Even as the Philippines marches on towards development, many Filipinos remain poor. Around 23.7% of the population lived below the national poverty line in 2021.
With a general lack of livelihood opportunities, inflation, high unemployment, and underemployment rate, and low wages for those who find work, a persistent problem among low-income families is a lack of housing options.
So it is not unusual to find families living in makeshift huts built with whatever material is available. Although this illustrates the typical resourcefulness Filipinos are known for, building houses on government or private lands gets them in trouble. Sooner or later, they’ll earn the term “informal settlers” or the derogatory “squatters.”
To mitigate the squatting problem in many urban communities, President Ferdinand Marcos 1975 signed Presidential Decree No. 772, otherwise known as Penalizing Squatting and Other Similar Acts. Under the Decree, people found to be occupying or possessing the property of a legitimate owner against the latter’s will were either imprisoned or fined, depending on the degree of violation.
However, PD 772 was eventually repealed by the Republic Act 8368, also known as the Anti-Squatting Law Repeal Act of 1997. R.A. 8368 ordered that informal settlers could not be imprisoned and dismissed pending cases based on P.D. 772. The Act may be sympathetic to needy families, but many informal settlers have abused this provision, making it harder for rightful property owners to assert ownership.
Properly handling such a situation has been an issue among squatters, landowners, and law enforcers for a long time since the parties involved have rights that should be respected.
“With abusive squatters taking advantage of tedious and expensive court action, it is sometimes better for property owners to take advantage of the principle of self-defense for new or ongoing intrusions,” according to Philippine Association of Real Estate Boards National Chairman Atty. Rey Cartojano.
According to Cartojano, the principle of self-defense occurs when a property owner uses reasonable force to resist intruders physically or forcibly evicts them using a reasonable amount of effort. However, he warns that this principle “must be used with calculation and much restraint with the advisable participation of barangay officials and police officers.”
Another option for property owners, who don’t want to invoke their right of self-defense, which can quickly turn violent, is to seek help from the barangay for an amicable settlement or hire a lawyer to settle the conflict.
“The legal remedy for property owners for squatters and informal settlers are detailed under Republic Act No. 7279, otherwise known as the Urban and Development Housing Act,” Atty Cartojano said. He suggested the following steps for a property owner involved in a situation with an informal settler squatting his property.
Identify the offenders
Establish the identity of involved informal settlers. Notify and seek help from barangay officials who are expected to mediate and initiate contact with the other party.
Document instances of intrusion incidents in writing or video. You may need to take photographs, obtain affidavits from witnesses, and secure any documentation that supports your claim to the property. Report the incident to a police station that has jurisdiction over the property and records a police blotter relating to the incident.
Serve notice to vacate.
Once you have evidence, you must notify the squatters to vacate. The notice should clearly state that they are occupying your property illegally and must vacate within a specified period (usually 15 to 30 days).
Seek help from local authorities.
Seek the help of the barangay to arrange a possible settlement if a peaceful negotiation does not produce good progress.
Get advice from a legal expert.
If barangay intervention proves unsuccessful, the property owner must hire a lawyer to handle evicting the squatters. The lawyer will handle tasks such as serving the demand letters and filing the necessary court cases.
How long does the process take?
Once the designated lawyer demands the informal settler to vacate the property, the clock starts ticking in the legal remedy to settle the question of occupying property against the owner’s will.
Once the informal settler does not heed the demand, the case must be filed in court. Cartojano explained that depending on the court’s caseload, handling lawyers’ skills, and the handling judge’s disposing of ability, the entire process might take years to be completed.