Urban poor get rough deal on housing

Although the concept of urban heritage -- an idea that sees the poor as part of old-town development -- has gained international recognition, in reality, these people who are scattered in major cities around the world are still vulnerable with inadequate housing and face the threat of forced eviction.

This remains a challenge for housing rights advocates. Among them is Leilani Farha, special rapporteur on the right to housing, appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, who championed the rights of these people at the UN Habitat III, also known as the City Summit, in Quito, Ecuador this week.

Urban heritage emerged as a major theme for the three-day conference, which is the third of its kind.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is an assistant news editor, the Bangkok Post.

While the state regards the urban poor as "encroachers or occupants", Ms Farha calls them "human rights holders" who have been deprived of their rights to adequate housing.

The special rapporteur pointed out that people in general do not see the vulnerable as victims of the failure to implement the right to life and housing.

In fact, she insisted, these people have the right to live in urban areas with security, peace and dignity.

Ms Farha cited a statement by Shirvani Chaudhry, executive director of the Housing and Land Rights Network, who believes state land does not always equal government land, but is the people's land.

However, it remains a common problem in many growing cities around the world that the urban poor, or the vulnerable as Ms Farha dubs them, who play a crucial role in keeping their cities running are the first to face forced eviction, though such acts violate human rights, as the state classifies them as living in "informal settlements".

Mostly, they are pushed out of city centres to where public transport is often inaccessible.

"The vulnerable must have right to protect their right to live in [city] centres," she insisted.

Ms Farha also said governments should ask themselves why they can invest fortunes on public transportation such as underground trains, but not on public housing for the vulnerable.

Several cases that were presented at the conference reminded me of the Mahakan Fort community in Bangkok which has been struggling against the eviction order imposed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) for more than two decades.

While there has been an effort by academia around the world to change the state perception of the urban poor, the BMA has stood firm in treating residents of the Mahakan Fort (and others elsewhere in the capital) as encroachers and occupiers of state land who are to be booted out.

As "encroachers", these residents are forced to accept meagre compensation while the "relocation site", provided by the state, is about 30km away from the old community. When the relocation programme began in the early 1990s, the area was not liveable as there was no infrastructure.

The forced relocation not only took them away from their workplace, but also broke up community bonds.

What I learned from the conference, which ended yesterday, was that the fort residents who have lived in the area -- which is registered as a heritage site -- some for three generations, do not really belong to the "encroacher" category.

Due to their conservation efforts, the community has earned a reputation as a living heritage site in the eyes of local academics, conservationists and civic groups.

Unfortunately, their efforts have never gained recognition from the BMA which plans to turn the area into a public park.

City administrators have staunchly rejected the residents' proposals. One is known as the "Mahakan model", that would see the community turned into a living museum.

According to the special rapporteur, forced evictions must be minimised and should happen only if the government has proved it has no other choice.

Ms Farha, while not making any comment on the Mahakan case since she has no in-depth knowledge of it, said the BMA should prove to the public that the forced eviction to replace the community with a new public park is necessary.

She also questioned if the BMA has done enough to study if a public park is really needed in the area.

The agency should also answer if it has done enough to provide public housing for the urban poor.

I don't think that City Hall has been able to provide us with sensible answers to these questions so far.

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