The Portillano family. After Typhoon Haiyan, low-income families in Leyte, Philippines, were able to rebuild safer and more durable houses. Photo by: Habitat for Humanity

The year was 2009, and Typhoon Ketsana — known locally in the Philippines as Ondoy — had just struck Metropolitan Manila, Philippines. One of the strongest typhoons to have made landfall in the megacity, Ketsana displaced thousands of families and left them without their source of livelihood and income. I was a researcher then, assigned to do a rapid assessment of Tatalon, a village in Quezon City, known to be a site of informal settlement families.

There I met Edna, a mother of three kids and an informal settler living in the area for nearly half of her life. Originally from Cagayan De Oro City in the southern island of Mindanao, Edna migrated to Metro Manila in the hopes of finding better opportunities in the fast-growing city. Rent was expensive, so she had to live with relatives in Tatalon. She sold rags for a living while her husband worked in a factory nearby.

The typhoon brought an estimated 15 to 20 feet-high floodwaters that washed away her house and, with it, the materials she used to make rags. Amid the chaos, Edna lost track of her two young children, both of whom remained missing at the time of our interview.

In the years after, I heard that informal settlers in Tatalon were relocated to an area outside Metro Manila. I do not know if Edna is among those relocated and I never found out whether she saw her two children again. But her struggles of living in the city is a microcosm of the challenges we face in dealing with housing and settlements in today’s rapid rate of urbanization and frequent disasters. The message is clear: the way cities are built means that when we deal with housing, we deal with myriad struggles that seem mundane, but do in fact shape our everyday experiences.

“The message is clear: the way cities are built means that when we deal with housing, we deal with myriad struggles that seem mundane, but do in fact shape our everyday experiences.”

— Enid Madarcos, Asia-Pacific urban policy manager, Habitat for Humanity International

The difficult road to resilient housing

More than 50 years since the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — a multilateral treaty that specifies an individual’s inalienable right to adequate shelter — access to affordable and resilient housing remains an elusive quest. According to the UN-Habitat World Cities Report, in 2010 an estimate of 980 million households lacked decent housing. With the rate of urban growth today, 600 million more households will be added to this number by 2030. In Asia and the Pacific alone, we face the problem of providing adequate standards of living and housing to 127,000 individuals on a daily basis, as they come to the region’s cities.

Housing supply has not been able to keep up with population growth. The influx of people, coupled with rising land prices, the cost of construction materials, the impact of climate change, and the lack of attention to housing, has resulted in the proliferation of slum dwellings and the displacement of low-income vulnerable households from the center of the city to its periphery. In these settlements, families live in substandard housing faced with insecurity of tenure and are often left without access to basic sanitation and hygiene, proper medical care, electricity, and water.

They are also the most vulnerable to natural disasters as they lack the entitlements and access to risk management instruments. To continue with their livelihood, which is often located in city centers, they face the daily struggle of congested streets and inadequate mass transportation services.

Houses in the small town of Palo, Leyte, Philippines, were rebuilt with methods that made them affordable and disaster resilient. Photo by: Habitat for Humanity

Multi-sector approaches needed to provide housing solutions

The enormity of housing challenges we face in Asia-Pacific cities today calls for solutions that consider the nuances of housing both as a physical and social space that serves as a mechanism for distribution and access to resources. What it takes to realize the right to housing in today’s context would require looking at housing solutions as an integrated suite of initiatives that include dimensions of climate change adaptation, strong governance and policy, responsive market systems, good spatial design, community participation, and innovation in construction technology. To make a significant impact on housing and on how people live in cities, there is a need to bring together different sectors, perspectives, and expertise so we can deliver solutions that truly inspire the progressive realization of each individual’s right to housing.

The Innovation Awards

The Asia-Pacific Housing Forum Innovation Awards is now open for applications in three categories. The deadline for submission is August 11, 2019. Finalists will be flown to Bangkok for a live pitch on September 17, presenting to an audience composed of key housing stakeholders. These include Cities Alliance, UN-Habitat, Hilti Foundation, and the World Bank. The winner in each category will receive an award and $5,000.

The finalists will also have the opportunity to participate in the Asia-Pacific Housing Forum and contribute to discussions of pressing housing concerns in the region. For more information on the Housing Forum, visit this link, and for inquires, email

In recognition of these, Habitat for Humanity and its partners will be holding the Asia-Pacific Housing Forum Innovation Awards, which invites individuals and organizations in the public, private, and civil sectors to participate in a platform designed to recognize and highlight innovative efforts that address real needs and provide affordable, accessible housing for the most vulnerable across the region. Pitches and presentations from the Innovation Awards’ finalists will be held during the 7th Asia-Pacific Housing Forum on September 16-19 in Bangkok, Thailand.

In the past, Habitat for Humanity focused on the physical dimension of housing. With lessons learned from years of work, the organization has adopted a more multi-dimensional and multi-sectoral approach to housing. Currently, in a project in Negros Occidental, Philippines, Habitat works closely with community organizations, local governments, international nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to facilitate the use of sustainable construction technologies for high-quality, low-temperature, and disaster-resilient houses in the area.

A major dimension of the initiative is focused on the provision of support to address security of land tenure, financial education, and livelihood opportunities for the community. The 10,000-unit housing project uses bamboo cement frame technology, developed by Base Bahay Foundation — a nonprofit technology provider for low-cost housing — with the support of the Hilti Foundation — a charitable organization by the Martin Hilti Family Trust, which supports projects focused on affordable housing and technology. By using only local bamboo, the initiative also helps create local markets and value chains for treated bamboo, and in doing so, generates income opportunities for local farmers and workers.  

With this in mind, and in collaboration with partners Cities Alliance, Hilti Foundation, UN-Habitat, Ananda Foundation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Bank, Arup, and the University of New South Wales, the 7th Asia-Pacific Housing Forum brings together sector-wide stakeholders from different disciplines and areas of expertise for the possibility of forging partnerships and collaborations. It aims to usher in a progressive community of housing practitioners in the region that pushes the boundary for the realization of the right to housing.

Now more than ever, we need to come together and heed the call for new ways of doing things. The Housing Forum and the Innovation Awards are good starting points.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Enid Madarcos

    Enid Madarcos is the urban policy manager in the Asia-Pacific office of Habitat for Humanity International. For the past 10 years, she worked on livelihood development and housing finance in urban communities in the Philippines. She recently finished her research on the role of state-led ownership housing policies in the spatial restructuring and the fulfillment of housing rights of informal settlement families in metro Manila.