On the night of Feb. 7, 2007, Monica witnessed the shantytown where she lived engulfed in flames. How the fire started is unknown, but it destroyed most of the precarious houses beneath Highway 7, in Villa Soldati, a neighborhood in south Buenos Aires. The place was also known as Villa Cartón, since most of the residents made their living retrieving cardboard and recycled materials from trash. Monica’s house did not burn down, but the government decided to evacuate everybody. Residents were transferred to temporary housing in Park Roca, on the southwestern limits of the city, where they waited for the public housing the government had promised.
The government builds public housing to solve the housing problems of those who need it most. However, instead of providing a long-lasting solution, the government often leaves public housing residents in a legal limbo, where they do not fully own their apartments or houses. This is the case with Monica and other residents in 17 percent of the 52,000 public housing apartments in Buenos Aires.
In 2013, six long years after the fire, the government allocated a two-bedroom apartment for Monica, her partner and their children in the public housing Father Mugica Complex, located in Villa Lugano, a few feet away from General Paz, the highway that divides the city from the Province of Buenos Aires. The apartment had a gas connection and a toilet connected to the sanitation network. For Monica, it seemed like a dream come true. And it was, for a few months, until one rainy day when water started to pour through the roof of Monica’s fourth-floor apartment, the top story of her building. Walls cracked. Short-circuits multiplied. In other flats in her housing complex, water flowed directly from the sockets, creating panic among neighbors. The ceilings collapsed. Later, floors gave out, as when a kitchen collapsed into an apartment beneath it. The apartments that had been allocated to Monica and others were full of structural problems. “It’s a miracle that no one has been killed yet,” Monica said.
Water flowed directly from the sockets, creating panic among neighbors.
Besides the construction issues, residents of the Father Mugica Complex also face problems stemming from having to live with new neighbors. Although the houses the residents lived in previously were not high-quality constructions, they were their own houses nonetheless. In the public apartment complex, however, residents have less control and are dependent on their neighbors: The upstairs neighbors have to allow access to their apartment so that you can fix the water leak in your apartment, and if the neighbors do not cooperate, there is nothing to be done. The fact that people are from different neighborhoods and had never met before does not help. Besides the former residents of Villa Cartón, the Father Mugica Complex houses families from Villa 21-24 and Agustín Magaldi settlement, next to the Riachuelo River’s basin.
On top of being stuck in a no man’s land, at the edge of the city, residents found themselves in the middle of a dispute between the national and the city governments, back when they were governed by opposing parties. The issue is further complicated by the construction peculiarities of the housing complex. The Father Mugica Complex started in 2008 as an agreement between the national government and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo association, a human rights organization, as part of Shared Dreams, a program focused on low-income neighborhoods. Under the agreement, the association was responsible for the housing construction, which was paid for by the national government, while the city government allocated the housing to the families. There were many people involved in carrying out the project, with no one accepting final responsibility.
In 2012, the association was accused of embezzling construction funds. Many of the people who were in charge, like Hebe de Bonafini, the association’s president, and Sergio Shoklender, her adviser, are under judicial investigation. As a result, the construction was assigned to a private company, Sentra S.A., which finally completed the apartments. However, both the national and the city governments had their reservations — they did not believe the apartments were ready due to structural flaws.
Despite this, the City Institute for Housing (Instituto de Vivienda de la Ciudad or IVC) responsible for state funding housing in the city was in a rush to relocate those living in poor housing conditions elsewhere to these apartments. Some, like Monica, moved in. They did not know what they were getting themselves into.
From then on, the new residents began years of struggle for the government to acknowledge and resolve the apartments’ structural problems. The judiciary ruled in favor of the families several times, and in 2013, the national and city governments were ordered to make the necessary repairs. However, the core problems remain unresolved. Nowadays, there is a small maintenance team from the IVC that makes minor repairs, but it cannot cope with the needs of the 2,800 people living in over 600 apartments.
While the legal battle continues, Monica is trying to organize her neighbors to take care of the buildings. However, there is the legal barrier: Monica and others are not the formal owners of their apartments. The property is still in the hands of the government, which means that the residents cannot form a homeowners’ association, which would normally make sure that the common areas are clean, the stairs are fixed, and the park is tidy.
Having a property deed might seem like a secondary and bureaucratic issue, and for many residents, it is. Their energies are focused on fighting for decent housing, not on having a piece of paper. But the property deed is a tool that can help improve people’s quality of life.
A study conducted by two economists — Ernesto Schargrodsky, president of the Torcuato Di Tella University, and Sebastián Galiani, now the secretary for economic policy in the Ministry of Finance — concluded that land titling is correlated with several positive outcomes, such as increases in the quality of property and investment in children’s education. Children living in households that have property deeds attend more years of schooling and have higher rates of school completion.
Land titling increases the quality of the property and investment in children’s education.
Schargrodsky and Galiani conducted their study in the Francisco Solano neighborhood in Quilmes, a city in the Buenos Aires Province. As part of a settlement in the early 1980s, some of the original owners sold their land to the government, which then allocated it to the renters, the subsequent legal owners of the homes. Other owners decided not to sell, and the renters living on that land are now in a legal limbo.
