meeting the needs of the poorest groups than countries with sluggish economic growth.

The inability of slum clearance, relocation, and public housing policies alone to deal effectively with the problems of slum dwellers or to provide other services needed by growing numbers of poor households in urban settlements became clear by the early 1970s. Among the most serious problems with these policies are that they are extremely costly for national governments because of the high level of compensation paid to owners of demolished properties; they create serious problems of social displacement and disruption for the residents of slum and squatter settlements; they are often delayed by social and political pressures exerted by slum residents who resist forced removal from their homes; and, they impose high transport costs on families who are relocated far from their workplaces in the centre of the city. Moreover, the policies do not alleviate the housing problems of the poor and indeed, exacerbate them in many countries. The poor cannot afford much of the public housing that replaces slum dwellings and, thus, the destruction of slum communities often reduces the stock of low-income housing and worsens overcrowding in low-rent units. Often slum clearance in one part of the city simply increases overcrowding in other slum communities (World Bank, 1980; Kulaba, 1982).

Although government-sponsored low-cost housing for the poor still plays an important role in shelter provision policies in developing countries, experience suggests that by itself it is too costly and limited in scope to meet the shelter needs of the poorest households. If public housing policies are to operate more effectively, municipalities must be able to expand their general revenue bases, enact new tax provisions that generate special revenues earmarked for public housing construction and maintenance, and increase their assets by borrowing. This will require the creation or expansion of municipal bond markets for public housing.

Most governments have depended on purchasing property from private owners or on eminent domain to acquire land for public housing projects. However, if the costs of public housing construction are to be reduced, governments will have to turn to other land acquisition options, including land readjustment and acquisition in advance of need.

In developing countries, public policies will have to be combined with other options for shelter provision to reduce shelter deficiencies.


A Story:

Is Demolition Prolonging Housing Problems?

Excerpt from:
Citywatch: India, a publication of SPARC, Mahila Milan, and the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India, Mumbai, March 1998.

The following is a real illustration of how demolition of “problem areas” really does not solve any problems from the long-term municipal standpoint. It creates a burden on the city and hardship for the poor.

The Mahakali story is a classic example of urban development that doesn’t solve problems but only postpones them, hoping they’ll go away.

The 226 houses in the Mahakali pavement settlement were part of a larger slum that was cleared years ago, to make room for a new arterial road in Worli. Back then, most of the families didn’t qualify for resettlement, and those who did were unable to survive out at Malvani, where the city had dumped them. So many ended up on the pavements back in Mahakali.

When they began building a Mahila Milan collective with help from Byculla pavement dwellers, they knew rough times were ahead. A few years later, the Mahakali settlement found itself again in the path of urban improvement, this time for a road-widening. Despite urgent negotiations, the municipal demolition trucks finally came and hundreds of huts were destroyed. The Mahakai community remained steadfast, throughout, and is now planning for its eventual resettlement, which the new SRA policy entitles them to (Citywatch: India 3).

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