Public policies in relation to slums.

The attention of poverty has a fundamental chapter in the improvement of the living conditions of the most deprived sectors. Although there is no strict correlation, it can be said that housing and its surroundings are the best way to define the socioeconomic level of a family. Living in a slum is considered for low social scale. This has nothing to do with the person’s dignity or with his moral values.

The self-esteem problem is obviously not the only one. The living conditions in shantytowns are deficient in every way. Those who govern have therefore the duty to implement policies and create conditions to encourage inhabitants of such settlements to achieve better housing environments.

In this document, we will analyze the phenomenon of slums or shantytowns and the possible policies to be applied in the future. We will focus particularly on the metropolitan region of Buenos Aires Province.

1 – Today’s reality

There are 33 slums in the metropolitan region, of which 20 are within the perimeter of the City of Buenos Aires and 13 in the suburbs. Practically all of them were formed by intrusion in state-own or private lands. Norms of subdivision or edification were not respected. The most common has been to start from small plots to mount housing of precarious materials and afterward replace them with masonry on elementary foundations, without altering the initial surface. The lack of sewers was corrected with cesspools, individual or common to more than one dwelling.

In some cases, the area initially occupied responded to land already divided among them, registered and with municipal streets. Later by intrusion or by degradation they became settlements with all the characteristics of the slums.

The shantytowns with the most valued locations began to see the growth in height of their constructions. As these heights were not foreseen in the foundation, the risk of collapse began to become more palpable. There were in this sense warnings from the National Academy of Engineering and Architect Juan Carlos Poli, advisor of the Government of the City. Mr. Arturo Bignoli president of the National Academy of Engineering at the time estimated that the homes of the slum called 31 should not exceed 5 stories in height. Up to now, collapses have not occurred, although the risk remains. That height has not been exceeded.

There are no titles or horizontal property, however, “owners” and “tenants” are recognized. In some way the “owners” make others respect their condition and their ability to transmit it through sales and purchases. Certainly, with this weak legal status, no significant investment is possible to improve a building. Nor could community improvements be achieved, such as streets, squares, if they were not made by governments with public funds and without input from neighbors.

The water supply in the beginnings of a settlement was resolved by the use of common taps linked to a perforation or connected to a network of nearby running water. Over time the inhabitants develop a network to bring water to their home by installing elevated tanks. When this occurs and the consumption increases without cost, the volume of effluent is also increased, causing the overflow of the cesspools.

Electric power also reaches the shantytowns through clandestine connections to the network, initially unauthorized. With the passing of time, the concession companies corrected this irregularity by installing a meter that records the electric consumption of the slum. There are no individual meters per dwelling. The bill is paid by the municipality. This modus operandi induces excesses of consumption that periodically generates blackouts. The protests suggest that these people consider the free provision of energy as an acquired right.

The planimetric distribution of buildings does not significantly interfere in the physical feasibility of electricity and water supply, but it does for the circulation of vehicles, security, hygiene, the collection of waste and other services. Due to the lack of accessibility and circulation, openings are created for drug trafficking, informal commerce and crime. Overcrowding generates promiscuity, conflicts and vices. In many cases, the shantytown produces the formation of future misfits who go out to commit crimes in the surroundings. These deviations are neutralized in many cases with the efforts of public agencies and NGOs that work in teaching, training and manual tasks. The Government of the City of Buenos Aires has made an effort in this regard. It has arranged the opening of assistance offices to obtain documentation, first aid rooms, schools, etc. However, it is very difficult to counteract the harmful effects of the lack of police control, the absence of ordinary justice, and the use of mafia methods to defend informal property.

The huge sum of public funds aimed at protecting or improving the situation of people who have appropriated land that they did not acquire, and that do not pay taxes or services, is seen by the compliant taxpayers as an injustice. It is not difficult to imagine the feeling of a common citizen, who has acquired a land with hard-earned savings and has built a house there complying with rules and paying taxes.

