Cultural constructions of ‘appropriate’ housing

Steven Roche is a social worker volunteering with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

Societies define disadvantage in a number of ways. One way is through identifying and defining housing status, facilities and amenities, or the lack of. When these criteria are placed next to housing conditions in a developing country such as the Philippines, a country such as Australia predictably begins to look privileged.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts people in ‘tertiary’ homelessness as “those living in a boarding house on a medium to long-term basis, and whose accommodation is below the minimum community standard of a small self-contained flat.” According to the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, one is considered to be in the category of ‘tertiary’ homelessness if lacking particular facilities or amenities: “people who live in rooming houses, boarding houses on a medium or long-term where they do not have their own bathroom and kitchen facilities and tenure is not secured by a lease.”

The ABS’s experts on homelessness have also said that elements required for adequate housing in Australia include: “…a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent a ‘home’.”

These are formless concepts to people living in and around Dumaguete City in the Philippines. I recently collected data from nearly 500 disadvantaged families in Dumaguete City and surrounding Barangays (a term that translates roughly as ‘village,’ however signifies a defined area with formal governance structures) as part of my volunteer role with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program. The data that emerged offers an idea of how the concept of ‘appropriate’ housing might be constructed differently in the Philippines, and can provide specific insights into the privileged housing conditions experienced in the developed world.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

Economic status

The data indicated that these households were truly poor with meagre incomes that prohibit families achieving a well balanced diet, making house repairs, affording health care or affording school supplies.

To add perspective, these household incomes can be converted into US dollars. The rate at the time of collection was 1 US dollar to 40.6 pesos. In the Barangay of Taclobo, household incomes average at $51 per month and in Calindagan monthly incomes averaged at $81. Low incomes combined with poor security of tenure leaves families vulnerable.

Of the households researched, many were without formal leasing arrangements and few owned the land they live on. The Barangay of Canday-ong, for example, is considered to be a ‘squatters’ community, as residents had built their homes without permission years ago. Similar arrangements are dotted throughout other Barangays. Other Barangays offer cheap land rental in which a family may then construct a house. These are typically ‘handshake’ agreements without formal legal arrangements. Rental prices start at several hundred pesos, approximately $5 US per month.

Housing amenities and facilities are far removed from the definitions explored above.

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Housing is constructed of cheap, yet durable, local and recyclable products. Houses made predominantly of bamboo are traditionally called ‘nipa huts’, which are made mostly from light materials such as wood, bamboo, thatched palm leaves and tin. A nipa hut is a common, sturdy and sought after affordable housing solution on the island of Negros. A small nipa hut can be constructed for approximately 17,000 pesos, a little more than $400 US. Many nipa huts have dirt flooring in entrances and storage areas while elevated areas have bamboo flooring.

In urban areas, houses take on different constructions. Heavier materials are used and security is more of a priority. Houses are constructed of wood, ply-wood, bamboo, concrete blocks and other materials such as tarpaulin (plastic), tin and used polythene rice sacks. Kitchens are typically undercover unplumbed sinks attached to the structure and open fire cooking areas are outside. Facilities are generally shared, such as CR’s (toilets), electricity connections (between houses) and showers are taken at communal deep wells with pumps.

Amenities that are thought of as essential in Australian communities are not readily available or affordable in some Barangays. For example, electricity from outside clustered urban communities requires more infrastructure and finances to connect to households, such as in Timbao and Ticala. In other communities, such as Daro and Candau-ay, barriers to electricity are almost entirely financial. Access to electricity is demonstrated in the following table:

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Water, an essential amenity, is most often sourced from shared deep wells, and is reluctantly consumed. Households have no internal plumbing or sewage system. Instead, they use underground holes, tanks or other measures for disposing of waste. Most households have water trails or gutters which channel waste water away from the home into other areas, evaporating or disappearing into distant gutters, particularly in the more urban Barangays.

This data clearly outlines that the prerequisites for ‘appropriate’ living conditions in Australia, such as security of tenure and basic amenities, are remarkably unrelated to life for many in the Philippines. Disadvantaged housing circumstances in Australia are beyond comparison to the living conditions described above. These housing conditions provoke an array of poor health and social dysfunction. They also leave families vulnerable to natural disasters and the stress of uncertain tenancy arrangements.

For these eyes, an electrical connection and a lease would be a miracle, let alone any of the other perks that an experience of Australian disadvantage or ‘tertiary homelessness’ might offer. Defining disadvantage is institutionally and culturally constructed. The example of the ABS definition is defined by cultural expectations created by a history of economic success. The gaping difference between inappropriate housing conditions between these two countries, more than anything, further highlights the astounding privilege that developed nations enjoy, when set against the conditions of a developing country.

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