Saturday, July 13, 2013

Squatting as a basic right

Modern-day squatters are both poor and homeless.
In the Philippines, squatters are second and third generations of original settlers from the rural areas looking for a better life in the city. They have settled mostly on unoccupied and unused public lands which include river and railroad embankments, esteros (estuary in English), the space underneath bridges, and garbage dumpsites and landfills (like the infamous Smokey Mountain). Or if they have inhabited private lands, these are mostly abandoned or unused. Over time, these squatter dwellers have become the city’s wellspring of workers, whether in construction, factory, transportation, and maintenance, and other types of contractual labour that keep the underground economy flourishing. It is also fair to say that these squatter colonies are centres that attract criminal and gang activities.
Squatters in Manila. Photo courtesy of Ole Ronberg. Click link to view, Slums of Manila - Dirty
River - Part I by Christopher Wieser.
Eviction of squatters without resettlement is short-sighted and self-defeating because this encourages them to relocate to another squatter colony. Eviction by violence is certainly inhumane and disregards the legal and human rights of squatters. They have rights, too, regardless of their poverty. They participate in the political process called elections and pay their taxes just like other citizens. And like everyone else, they also have the right to own property, a right included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard for all.
Because the government has failed to improve the quality of life for the poor and to eliminate poverty and homelessness, the poor and homeless have come up with their solution – squatting. It is about time to think outside the box and consider squatting as a potential solution rather than a symptom of poverty and homelessness.
In the favelas (shanty towns) of Brazil, for example, squatters have been integrated and upgraded to the urban community rather than evicted. Many of the residents have managed to gain title to the land and are able to improve their homes.
In a capitalist society, people have always accepted the hegemony of private property. Squatting as a solution, however, challenges this hegemony. As basic as any human right, i.e., shelter and property, squatting for the purpose of claiming this right is justifiable. The right to property can also be argued as the more basic right to shelter and to inhabit land, rather than the capitalistic right to literal land.
The enforcement of the right to land and shelter is in keeping with the dignity of the person and full respect for human rights. This is echoed in the 1987 Philippine Constitution which assigns to the state a mandate to free the people from poverty by improving the quality of their lives. When the state fails in this obligation, the squatters who are most vulnerable are justified in asserting their rights in maintaining their human dignity and improving their quality of life.
The right to squat is also bolstered by the needs of the urban poor for shelter and property. Although interrelated, there is a difference between the rights argument and the needs argument. The poor have both the need and the right, but their right is not based upon their need for shelter but because property or land is a basic right. Under this view, the poor are considered as integrated citizens who have equal rights as their more affluent counterparts. In evicting them, the government denies squatters their basic right to property or land, and in failing to integrate them just like the poor in the favelas of Brazil, the government further compounds its failure in its obligation to treat them as equal citizens like everyone else in the community.
Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo courtesy of debbieaspin,
If we accept that squatters have this basic right to property or land, the needs argument entitles them to their illegally obtained housing because they have a greater need that surpasses the needs of the legal owners of the property. This was illustrated during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when squatters warned the new regime that if they did not provide decent housing, they would occupy vacant apartments in the city. Two days later, some three hundred homeless families took over empty apartment blocks in south Tehran. While the government quickly evicted the student squatters who joined the squats for political reasons, those families who squatted out of necessity evaded government eviction because losing their squatted homes was a threat to their well-being.
A similar phenomenon happened in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007. The Tower, an unfinished 45-storey building in the city centre that was supposed to be Venezuela’s answer to Wall Street, was invaded by several hundred men, women, and children, led by a group of hard-nosed ex-convicts who camped out there. A woman who was part of the invasion recalled to a writer with The New Yorker, “We entered as if into a cave, like pigs, all in there together. We opened the gate, and from that day on we’ve been living there.” She was frightened, but she felt she had no choice. “Everyone was looking for a roof over their heads, because no one had anywhere to live.”
Soon after, hundreds of vacant buildings in Caracas have been occupied by large organized groups of squatters known as invasores: apartment blocks, office towers, warehouses, shopping malls. Invasores now occupy some hundred and fifty-five Caracas buildings.
