In Buenos Aires, ‘Neigh­bor­hoods of Mis­ery’

Slums Grow­ing De­spite Ef­forts to Trans­form Them

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Monte Reel

BUENOS AIRES — About 1,500 peo­ple used to live in Villa Cartón, a slap­dash clus­ter of hun­dreds of crooked shacks wedged be­neath a high­way over­pass.

Scrap-wood walls were re­in­forced with card­board, old bed­sheets cur­tained win­dow frames. Walk­ways were clogged with push­carts full of bot­tles and pa­per, the re­cy­clable refuse that many of the peo­ple who lived there scav­enged for a liv­ing.

In Fe­bru­ary, some­one set fire to the shan­ty­town, and the pumper trucks that even­tu­ally ar­rived could do lit­tle but wa­ter its ashes. But the fire — and the saga that fol­lowed as of­fi­cials tried to re­lo­cate the res­i­dents — has laid bare a prob­lem that Buenos Aires and other me­trop­o­lises face as they grap­ple with grow­ing slums. The most pre­car­i­ous parts of the city, how­ever un­de­sir­able, are among the hard­est to re­place.

About one-third of the world’s ur­ban dwellers live in slums, and the United Na­tions es­ti­mates that the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in such con­di­tions will dou­ble by 2030 as a re­sult of rapid ur­ban­iza­tion in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. Latin Amer­ica is al­ready the most ur­ban­ized re­gion in the de­vel­op­ing world, but even in places where rural mi­gra­tion to ur­ban ar­eas has be­gun to level off — such as Ar­gentina — slums within cities con­tinue to grow at a fast pace, through good eco­nomic times and bad.

“Through­out Latin Amer­ica you have economies that are grow­ing and do­ing well, but the way the economies are grow­ing is ac­tu­ally gen­er­at­ing more shan­ty­towns,” said Erik Vit­trup, se­nior ad­viser on Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean for the U.N. Hu­man Set­tle­ments Pro­gram. “It’s a growth that is just gen­er­at­ing wealth for those who have it.”

Buenos Aires is re­cov­er­ing from a dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic crash in 2001, and its econ­omy has grown by more than 8 per­cent an­nu­ally over the past four years. Even so, pop­u­la­tion growth in the cap­i­tal is fastest in its shan­ty­towns, which con­tinue to pop up be­side rail­road tracks, ap­pear un­der bridges and even ex­pand across the grounds of an eco­log­i­cal re­serve.

The gov­ern­ment has pro­moted a plan to erad­i­cate two dozen of the worst slums — all of them, like Villa Cartón, prim­i­tive con­gre­ga­tions of tem­po­rary shacks built in vul­ner­a­ble lo­ca­tions. But the Villa Cartón fire showed that even when a slum dis­ap­pears, the city’s prob­lems do not.

When of­fi­cials moved the dis­placed res­i­dents to tents in a park, ill-timed storms turned deadly, killing a wo­man. When the gov­ern­ment of­fered the res­i­dents cash to en­cour­age them to move out of the city and into the prov­inces, many re­fused it, say­ing they couldn’t af­ford to move away from the city’s free health clin­ics. Some who ac­cepted the money promptly moved to other shan­ty­towns.

Some gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­gan ac­cus­ing un­elected slum lead­ers of set­ting the fire them­selves, claim­ing that they feared los­ing power if the city car­ried through with plans to move more peo­ple out.

Whoever set the fire couldn’t have found a more com­bustible tar­get. It was pure kin­dling.

‘We Have to Be Here’

Buenos Aires’s shan­ty­towns take sev­eral forms: vil­las mis­e­rias, or “neigh­bor­hoods of mis­ery,” the slums that — with enough money and in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments — con­ceiv­ably could be trans­formed into per­ma­nent neigh­bor­hoods with full ser­vices; casas tomadas, or “taken houses,” usu­ally large aban­doned build­ings over­taken by squat­ters; and asen­tamien­tos, which trans­lates loosely as “set­tle­ments,” prim­i­tive con­gre­ga­tions of tem­po­rary shacks built in vul­ner­a­ble places, like Villa Cartón. Ac­cord­ing to vary­ing es­ti­mates from city agen­cies, 300,000 to 500,000 in this city of 3 mil­lion live in the slums.

One of those peo­ple is Maria Ben­itez, 60, who had lived in Villa Cartón for two years be­fore it was burned down. About two weeks af­ter the fire, she sat out­side one of the tents that the city had erected for the res­i­dents. She ate a gray­ish gumbo of rice, pota­toes and carrots that had been dished out from a nearby gov­ern­ment trailer.

She had lived in an apart­ment down­town, she said, but then lost her job as a do­mes­tic ser­vant and couldn’t af­ford the rent.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble for some­one like me to buy land, so it was ei­ther stay in the street or go to Villa Cartón,” said Ben­itez, who has four grown chil­dren, two of whom live in Buenos Aires.

She and the hun­dreds of oth­ers tem­po­rar­ily liv­ing in the tent com­plex had re­fused to take a gov­ern­ment hand­out of $2,300 to $8,300 — a sub­sidy de­signed to al­low fam­i­lies to find other hous­ing op­tions. About half of the dis­placed res­i­dents took the money, but the other half stayed, hop­ing that they would be first in line for newly con­structed per­ma­nent hous­ing that the gov­ern­ment an­nounced would be built af­ter the fire.

