Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 00:32 UK

The slum solution to housing crisis

By Valeria Perasso
BBC Mundo, Argentina

Playón de Chacarita
Population in the shanty towns has surged

BBC correspondents from around the world are taking the pulse of the world economy. This week they are focusing on the state of the property market.

Without space to accommodate new housing in their intricate corridors and dirt roads, the shanty towns of Buenos Aires have grown upwards.

Where a shack of bricks and corrugated iron once stood, within weeks an equally precarious structure appears - but this time over two levels.

The transformation of the landscape in the slums is reflected in government statistics.

Catalina & Francisco
Clearly, if I had serious money, we would not be here
Francisco Cruz Ugas

The population in the so-called "emergency villages" of the Argentine capital has grown by 25% in the last two years, now housing some 200,000 people.

That is equivalent to almost 7% of the inhabitants of the city, or the arrival of 11 families per day to the 14 slums and at least 40 settlements within Buenos Aires's perimeter.

Home ownership

Francisco Cruz Ugas moved a few months ago to Playon de Chacarita, an informal settlement in the west of Buenos Aires, located just behind one of the main train stations.

The BBC is Taking the Pulse of the Global Economy, looking at a range of subjects this summer
Food prices - which remain a concern particularly in many developing economies
Highly volatile energy prices - which have been a major issue in the past year
The plight of migrant workers - as the global recession takes hold in many economies
Housing markets - which have turned from boom to bust in many countries
Rising unemployment levels - as firms cut back because of falling orders

Along with his wife and three children, he ended his pilgrimage for home ownership here.

"We saved a little, and now we are spending the money to have a home," he says, while wiping the sweat from his forehead in a break before restarting the construction work in the back of his home.

"Though clearly, if I had serious money, we would not be here."

His wife, Catalina Cheves, says that since she arrived from Peru 15 years ago, she had always lived as a tenant, until she was evicted.

"I did not want to live in a squat or without paying rent, but I didn't have another option," she says.

Many newcomers to the shanty towns went through the same thing. With the subsidies provided by the government in cases of forced eviction, they arrived here to buy the only house they could afford.

The precarious huts built on state land trade for between $4,100 and $5,500. Those near the street are worth considerably more, and the incessant flow of newcomers has shot prices to levels unimagined a few years ago.

"Those who were already here charge for the 'improvements' - for building another floor, for example. If someone has 90 square meters of land, he keeps 30 and sells the rest," Ms Cheves says.

No space

In Playon de Chacarita, 800 families are living in what was once an empty wasteland following the privatisation of railways in the 1990s.

Building for sale
Homes in the settlements have values depending on location

Life in the settlement goes on behind a cement wall, high enough to make it invisible to a distracted bystander.

There are two entries for the entire campus, accessible only to vehicles, through which not even ambulances or police patrol cars venture.

The orange brick houses, and shacks of corrugated iron and cardboard sheets, are stacked in narrow lanes - dusty in summer, water-logged when it rains.

"There is no running water, and the electricity in summer is a disaster with the heat," says Mary Gelpi, one of the "pioneers" of Playon de Chacarita.

Luis Vilca

I would like to have electricity, and have to pay a bill in my name

Luis Vilca

"And since 2000 it has got worse, because the population continues to grow."

Accessing basic utilities is a struggle say residents.

Luis Vilca, a Peruvian who came from Peru 20 years ago and moved to Chacarita in 2007, says that the electricity he uses is stolen, because it is the only way to access power.

"I would like to have electricity, and have to pay a bill in my name," he says, adding that this legitimate paper work would help him apply for a loan.

And for Catalina Cheves, the lack of sewerage is the biggest worry, and warrants some government action, she says.

"We built little by little. We tried to build the house as best we could. But we do not have sewers, we have a septic tank and a shared bathroom, with a curtain. There's a problem with dengue fever and other diseases."


Given the explosive growth of the "slum" construction, the response from the authorities in Buenos Aires is pragmatic.

They maintain that it is now unthinkable to move entire villages and settlements, because there is no physical space in the city to relocate its residents. Also, every sector they clear is immediately taken by another group of displaced persons.

Thus, the policy of "eradication" - in practice since the 1960s - has been replaced little by little by the idea of "urbanisation".

"The plan is to provide infrastructure - water, sewerage and pluvial drainage gutters as well as overhead power lines and roads to address the issues of insecurity.

"It means to move from informal to formal", says Federico Angelini, director of the Management Unit of Social Intervention (UGIS) of the city's government.

Buenos Aires has allocated $55.5m to managing the slums during 2009.

Housing policy

The problem of growth of housing, however, is one of the biggest challenges.

Authorities recognise that population growth is huge, especially given the influx of migrants from neighbouring countries, which today makes up 70% of the inhabitants of these settlements.

Expansion is such a problem that a few months ago, the government of Buenos Aires tabled the idea of placing a system of police surveillance at the entrances of the most central shanty towns to block the passage of trucks with construction materials.

House building
Building is continuing despite surging population

"The houses that are already there, are there to stay. We're just looking to improve housing security, and to relocate those houses necessary to open streets or to make infrastructure improvements," says Mr Angelini.

The ambitious plan, however, has been questioned by opposition parties, which describe it as "lukewarm" and have proposed a debate.

Meanwhile, in the heart of the neighbourhood, residents have organised themselves to have a voice in decisions that affect urban development.

In Playon de Chacarita, the first step - however paradoxical it sounds - is to ensure that the authorities recognize it as a shanty town.

That is because, for the moment, this urban concentration is technically considered a "settlement," a category below a slum which does not even have guaranteed access to government funds.

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