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October 31, 2014
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BA City still in denial about ‘ghost slums’

Squatters stage a sit-in in the BA City neighbourhood of Villa Lugano.
By Mariano Beldyk
For The Herald

Shantytowns have expanded in several neighbourhoods but officials don’t recognize them

Hidden behind the official figures of impoverished illegal settlements and housing shortages in Buenos Aires City, there are a number of ghost shantytowns spread along the urban geography which seem to have fallen, strange as it may sound, off the map.

Everyone, including City Hall authorities, are aware of their existence but they are just not recognized with the same official status as No. 31 and 31 bis in Retiro, No. 1-11-14 in Bajo Flores or No. 21-24 in Barracas neighbourhood, among others.

Consequently, these impoverished sites and their denizens subsist in a far more precarious situation than the ones living in the traditional illegal neighbourhoods since they lack any umbrella act compelling the State to intervene in its urbanization.

A look at the Social Development Ministry’s database reveals that all infrastructure works carried out in shantytowns during 2013, the ones currently under execution and the projects planned for the rest of 2014 were all and exclusively destined to the “official” shantytowns: No. 3 Fátima, No. 20 in Villa Lugano, No. 6 Cildáñez, and the list continues. No unrecognized settlement was included.

Last Wednesday, a group of activists from social movements like the Darío Santillán Front and shantytown residents organized in the Villero Independent Movement, marched downtown to demand that the local government speed up the development plans conceived for the traditional illegal neighbourhoods and include the “new” ones, although some of them are already 30-plus years old by now.

According to a report from the BA City Housing and Habitat Secretariat, in the last few years the number of ghost shantytowns reached 37 even though many of them have already been dismantled.

In parallel, City Hall do recognize Villa Soldati neighbourhood’s Calacita and Piletones and the 13 numbered shantytowns still standing since the 1976-1983 dictatorship’s eradication process concluded.

The larger part of them are located in the southern neighbourhoods of the City, mainly in Commune 8 (Villa Lugano) which concentrates 32.9 percent of the total urban impoverished population based on the 2010 census.

“Indeed, there are unrecognized shantytowns in BA City and there is a historic reason for that,” sociologist María Soledad Arqueros Mejica, who is part of the Urban Studies unit in the University of Buenos Aires’s Gino Germani Institute, told the Herald.

“Back in 1984, a series of bills ruling the state’s responsibility for the regularization of these kinds of impoverished settlements were passed. They focused on the most traditional shantytowns and deliberately left aside the later ones. As years went by, this line has continued outlining a policy which has been depriving part of the City population of its constitutional rights,” she added.

Cases

The Rodrigo Bueno illegal settlement, named after the famous Córdoba province cumbia singer who perished in a car accident in 2000, is perhaps the most renowned case of a ghost shantytown in BA City.

Based on the last census numbers, it was the illegal settlement which grew the most, from 350 residents in 2001 to 1,795 in 2010.

Its first dwellers settled near Costanera Sur avenue during the 1980s and set the foundations of the current informal neighbourhood over the dumped rubble of public works on the banks of the River Plate. Later, authorities passed a law to preserve the area for its rich biodiversity, shaping the present Ecological Reserve.

Judge Elena Liberatori, who is also currently ruling over the Papa Francisco (Pope Francis) settlement in Villa Lugano neighbourhood, ordered City Hall to urbanize the area in 2011. But the local government appealed the decision back then.

For local Cabinet Chief Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, it was a “nonsense” decision: “We can’t endorse with state recognition those who take over a public space,” he justified.

In the last few years, its residents have organized and come out with a homemade urbanization project they want to take to the Legislature to be legally recognized. They are not the only ones as others illegal settlement inhabitants like the ones from Fraga site, also known as El playón de Chacarita near the San Martín railway line terminal, have also designed a master plan under the supervision of specialists from the University of Buenos Aires Architectural School.

However, no positive response came from City Hall nor the Legislature’s major parties.

“The problem is we don’t own the land in those cases so we can’t work with them, as we are doing in other cases, on a shared social management scheme basis,” Housing and Habitat Secretariat Marina Klemensiewicz explained to this newspaper.

“During their last round of talks, (Mayor) Mauricio Macri has asked President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner several times to transfer the land ownership to the City and (PRO deputy Federico) Pinedo has even introduced a number of bills with no result,” she completed.

For City Hall, it’s crucial to possess the title deeds of land since their housing scheme is based on three core ideas: residents’ involvement in the urbanization planning, social inclusion and the building procedure itself, avoiding local middlemen.

When talking with the Herald, Klemensiewicz put special emphasis on these concepts since the natural conclusion to the process, she highlighted, is handing the title deeds over the land to residents.

For her part, Gino Germani sociologist Arqueros expressed her suspicion about PRO administration’s true interests in its housing policies.

“‘Since 2008, eviction orders have incremented like in the Magaldi illegal settlement in the context of the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin clean-up. Housing programmes were underfunded and fragmented into different agencies and they started to implement the land-title regularization programmes without finishing first the neighbourhood urbanization plans.”

Arqueros alluded to the No. 19 “Barrio INTA” shantytown’s resolution as an example.

“The so-called regularization left aside the factors oriented to improving the quality of life and, instead, it was introduced as a property and market access issue. Title deeds were handed out even though overcrowding and the lack of basic services for living conditions persisted.”

For its part, City Hall firmly denied having a real-state hidden agenda.

“We do not put into practice isolated policies. Handing out the title deeds is the end of a process. Those who criticize this are not looking at the whole picture,” Klemensiewicz maintained.

History

During the last dictatorship, shantytowns were catalogued with numbers as part of an eradicating scheme designed to wipe out, one by one, all impoverished settlements within City limits. Their residents were forciby evicted with no further housing solution but relocated on the other side of the Capital’s border, in Greater Buenos Aires.

In no more than five years starting from 1976 when 38 years ago tomorrow the military seized power by overthrowing president María Estela Martínez de Perón, the shantytown population was reduced by 82 percent and 17 illegal neighbourhoods were dismantled.

Later, after the return of democracy and with the Radicals in government, the abandoned but never demolished settlements began to repopulate once again. The hyperinflationary crisis which ruined middle-income sectors contributed greatly to this process.

In the next decade, the flip-side of the Convertibility illusion, characterized by high levels of unemployment and the dissolution of the social fabric, did the rest.

Nowadays, of the original 31 identified shantytowns during the military era, 13 remained standing in BA City. They all have witnessed sustained growth in their population levels to the point of having quadrupled since the 1980s.

By 2001, its population was already 106,940, three times the number recorded 20 years before. And the trend continued during the following decade: in 2010, the new census revealed that people living in shantytowns reached a new record of 163,587 inhabitants.

Scholars affirm that if the population of ghost shantytowns were included, the numbers would be higher.

@mibeldyk

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