Both the Tehran and Caracas squats, which have varying lengths of squatting time, demonstrate that the needs argument works stronger than the rights argument in practice. Pushed to the point of desperation, the poor would act swiftly and this desperate need easily validates the needs argument, showing that it is much more difficult to enforce the basic right to property merely on the strength of the rights argument.
An understanding of distributive justice in John Rawls’ seminal work, A Theory of Justice, helps in appreciating equality in the right to own property as a convincing argument for squatting. Rawls explains his idea of justice as fairness with two principles. The first principle, the liberty principle, demands equality in basic rights for all people, such as the freedom of expression and the right to hold property, similar to the rights argument addressed here earlier. The second principle, called the difference principle, states that equal opportunity must be given to all people, and the only justification for inequality is if it results in the “greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.”
Rawlsian logic contends that property must be distributed in a manner that helps those who are less well off. Squatters have equal rights to own property, but the legal system and property system do not provide equal opportunity to own property in the form of housing. Squatters squat because they cannot afford property and the system does not compensate for this inequality. They cannot obtain jobs because they do not have homes, and they cannot rent or buy homes because they do not have jobs. It is a vicious cycle that the homeless and poor cannot rise above.
The hegemony of property under the capitalist system leads to greater inequality. Squatting challenges the cycle of poverty and homelessness by allowing them to gain property without the “proper” tools such as wealth or legal representation. If we accept that squatters have a right to own property, then it is the government’s obligation to provide them with the equal opportunity to obtain it. When they are not given this opportunity, squatters may take it upon themselves to own a home or property.
Squatters must be allowed by the government to stake a claim on a piece of unused land as their home and property. They may infringe upon the basic rights of others, the legal property owners, creating a conflict as one person who seeks to claim the right to own property violates another individual’s right to own property. In this case, Rawls second principle should resolve the conflict in favour of the squatters, wherein the infringement upon the liberty principle of another is acceptable so long as it results in a net benefit to the least of society.
Instead of evicting squatters through violence which the government easily takes as a logical solution to squatting, why not look at squatting as a possible solution to poverty and homelessness? The Philippines can learn from examples in other countries of various ways of legitimizing squatting, such as inaction in Costa Rica, redistribution in Kenya, and formal land titles in Brazil.
Riverfront living quarters in Manila. Photo courtesy of Frisno Bostrom. Click
link to view Brgy. San Roque, Navotas Violent Dispersal, Tudla Productions,
Costa Rica’s approach to squatting has been to silently accept and ignore the squatting issue. This does not mean, however, that Costa Rica didn’t do anything. It has formalized squatting through a legislation called the Homesteading Law which has also been applied in the Philippines in the early fifties to encourage settlement in Mindanao. The law allows squatters to acquire title if they stay for 10 years, but only if the property is untitled. Titled privately owned land is not legally attainable by squatters. But reality in Costa Rica shows that the law has been virtually ignored and squatter rule is applied. In effect, the government has allowed the informal property system to trump the legal property system by allowing squatters to ignore the law.
Another solution is the legalization of squats into formal land titles as a method of activating dead capital. Brazil is one country that has actually proposed to legalize extralegal property. It has decriminalized squatting and accepts it as a solution to the multiple land and property problems that Brazil has faced. Only the future will tell if the change in Brazil’s property system truly empowers the poor by allowing squatters to capitalize on their dead capital.
Kenya’s experience also shows how redistribution works in government repossession of all lands owned by absentee landlords and redistributing them to squatters. Land is redistributed to squatters, rather than to all citizens because squatters constitute the least-advantaged members of society and will benefit most from the land, following Rawls’ difference principle. It is not a revolutionary change in the property system, but the response has satisfactorily provided for an underserved sector of the population the government is responsible to serve.
The Philippines needs a more dynamic response to its squatting crisis. When the law no longer serves the people, as in the case of all squats, the law must change. The government cannot continue to ignore squatters until they decide that they need the land.
Those fortunate to have shelter also have a social responsibility to provide shelter to those without, either by providing shelter as the approach has traditionally been or by allowing them opportunities to find their own shelter. This is a social responsibility necessary to ensure the preservation of human dignity. Not a new exhortation, because in the Philippines, Gawad Kalinga, a social initiative to build communities to end poverty and homelessness, has already planted the seeds of this culture of caring and giving as a means to restore the dignity of the poor.

No comments:

Post a Comment