#OCCUPYPABAHAY and the Politics of Placelessness: Dispatches From Manila, Philippines

Published

Article published in The Funambulist 20 (November-December 2018) Settler Colonialism in Turtle Island. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

The past year has seen the emergence of homelessness and housing justice issues in popular discourse in the Philippines, particularly in Manila and its peri-urban fringe. Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap), a militant urban poor group, has played the pivotal role in bringing this conversation to the forefront with the #OccupyPabahay (#OccupyHousing) direct actions, which commenced on March 8, 2017 in Pandi Bulacan, a suburb north of Metro Manila. Thousands of urban poor families facing eviction and homelessness barricaded the entrance of seven off-city public housing projects and occupied some 5,000 idle and substandard housing units meant for state security forces and ‘danger zone’ evictees. This shock — though not wholly unprecedented considering the long decades of extreme discontent — surfaced the deplorable state of social housing for both government employees and informal settler relocatees, and likewise revealed the crisis of homelessness and the poverty of urban justice in the Philippines.

Until these occupations, housing justice has received scant attention in the media and the general public. It is only now that it is being talked about, albeit in grossly unsympathetic and hostile terms. #OccupyPabahay incurred the rancor not only of displaced beneficiaries of relocation housing, who are evicted informal settlers themselves, but also of the relatively well-off working and middle classes as well as the elite. In thinking about the severe backlash it generated, it is useful to understand that the occupation occurred in a country with a 5.6 million housing backlog, where shelter needs are outsourced to the private sector and where social housing stock is nonexistent beyond informal settler relocation and government employee housing. Despite originating from decades of institutional neglect, these events likewise did not escape the wrath of state officials, notably President Rodrigo Duterte who pejoratively referred to the takeover as “anarchy” and promised to inflict violence against participants in future actions. As the occupation spread to neighboring state housing projects, the widespread condemnation of both the act and its agents revitalized the stigma of the urban poor’s moral depravation and unbelonging, and reinvigorated views of the urban underclass as the uncouth, the migrant, and the rural other who is outside and out of place.