Interview: Mayor of Quezon City

Herbert Bautista speaks with GI in run up to local elections.

Herbert Bautista went from being a comedian to longstanding Filipino politician. As a young actor, he often played the comic sidekick to the leading role, quick to lighten serious moments with a joke. His on-screen reputation as everyone’s pal has propelled him into his second term as Mayor of Quezon City. As he runs for his third and final term in city hall in the May 9 elections, GovInsider caught up with him to find out his priorities for the city. Housing for all Quezon is the most populous city in the Philippines with over 3 million residents. Nearly 200,000 families live in temporary shelters along roads and canals. Moving them to permanent housing has been on top of the Mayor’s list. “We have made housing our mission”, he declared in his 2015 State of the City Address. The government is building low-rise apartments across the city. The housing communities are dubbed “Bistekville” after the former actor’s popular nickname, Bistek. 1,031 families now own units across 23 sites, with 30 new projects coming up by the end of the year. The biggest challenge is ensuring these homes are affordable for poor families. “In a metropolitan area where land prices and construction costs are not low, this can be quite difficult,” Bautista says. The government is subsidising the apartments and providing loans to those who cannot afford them. The Mayor took the risky step of introducing two new taxes to finance the subsidies. The “idle land tax” and “socialised housing taxes” have raised 785 million pesos for a housing fund. Another 390.5 million pesos from Bistekville sales and loans were also added to this fund. The city is tapping on unused land to make space for the new developments. The Quezon government has been sitting on forfeited property worth 2.8 billion pesos, some going back 13 years. Mayor Bautista has set up a team to auction all of this land by this year. On the brink of disaster Geography is not in favour of Quezon, however. It sits smack on top of a 100 kilometer crack in the Earth, which could generate a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. This would kill over 5,000 people in the city, and injure more than 23,000, the national seismology institute has said. The city is building a high-tech command centre to prepare for impending disasters. The unit will coordinate all government response during an emergency. It will centralise control over disaster agencies, equipment and vehicles across the city government. Meanwhile, Mayor Bautista wants his government to find out what lies ahead. The city is gathering and analysing data to predict the impact of earthquakes. It has built a “risk atlas” - a collection of maps showing disaster hotspots where damage will be highest. “We cannot simply wait for disasters to happen, and expect to recover quickly,” he has told officials. Cleaning up The Mayor’s vision is to turn Quezon’s grey sprawl into a green and blue metropolis: “clean and unobstructed waterways, significantly reduced greenhouse gases... , and open spaces and idle lands transformed into green parks”. His first step is to clear out litter. The city produces tons of garbage everyday and is running out of space to dump it. Inspired by Singapore, the Mayor wants to turn this waste into reusable energy. Singapore incinerates garbage to produce steam, which is converted to electricity. The waste is reduced to ash about 10% the original volume. Quezon’s priority this year will be to “begin the groundwork for our waste-to-energy project”, Bautista said. The city is partnering with foreign governments on project. The Japanese Ministry of Environment has conducted a feasibility study for the project. Osaka city will provide technical assistance to set up a new facility. And France has offered US$655,163 of assistance for the project. In cinema, Bautista is best-known for his supporting roles. But in the Quezon city government, he is most definitely the lead actor.