This feeling of lack of justice has no counterpart in the recognition by the slum inhabitants of their use at the expense of others. In many cases, they develop a collective solidarity and a full social self-justification. There is the phenomenon of an exaltation of the place, not only by the residents but also by public and private officials, priests and social workers, who tend to these settlements. You hear expressions, honest or not, wishing that the shantytown is preserved in its characteristics and resist moving to another place. This explains the rejection of the eradication and relocation alternative. It turns out that urbanization is the alternative usually preferred by the inhabitants of slums, and consequently also by governments.

2 – Alternatives for a solution

2.1 – Evolution towards higher housing quality through the granting of title deeds

Property encourages individuals to better protect their assets and try to value them. Slums are illegal settlements, usually, settle on state-own landsLegal precariousness reduces incentives to improve homes. A title on housing would restore these incentives and would grant security. It would also open the possibility that through the sales of properties, to the same developer, the slum would finally be transformed into an urbanized area of higher quality and value.

However, there are difficulties of instrumentation. We mention them:

Shantytowns are inhabited both by “owners”, that is, by those who built or bought their home, or by “tenants”. In the absence of a title, this characterization cannot be legally demonstrated. Who is given the title?

How does a public official justify handing over a property title to someone who has illegally occupied a plot of land?

The delivery of a property title would not be a way to encourage new illegal land occupations?

It does not seem possible to give a title to houses and land of absolutely insufficient dimensions to construct a decent house.

The first question is not banal. There are “owners” who have a good economic situation and own and rent several houses. It would not be fair to subsidize them. From the social point of view, it is perhaps justified to help the “tenants”. However, this would accentuate the conflict. The Government of the City of Buenos Aires has arranged in Slum 31 to give titles only to the “owners”. It will also establish some inhibitory mechanism to prevent further sales to developers. There is a vocation for the Slum to improve, but also that it continues being owned by small owners.

As previously noted, the settlement itself is illegal, generally comprising the usurpation of unused state-own lands. The economic activity that takes place inside the property is mostly informal, and in a high proportion also illegal. The slum can accommodate drug trafficking groups, illegal gangs, drug addicts and thieves. For these groups, the formalization of the settlement is not beneficial. For example, some families pay rent but there is no title deed. Although they can benefit from the formalization of their situation and their rent, who receives the rent won’t. Those owners are the ones who would represent an internal resistance to change.

A serious drawback, to take into account, is granting ownership titles on land and buildings that do not meet standards of minimum dimensions to be buildable. Many of the shantytowns were born by the invasion of undivided lands. Someone who directed the occupants subdivided by hand in irregular lots of approximately 4mts x 4mts. From there they built squares that later evolved in height and in greater solidity.

The eventual advantage of having property titles is that they can be given as collateral for obtaining loans.

It would seem that before granting titles it would require that a reform and urbanization to take place.

2.2- Urbanize

The urbanization of the slums in charge of the government would consist of:

  1. a) renovate and modify the existing constructions to improve not only their appearance but also their habitability and comfort.
  2. b) open, expand and rectify streets to improve access to services, ambulances, and police.
  3. c) improve the integration of slums with the neighborhood.
  4. d) build squares, schools, sports spaces, health centers, nurseries and drug rehabilitation centers.
  5. e) build service networks such as running water, sewage, electricity, gas networks, etc.
  6. f) provide slums with administrative services such as claims office, documentation center, payment of services, bank, etc.

Opposition to the urbanization from some slum inhabitants should not be ruled out because their informal or illegal and even criminal activities are at risk.

These improvements would allow a revaluation of the houses and an improvement of the quality of life of its inhabitants. They would also facilitate integration into the general urban system of the city. For these reasons, urbanization is the preferred alternative for the inhabitants and consequently by politicians and governments.

Urbanization has its difficulties, the main one being its cost and financing. Given the limited economic capacity of the direct beneficiaries and the impossibility of generating income to repay private investors, the project must be carried out by the government. The funds will come either from the budget or from loans received and guaranteed by the government. The investments required by the urbanization tend to be high. That depends on the scope that you want to give it. It’s not unlikely that the investment amount, added to the value of the unoccupied land and divided by the number of existing houses in the shantytown, results in a sufficient amount of money to give everyone a satisfactory housing solution in another area of the city.

