Blackouts have not been the only cause of picket activity over the past month — for a full week on both sides of the New Year the Illia Highway has been blocked by evicted residents from the Villa 31 shantytown neighbourhood. Instead of tackling this problem, City Hall and the national government are playing their usual blame game. Both have their arguments — local housing and free circulation on this highway are clearly municipal responsibilities which are being ignored yet the eviction was ordered by a federal judge (Sebastián Casanello) from federal land (belonging to the railways) — but it is not the point here to enter into this jurisdictional wrangle. Instead we would like to take this opportunity to restate the theme of our Christmas Eve editorial, which was substandard housing as the biggest problem for the near future — locally, nationally and globally. The United Nations informs us that if around a billion of the world’s seven billion inhabitants today are urban slum-dwellers, that number will treble by mid-century to a third of the nine billion in 2050. Although not widely recognized, substandard housing is surely the biggest challenge facing humanity — with the world’s obese now outnumbering the malnourished, hunger is soluble by comparison (which does not automatically mean that it will be solved).
But we cannot solve the world’s problems here — let us concentrate on Argentina in general and Villa 31 in particular. The latter mirrors the relentless growth of shantytowns worldwide, rising from a population of 12,200 in 2001 (a time of huge social problems from a disintegrating convertibility model) to 26,500 last year. This may not come as a surprise, given that housing is one of the various areas in which Mayor Mauricio Macri’s City Hall notoriously underspends its own budget, based on relatively modest estimates of social needs. But it is more surprising and more alarming that Villa 31 has never stopped growing even in the best years of last decade’s boom. And if the national government has a more pro-active housing policy than City Hall (in its first year the Pro-Crear Plan has trebled its annual target for delivering mortgage credits), this does not seem to go any further towards solving the problem.
The population figures do not do justice to the full scale of this social tragedy — since the land occupied is not increasing at the same pace, the tendency is to build upwards with ramshackle multi-storey buildings which are accidents waiting to happen while basic services (such as drinking water) grow steadily worse. A problem much deeper than a road picket.