Taxation without protection

Like many government employees with fixed incomes and meager savings, my wife Karina and I have worried about not being able to help our children when they start searching for a permanent home of their own. Our situation is not very different from that of lower-middle-class employees in the private sector who hope to own a house at some point. Unless they work for a company with a housing plan, they usually end up renting apartments all their lives. Responding to this need, Hasik, the nongovernment organization that Karina headed in the 1990s, conceived of a housing collective for its staff that could serve as a model for young people who are just starting to save for a house.

The idea was to build a small community on a piece of property that would optimize the use of limited space by setting aside common areas. The plan entailed using an innovative building technology that would transform recycled steel container vans into inexpensive but sturdy homes.

Many of the Hasik staff members who joined this experimental housing collective took out loans from Pag-Ibig to pay for the land. My wife took out four stakes in the collective for our four children who were unmarried at the time, dipping into our savings, and borrowing the rest of the money needed to pay her share in the acquisition of the land. This was a piece of residential property in North Fairview, Quezon City, that was part of the last phase of a vast land development project.

Within a year after the sale was completed, land-grabbers invaded the property and the surrounding vacant lots. Overnight, they put up clusters of shanties and transported the families that would occupy them. The legitimate owners mounted a resistance by marking their properties with frail fences, but armed men drove them away. Hasik sought the help of City Hall and the National Housing Authority against the horde of encroachers, to no avail.

Rather than hire expensive private security guards to secure the property, the lot owners, including the Hasik housing collective, naively pleaded with the settlers to legalize their occupation of the land by paying for it through the government’s Community Mortgage Program. Their leaders, allegedly police and military men, merely laughed off the idea, saying they already owned it.

This turn of events was particularly ironic for Hasik. This NGO had been working with the urban poor for the longest time. Its community workers had helped informal settlers and slum dwellers organize themselves into viable and self-reliant communities that could enforce discipline in their ranks, protect their rights, and access public services. But clearly this experience had not prepared them for confrontation with syndicates that preyed upon the desperately homeless poor and pitted them against the vulnerable middle classes.

After getting no effective response from the authorities, the Hasik staff gave up trying to recover the residential lots from those that had seized them. They considered the whole project a lost investment and stopped paying the property tax. Concrete homes have since replaced the shanties that were initially put up on the land, and it is safe to assume that the so-called land rights of the first land-grabbers have changed hands several times over. Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends for the original owners who had paid for the land.

The rest of the story can make you either laugh or cry over the incurable dysfunctions of government in our time. Since the legal title to the land-grabbed property is still in the name of the registered owners, they have received tax collection notices from the treasurer’s office of Quezon City asking them to immediately settle their tax arrears. The first time my wife received this notice, she sent a board member of Hasik to inform the city treasurer’s collection unit that the entire property had long been taken over by illegal settlers. The treasurer’s office replied that its task was to collect the property tax, not to secure the property. Last Aug. 16, the same office issued a “Final Notice of Delinquency” demanding payment within five days of P31,028.40 in arrears for a 300-square-meter lot. That’s just for the portion assigned to Karina.

The city treasurer threatens to “serve warrant of levy,” “publish notice of delinquency,” and “sell the property in a public auction sale,” and transfer the property title to the buyer, if the tax is not paid. It is, of course, a form letter that permits no room for discernment, but I wish they would do all that if only so they would realize the additional injustice they are inflicting on the owners.

In the last decade or so, this pattern of syndicated land invasion has spread to nearby provinces. Syndicates in cahoots with employees at the municipal and provincial levels dig up information on land registration in a given area. After identifying the target area, they move in swiftly, using as pawns ordinary people who are seduced by the promise of immediate occupancy in exchange for low and easy payments. Alas, it is they, not the land-grabbing racketeers who exploit them, who end up becoming the face of the dreaded squatter.

But the biggest losers are the hard-working and law-abiding citizens who lose their property just like that to ruthless land-grabbers.  Their terrible experience alienates them from government, compounds their distrust of politicians and the police, and sharpens their prejudice against informal settlers.

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