Another great difficulty is the realization of the improvements without evicting existing homes and businesses. In fact it will always be necessary to demolish some houses and relocate their occupants.

Both to grant property titles and to prepare an urbanization plan it is necessary to have censuses that provide information on the number of inhabitants per dwelling, type of employment, level of education, etc. It must be decided which houses can be improved and which ones should be rebuilt. Those who have sufficient income should be relieved to be able to acquire the property title through a long-term loan.

2.3- Eradicate and relocate

Eradication and relocation elsewhere have been implemented numerous times in similar towns and neighborhoods throughout the world. An alternative is for the government to relocate all the families of the slum offering them a home in a new neighborhood built by the government in exchange for the abandonment of the current housing.

The relocation can be alternatively to other neighborhoods of houses built for that purpose or to existing houses acquired by the residents themselves with funds or loans provided by the state. The eradication allows the evicted lands to be reused or commercialized to cover all or partially all the costs incurred.

An alternative, applicable to vacate locations of high-value land, is the sale to a private investor with the task of negotiating and compensating the eviction with money or with another house. The gradually released lands become the property of the investor, who undertakes the task of developing the area respecting a master plan.

Given the high intrinsic value of the lands of some slums in the City of Buenos Aires – such as slums 31 and 31 bis which are located in the heart of the city, a few meters from the most expensive rents and hotels in the capital – it might be a good return for a private investor.

For example, the land occupied today could be tendered to the highest bidder, with the condition that it be held accountable and face the cost of relocating the inhabitants under pre-established conditions. In this case, investment and financing would not be a problem for the public sector since it would come from the private investor.

The problem would be the political impact and its social acceptance. There is a high percentage of citizens who would expose a high degree of distrust to an economic transaction of this style between a private investor and the state, especially when extremely vulnerable populations are involved. This distrust should be minimized by offering the greatest support to the inhabitants of the shantytowns, and the public dissemination of the program and its social benefits. In addition, there should be a strict control that ensures and demonstrates that the private investor is offering each family a better quality home that they are abandoning, with title deed, in an existing urbanized neighborhood.

This is the path that India decided to take, where one of the largest and most famous illegal settlements in the world is located. In the center of the city of Bombay, Dharavi is a settlement of around two square kilometers and is home to a census population of around 600,000 inhabitants. The project consists of the construction of seven-story apartment buildings with homes of 41 square meters for each family. The project, which has yet to materialize, points to the construction of 2,800,000 square meters of residences for 57,000 families, accompanied by the construction of offices, schools, parks, and streets.

In Buenos Aires, the viability of this proposal will have to be evaluated for each particular slum and in relation to its location, given that the value of the land is of great importance at the moment of getting interested investors. Slums 31 and 31 bis is a good example.

Eradication and relocation are convenient in cases of settlements that present complicated infrastructure to restructure, where it would be difficult and even impossible to urbanize. However, if the relocation task is not executed correctly, there is a risk of recreating a shantytown in another space. That is, the settlement would move from one area to another without changing its characteristics. In the 70’ the government tried to eradicate slum 31, moving half of its inhabitants to new buildings constructed by the government, what is nowadays known as Fuerte Apache. This set of concrete modular buildings was degraded in its state and in its occupation, becoming a place of overcrowding, poverty and delinquency. That is why a relocation policy, necessarily involves urbanization measures and the granting of title deeds, in the area where the inhabitants are to be transferred.

It is likely to find resistance by the inhabitants of a slum that is intended to be relocated. To minimize the rejection, not only they must be compensated adequately but it is important to know the social relationships, political attitudes and institutions inside the slum. It’s important to know how people are organized and who are the natural leaders so its possible to reach satisfactory agreements.

Written by: Manuel Solanet, Director of Public Policies, Freedom, and Progress