For this article, the Urban and Housing Policy Research Center at the Torcuato Di Tella University carried out analysis of public housing in Buenos Aires. Just like Schargrodsky and Galiani found almost a decade ago, this study confirmed a positive relationship between legal ownership of public housing and quality of life. Looking at the 2010 census, one can see a relationship between legal ownership and certain indicators, such as secondary school completion rates, living in overcrowded or poor sanitary conditions, and high unemployment. In housing complexes in which the percentage of legal ownership is only 19 percent, the proportion of households with unmet basic needs is about 17 percent. However, when legal ownership is widespread (over 76 percent), the percentage of households with unmet basic needs falls to 7 percent. In housing complexes with a high percentage of legal ownership, the percentage of people who completed secondary school is slightly higher: 61 percent compared to 68 percent.
“Once residents have some security in regard to property ownership, they can invest more in the improvement and care of their houses,” said Cynthia Goytía, director of the Urban and Housing Policy Research Center at the Torcuato Di Tella University. She also added that “when their housing problem is solved, they can focus on other things, like further education.”
“When their housing issue is solved, they can focus on other things, like a higher education.”
Even though holding a property deed is a powerful tool, residents living in 17 percent of the 52,000 apartments for which the IVC is responsible for do not have one. In some cases, such as the Father Mugica Complex, residents were never given property deeds; in other cases, only some of the apartments were regularized. “Inside the complexes, there are differences among the buildings where residents have deeds and the ones that don’t. Had the state had given the deeds when they [the apartments] were handed over, it is very probable that the right incentives could have been created for the buildings’ maintenance and care by neighbors and homeowners’ associations,” Goytía said.
Source: Source: Chequeado on the basis of IVC data and Agustín Negri (Externalidades de la vivienda social. El caso de la ciudad de Buenos Aires).
In some cases, such as Monica’s, residents are without property deeds because the government never completed construction. The government is in a rush to relocate people living in poor conditions and moves residents into unfinished public housing without undergoing proper inspection of the construction companies’ work. In other cases, the government fails to complete its own bureaucratic processes, so it cannot sell the housing units to the residents or give them the property deeds. In all cases, when the state does not complete the land titling process, it leaves residents in a legal limbo, not being able to organize themselves or to maintain their housing complexes.
In 2011, the legislature of the City of Buenos Aires passed a law to regulate the ownership of public housing. The numbers did in fact improve: In the last five years (2012-2017), the average of housing deeds per year was 1,100 deeds compared to 600 per year for the previous decade (2000-2011). At this rate, it would still require eight years to fix the current situation, provided that all new properties from now on have the corresponding deeds.
Juan Maquieyra, the director of the IVC, says that making progress in regulating ownership of public housing is one of the IVC’s priorities. He says that the government has learned from past experiences. Today, according to Maquieyra, deeds are allocated at the same time the properties are assigned to families, as has been done in the housing complexes of San Antonio and Lacarra.
One thing that public housing residents fear is that once they become legal property owners, they will have to deal with the buildings’ structural problems by themselves, and that the government will once again attempt to relinquish responsibility. The 2011 law regulating ownership of public housing established that even if the apartments are registered to residents, the government cannot abdicate its responsibilities when it comes to construction and improvements.
The construction problems of the Father Mugica Complex, where Monica and her family live, have some particularities, but the history of abandonment repeats itself in many cases, such as the big, public housing complexes built over 40 years ago.
One example is the Soldati Complex. The complex is huge — it has 3,200 apartments where around 18,000 people live. Built between 1973 and 1978, it was used to house people who were relocated due to the construction of highways, who used to live in tenements in La Boca or who were affected by the neighborhood resettlement programs during years of the dictatorship. No property deeds were given back then either, and today, after a formalization process carried out in recent years, 9 percent of Soldati’s inhabitants still do not have their deeds.
The Soldati Complex and Father Mugica Complex share some of the similar problems due to the lack of maintenance: Sewers overflow, pipes often break, water tanks are dirty, and elevators rarely work in buildings that can be as tall as 15 stories.
Soldati was modeled on the big projects launched in developed countries in the 1930s and that were built on a mass scale after WWII to alleviate housing shortages. By the time Soldati was built in the 1970s, some of these projects had already been declared failures, since they ended up concentrating the poor at city margins.
Soldati, like other mega housing projects in Argentina and abroad, was built to create an ideal life, for its residents, but this is not the reality for most of those living there: Spaces designated for neighborhood shops that never opened are now precarious apartments, while wide corridors designed to facilitate traffic are blocked with doors and bars by residents who fear being robbed.
One major challenge is the size of the complex itself. With 3,200 apartments inhabited by 18,000 people, it is virtually impossible to gather Soldati’s residents together and make administrative decisions. Once the apartments were completed, the government did little to organize housing committees and neglected its responsibility for building maintenance.
