Of toilets and housing

It’s no accident that the 6.3 million Filipino households without access to sanitary toilets correspond roughly to the 6.5 million housing backlogs that the Marcos administration is targeting to address.

It’s hard to digest the news coming out from the United Nations Children’s Fund on the occasion of World Toilet Day last 19 November: That 6.3 million Filipino households are still practicing open defecation for a lack of access to sanitary toilets.

According to the UN body, only one in four barangays in the Philippines can lay claim to being zero open defecation sites, something that’s hard to imagine in this day and age.

UNICEF warned that outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhea and worm infections, as well as growth stunting among children, are among the results of open defecation in fields and waterways.

“We cannot undermine the benefits of having something so basic as safe toilets. Particularly for women and girls, toilets at home, school, and at work help them stay healthy and safe, especially during menstruation and pregnancy,” UNICEF Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov said last week.

Certainly, it’s no accident that the 6.3 million Filipino households without access to sanitary toilets correspond roughly to the 6.5 million housing backlogs that the Marcos administration is targeting to address by constructing at least one million housing units for each of the six years that it would be in power.

That the numbers of housing and toilet lack approximate each other has to do with the fact that a basic requirement of decent socialized housing is having sanitary toilets for all the units to be constructed.

The math, therefore, adds up that if the Marcos administration can provide roofs over the heads of the poorest of the poor Filipinos, then the problem with open defecation would be addressed at the same time.

Toward this end, the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development has undertaken the initial spadework for the construction of 4,000 housing units in Tanauan City and 10,000 units in Marikina City for informal settler families.

But DHSUD chief Jerry Acuzar last October warned senators, during a housing committee panel hearing, that the 6.5 million housing backlog at present may hit 11 million units by 2028 if the government fails to fund on annual basis the government’s housing plan.

In that hearing, Acuzar had to convince lawmakers to restore P36 billion in his department’s budget request for 2023 just to cover interest in part payment subsidy for DHSUD’s socialized housing program.

He pointed out that of the proposed P96 billion outlay for the DHSUD and other housing agencies, the Department of Budget and Management only set aside P3.9 billion for the housing sector in the National Expenditure Program for 2023.

DBM’s proposed housing budget represented nearly a 50-percent drop from the shelter agencies’ current budget of P7.6 billion, it was pointed out during the hearing.

With that budget, we may have the government building houses made of straws instead of concrete as what is required in a country regularly visited by natural calamities, especially storms.

And the government cannot do it alone, the DHSUD said, referring to the “Pambansang Pabahay para sa Pilipino” program of the Marcos administration. He stressed the private sector, as well as local government units, must chip in to build more affordable housing for Filipinos.

“When we talk about housing, what we need is money. That’s the major factor in (our planning) for housing,” Acuzar said, warning that a “radical approach in dealing with the situation” is needed. “If we do business, as usual, the 6.5 million housing need will balloon to almost 10.9 million by 2028.”

Senators during the hearing said it would be easier to grant housing additional budget if the DHSUD can resolve the negative audit findings of the Commission on Audit, including the questioned P5 billion in fees that private developers paid the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board.

The HLURB chief at the time was accused of spending P1.8 billion of the collected fees allegedly kept in escrow accounts during his yearlong stint in the housing agency.

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