“The only place we could af­ford with that money would be in the prov­ince, and none of us wants to go there,” said Ben­itez, who now works in a pay phone kiosk. “There are no jobs in the prov­ince, no ser­vices — there’s noth­ing. We have to be here.”

The econ­omy of Ar­gentina — as in most Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, with the ex­cep­tion of Brazil — is dom­i­nated by the cap­i­tal city. Rural ar­eas of the con­ti­nent have long been poor, fu­el­ing a mi­gra­tion that turned a re­gion that was pre­dom­i­nantly rural in 1950 into one that to­day is about 75 per­cent ur­ban. Di­min­ished in­vest­ment in rural ar­eas has re­in­forced the trend, said Vit­trup, the U.N. ad­viser.

Hop­ing to re­main in the city, Ben­itez and hun­dreds of her neigh­bors chose to re­main in the tents, curs­ing the con­di­tions as rains turned the ground be­neath them to mud. She worked her whole life in in­for­mal jobs, not pay­ing taxes or col­lect­ing re­tire­ment in­come. She said she was not about to give up on her one chance for a house that she be­lieves she de­serves.

“That’s why I’ll cel­e­brate my 61st birth­day here, fight­ing for a mis­er­able house of my own,” she said.

Anger and Im­pa­tience

The gov­ern­ment has built sev­eral hous­ing com­plexes in an ef­fort to per­ma­nently re­lo­cate res­i­dents of the worst slums. Some have been over­taken by squat­ters even be­fore their com­ple­tion, de­lay­ing the han­dover to the slum res­i­dents for whom they were in­tended. The com­plex in­tended for Villa Cartón faced a dif­fer­ent prob­lem: Res­i­dents of the work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood where the com­plex was to be built ob­jected, forc­ing the gov­ern­ment to look for a dif­fer­ent site.

“This sit­u­a­tion has gen­er­ated an­other con­flict — be­tween the lower mid­dle class and the lower classes — over who has rights to new hous­ing,” said Gabriela Cerutti, the city’s min­is­ter of hu­man rights in charge of hous­ing is­sues.

That new con­flict in­ten­si­fied the anger and im­pa­tience of the dis­placed res­i­dents of Villa Cartón, who de­manded faster ac­tion from of­fi­cials. Af­ter be­ing trans­ferred to sheds in an­other park, one group of res­i­dents trapped sev­eral gov­ern­ment work­ers inside a trailer one evening, de­mand­ing a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion.

“Sud­denly about 100 peo­ple had sur­rounded us in the trailer, beat­ing on it with sticks,” said Pa­tri­cia Malanca, one of the of­fi­cials in charge of the en­camp­ment. “The hos­til­ity was ex­treme. Our lives were at risk.”

The rea­son for the ten­sion, some of the res­i­dents ex­plained, is that they be­lieve the gov­ern­ment for years has been mak­ing prom­ises to them with­out de­liv­er­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the city au­di­tor, Vi­cente Mario Br­usca, in­ef­fi­ciency has plagued gov­ern­ment ef­forts to pro- vide ad­e­quate hous­ing for the poor. While pre­par­ing a re­port on hous­ing late last year, his of­fice dis­cov­ered that the gov­ern­ment had paid too much for sub­stan­dard ma­te­ri­als, in­curred ex­ces­sive ad­min­is­tra­tive costs and em­ployed too many work­ers in its ef­fort to al­le­vi­ate the low­in­come hous­ing short­age.

“With those rates of ef­fi­ciency, we es­ti­mated that it will take 80 to 100 years to re­solve the prob­lem of hous­ing here,” Br­usca said.

It is an elec­tion year, and Ar­gen­tine can­di­dates have em­pha­sized the need to im­prove hous­ing con­di­tions in the vil­las mis­e­rias, to grant res­i­dents prop­erty rights and to give them full ac­cess to city ser­vices.

Mean­while, the res­i­dents from Villa Cartón con­tinue to wait for per­ma­nent hous­ing, as some have for most of their lives.

Maria Estella Martinez, 42, grew up in one of the city’s older, more es­tab­lished slums, one that has been tar­geted for even­tual ur­ban­iza­tion and im­prove­ment. But af­ter Martinez sep­a­rated from her hus­band and faced tak­ing care of four chil­dren alone, she was forced to take a step even lower down the so­cial lad­der into Villa Cartón.

She had hoped the move was tem­po­rary, she said, but now has be­gun to doubt if she’ll ever get a per­ma­nent home.

She used to sell clothes to her neigh­bors, but the fire wiped out her in­ven­tory. The strug­gle to find a house af­ter the fire, she said, has wiped out most ev­ery­thing else.

“I don’t have the will to work any­more,” she said, in tears. “I don’t have the will to do any­thing.”


Res­i­dents line up for meals out­side a food tent in a Buenos Aires park where the gov­ern­ment built tem­po­rary hous­ing for those forced out of the Villa Cartón slum by a fire in Fe­bru­ary.

Of­fi­cials in Buenos Aires have pro­vided metal sheds to house dis­placed slum-dwellers, but ef­forts to build per­ma­nent hous­ing have stalled be­cause of lo­cal op­po­si­tion. As many as 500,000 of the city’s 3 mil­lion res­i­dents live in slums.

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