Affordable Housing - A Distant Dream

While real estate investment and the number of upscale apartments for sale or rent are growing in the Argentine capital, tens of thousands of poor families are living in crowded shanty towns, and are demanding affordable housing and access to mortgage programmes.

The at least 30 occupations of parks and other land in Buenos Aires this month were not staged by homeless people, but by families who are tired of living in overcrowded precarious dwellings in areas without sanitation or paved streets, for which they often have to pay most of their income in rent.

In the informal housing market, families pay between 100 and 250 dollars a month in rent for makeshift dwellings in the city's multiple slums.

But heads of households who work in a state-subsidised cooperative, for example, earn a mere 300 dollars a month -- just a little more than the cost of renting a one-room shack with a shared bathroom, Valeria Mutuberría explained to IPS.

Mutuberría is a researcher with Infohábitat, an interdisciplinary team at the National University of General Sarmiento dedicated to the study of urban housing, public policy and the real estate market.

"People want the money that they spend every month to go towards a different kind of solution," rather than throwing it away in rent, she said.

But housing loans are only made available to people with steady jobs and incomes 10 times higher than what the average slum dweller earns.

It is not only people living in shanty towns who are facing problems. The housing shortage in Buenos Aires proper affects an estimated 500,000 people. In the meantime, some 100,000 apartments or houses are standing empty, according to a report carried out this year by the legislature's housing committee.

Many posh new apartments have been purchased as rental property investments by upper-middle and upper-class families, to rent out on a long-term lease or even by day to foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, at least 170,000 members of the working poor live in shanty towns in greater Buenos Aires, which has a total population of around 12.5 million.

According to the legislative committee, there are also 110,000 people living in rundown housing complexes built years ago by the Buenos Aires city government, which have serious structural problems, 9,000 living in tenement houses, 6,000 in cheap hotels and pensions, and 5,000 homeless people.

The squatter settlements, known in Argentina as "villas miseria" (which roughly translates as misery villages), have mushroomed in and around Buenos Aires over the last decade.

The national census conducted this year found that the population of one of the best-known slums, Villa 31, behind the train station in the downtown Retiro neighbourhood, has climbed from just over 12,000 people in 2001 to more than 26,000.

This month a group of families occupied a broad swath of land next to the railway, and are demanding to be allowed to build there.

Another problem is slumlords. In Villa 31, for example, shoddily constructed buildings up to four stories tall are being built as rental property.

Diosnel Pérez, a delegate of Villa 20, a shanty town on the southwest side of the city, told IPS that in his neighbourhood, which is home to about 21,000 people, "there are landlords who have as many as 40 renters living in different rooms."

"The city government says it's going to ban renting in slums by law, but where are people going to go? If there are people who take advantage of the situation, it's because of the lack of response by the state, which doesn't provide loans, land or housing," he complained.

Pérez was one of the community leaders who met with national and local government officials earlier this month, after three people were killed in land occupations that triggered violent clashes.

The centre-left government of President Cristina Fernández reported that the Planning Ministry has built or refurbished 846,000 new housing units nationwide since 2003, benefiting 3.8 million people.

But in the capital, relations between local and national authorities from different parts of the political spectrum are poor, and housing plans have stalled.

Mutuberría said the Buenos Aires city government, led by right-wing businessman Mauricio Macri, boasted that it had carried out 444 evictions of squatters from occupied buildings in 2009.

But the city government used only 45 percent of the housing budget approved by Congress last year, and a mere 18 percent of this year's funds, the expert said. For instance, the city government has not been financing housing cooperatives, despite a law that specifically provides for such loans.

Before Macri took office, the Movimiento Territorial de Liberación, a left-wing workers movement that emerged from the 2001-2002 crisis, built a 326-apartment complex complete with 10 shops, a day care facility, two community centres and a plaza.

The complex, which was completed in 2007, was built by 400 unemployed workers who formed a cooperative and gained access to a four million dollar credit from the local government, which is being paid off by the families living in the new units.

But "the Macri administration does not provide land or loans under the law on cooperatives, despite demands from different organisations," Mutuberría said.

Pérez pointed out that in the case of Villa 20, there are environmental problems as well. For years, local residents in that area have complained that next to the neighbourhood, a dump of vehicles confiscated by the police has polluted the land and underground water sources with lead.

The justice system found that 35 percent of children between two and five in that neighbourhood have blood lead levels higher than the acceptable limits, posing a risk of stunted growth, lower intelligence and other problems.

Although the courts have ordered a clean-up of the dump, the removal of the vehicles is proceeding slowly.

The national government has promised a cooperative credit to build housing complexes for 1,600 people on that land, once it is clean, Pérez said.

The loan was pledged to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association, a human rights group that through its "shared dreams" programme has turned to the construction of affordable housing and schools in poor neighbourhoods in the capital and other cities.

But the project is stalled, as authorities of different stripes and jurisdictions continue to bicker.

In late November, Macri, who hopes to run for president in 2011, promised slum dwellers he would make them owners of their land and housing, through a title deed programme.

Mutuberría said that was one of the catalysts of the land occupations, which began just a few days after his announcement. She also said some of the people taking part in the operations were motivated by political interests rather than an actual need for housing.

[Source: By Marcela Valente, IPS, Bs As, 23Dec10]

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