However, many residents are trying to address the maintenance problems themselves and have created several buildings committees to do so. Karina is one of the committee organizers. “Those who have one-bedroom apartments pay a community maintenance fee of $13 each, and those who have two-bedroom apartments pay $15. With that money we try to fix what we can, we cut the grass and change some of the pipes,” Karina said. But building committees have limited resources and cannot solve structural problems or issues that go beyond their buildings.
In 2001, the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires declared housing and environmental emergency in the complex and ordered the city government to take the necessary measures to “solve structural and construction flaws, improve infrastructure and environmental cleaning.” The city government was also instructed to move forward with a proposal for the “realization and conclusion of the registration process.” The state of emergency was supposed to last a year. It got extended for another year and in 2003 the technical commission in charge detailed the works needed to be completed. In 2014, over a decade since the declaration of emergency, the City Administrative and Tax Court pointed out that this work was still ongoing.
In 2015, Soldati’s lack of maintenance had dire consequences: Cristian Crespo, a 17-year old, was running down the stairs in the housing complex with his two friends. He leaned on a handrail that broke and fell to his death from a sixth floor of a building. Following the accident, the IVC fixed that handrail and made other small improvements.
Problems in Soldati persist, and the government only acts when residents appeal to the courts to intervene. Today, there are 14 open cases registered in the city judiciary concerning poor conditions in the complexes. Among the judicial cases concerning Soldati, there is one for buildings 85, 87 and 88. Another one demands improvements in buildings 90, 91, 92, 93 and 94. A different legal challenge demands for housing emergency to be declared in building 61 and another one asks for the rehabilitation of building 8 and the buildings around it. Even when problems in one building are solved as a result of legal challenges, similar problems in other buildings are unaddressed. In 2016, the judiciary fined the president of the IVC to push him to address some of these problems.
The IVC admits there are flaws. Maquieyra assumed leadership of the IVC in 2016, but the center-right Republic Proposal party of which he is a member has been in charge of public housing policy in the city for more than a decade.
Maquieyra, acknowledges that there was no general plan for the maintenance of public housing complexes in the past. But he promises that this will change. “We have created a general design that is a 12-year plan,” Maquieyra said, based on a risk matrix identifying buildings in most critical condition. “This plan is being implemented. The first urban settlement out of the three we will work on is a five- to six-year plan for Piedrabuena,” he added. Piedrabuena is another big, historic complex, like Soldati, and they are only a few blocks away from each other.
However, there is still uncertainty whether the funds will be available to complete this work. In 2017, the IVC designated around $10 million for the maintenance of public housing in the city. This represented a 38 percent increase compared to the 2016 budget, but only 10 percent of the $100 million that had been originally planned.
The IVC explains the funding shortfall by pointing out that it was counting on a transfer of around $40 million from the national government in 2017 that did not take place. But even if that amount is taken out of the equation, $50 million more should have been designated for public housing maintenance. According to the IVC, the rest of the funding was designated for other purposes, such as the upkeep of tenements and half-way houses or complexes that are not officially within the maintenance program.
Maquieyra also says that the IVC’s housing construction policy will change. Namely, IVC will not build large complexes for thousands of people anymore, but instead build smaller complexes with fewer buildings that will rise just three to four floors. This is what was done in the city’s new public housing complexes, like Lacarra.
The IVC will not build large complexes for thousands of people anymore, but instead build smaller complexes with fewer buildings.
Another policy change, according to Maquieyra, is that public housing residents are now able to turn to the IVC throughout all stages of the process. In the past, there was no wholistic plan within the city government to deal with the needs of public housing residents. “Once a building was more or less finished, they would move everyone in,” Maquieyra said, without worrying what would happen afterwards. Today, the IVC is better organized and works more closely with families. “We now have a general process, before, during and after people move in,” he said.
The IVC’s biggest efforts have been focused on Villa 20, Villa Rodrigo Bueno and other neighborhoods that are undergoing urban regeneration. There, poor families whose homes are being cleared to make way for new constructions are being resettled in public housing.
However, few solutions are being offered to families such as Monica’s, who live on the outskirts of the city in defective apartments that are severely overcrowded. In Buenos Aires, there is a shortage of 72,000 apartments, according to the last estimate published by the city government, but at the moment, this is not a government priority.
Experts concur that public housing has to better address the needs of its residents, and they welcome the government’s steps to improve oversight of the construction, allocation and maintenance of newly built complexes. However, it remains to be seen what will happen to the thousands of people already living in public housing with construction and other problems. Government intent to solve these problems is there, but the full funding needed to do so is yet to materialize.
This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. We thank Cecilia Segura, president of the General Audit Office of the City, Jonatan Baldiviezo of the Observatory of the Right to the City, Patricio Clare and Vanina Lekerman of the Office of the Ombudsman of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Florencia Girola, researcher at CONICET, and the residents of the Soldati Complex, Lita and Karina, and of the Father Mugica Complex, and Monica, Alicia, Antonio and Graciela, who contributed to this article with their time and expertise.