Argentine cities today, especially the city of Buenos Aires, are suffering a profound crisis. Districts of the dispossessed expand, new informal settlements bloom, and everyday more people live in hotels, furnished rooms, tenement houses, or simply in the street. The housing emergency is undeniable.

Argentine cities today, especially the city of Buenos Aires, are suffering a profound crisis.

Parallelly, a "policy of expulsion of the poor" has grown to nearly the same dimensions through evictions, increasing rent and lowered purchasing power, a high level of deregulation in the real estate industry, and a lack of public resources for the construction of public housing.

Today, the poor districts are at the mercy of selective public policies and urban abandonment that coincides with the social collapse of working families, an increased competition for access to collective benefits, and chronic unemployment. The state presence is almost exclusively through its police apparatus.

The theme isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to Argentina. For some time now the citizenry has begun to talk of a new right, the right to the city. Urban marginalization, polarization, and social and territorial exclusion are but a few of the formulas that accompany this problem that began with neoliberalism and the erosion of the welfare state.

The societies of North America, Western Europe, and Latin America have specific terms to designate stigmatized communities, situated on the lowest rung of the hierarchy of cities. Ghetto, banlieue, favela, or villa are some of the names of these "zones without rights," the areas where, according to Loïc Wacqant, "turn-of-the-century urban pariahs" live.

In Argentina, this territorial relegation is today evident and indiscreet. It coincides and is also fed by a stigmatization and growing criminalization of the people. Throughout it all, the discourse on insecurity reigns in the media and returns as a theme in electoral campaigns, specifically in the June legislative elections. In this discourse of fear, the poor of the cities are worthless, dangerous, and violent.

In this context, and in the name of public spaces, urban centers are shamelessly privatized. While proposals to apply the death penalty appear in the public discourse, construction of walls and the eradication of the villas are also discussed. In this way, the dream of a city without the poor is carried out, little by little, and in the most violent ways.

Buenos Aires Never Sleeps

María and her husband have a rancho at the bottom of a freeway, in the tourist district of San Telmo. They have lived here since leaving their home in Lanús, in the province of Buenos Aires, and after spending four years in an abandoned freight car, three more squatting in a house, and two shared between tenements and rooming houses in the city.

Now, drinking a long since watered down mate, they describe how their last eviction took place. In the early morning hours, a knock woke them from the mattress where they slept; "Come on, get up, let’s go" were the first orders cried. Five men in black sweatshirts and hoods had already begun to kick and push their possessions with sticks. They threw around mattresses, blankets, clothes, and three canvas bags with plastic bottles and boxes. Nearby a camouflaged garbage truck waited for them with 15 more individuals, in case things got serious.

The attack, says María, was carried out by a government mob. She refers to the Public Space Control Unit (UCEP) created by Decree 1232 with the mission of removing individuals from the street, "dissuading them," and "persuading them." Its real objective is to attack people that live in plazas, parks, and public buildings, thus displacing Buenos Aires Presente (BAP), which was in charge of offering provisional lodging and which is today run by the retired soldier, Pablo Gabriel Díaz.

The task force is composed of 29 temporary employees that fall under the Ministry of Environment and Public Spaces, run by Juan Pablo Piccardo. It has a budget of a million pesos, wages approaching 1,200 pesos, and a cost of 1,500 pesos per operation.

It has functioned officially since October 2008, with government leadership headed by the former president of Boca Juniors, the businessman Mauricio Macri. But according to Facundo Di Filippo, chairman of the Housing Commission in the Buenos Aires legislature, UCEP has existed since the administration of Anibal Ibarra, a former candidate for the national assembly.

"The first complaint that we received about a mob forcefully expelling poor people from the street was in December 2006 along the western train line. Public officials from the current administration affirmed that they did nothing more than make legal a taskforce that already existed," says Di Fillipo.

If María and her husband were a bit older, this story would sound familiar. During the last military dictatorship Domingo Bussi, from the state of Tucuman, wanted a city without poor people, and he created a taskforce that hunted indigents, burned their settlements, and drove them into the Catamarca desert.

The early morning UCEP operations, with no judicial order or warning and within a quasi-legal framework, are not much different. Because of this, the organism has been denounced by the Defense of the People of the City (Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad), social organizations, human rights organizations, and opposition legislators.

"Macri has a plan to turn Buenos Aires into a great country. This is its front for ridding the city of the poor and creating exclusivity in the name of public space. But this group is illegal, they decide who is and who isn’t a usurper when that should be a judge’s decision," Liliana Parada, legislator for Social Equality (Igualdad Social) commented on the issue.

Nevertheless, evictions are not limited to people living in the street. Although there are no official figures—a way of denying the problem of the housing crisis—the Buenos Aires Coordinator of Tenements (CIBA) calculates that since 2007, 10,000 families have been evicted from their homes. Similarly, the General Tribunal Counsel of Buenos Aires reported that in the last year there are a thousand more people in the street due to evictions.

The first wave of expulsions began in 2007, nearly tripling the rates of previous years, especially from private property. Financial speculation among the real estate lobby, contained by the state and a deregulated housing market, was the determining factor pressuring the advancement of evictions that were already occurring.

According to the 1998 Report on Human Rights by the Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS), this process also had the fundamental support of the judicial power. Since conflicts over housing have become a part of the judicial field they have suffered a major transformation: stripped of political implications, without realizing the effects on social rights, they have been processed, and continue to be processed, as issues belonging to civil or penal law.

This is how Pilar Arcidiácono, director of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Program of CELS, describes it: "Judicial power is a great facilitator because it looks at evictions without taking into account the violation of previous social rights. With this in mind, it is evident how difficult it is for the poorest areas of the city to access justice. Even though normative recognition of social rights has advanced, the groups with the least resources saw their rights effectively reduced."

The increase in evictions has also been accompanied by a toughening of requirements to receive subsidies, which are practically the only medium that functions as public policy linked to housing.

For example, to receive help with emergency housing in 10 installments equaling up to 7,000 pesos, one of the conditions is the presentation of a photocopy of the ID of the owner of the property being rented. A requirement that is practically impossible when social organizations calculate that nine of every 10 hotels, tenements, or rooming houses do not have official authorization or the corresponding permits.

The strengthening of Decree 960 has meant not only a regression in public policy terms, but has also had a strong detrimental impact on migrant zones, especially those where Peruvians, Paraguayans, and Bolivians live. In many cases, tourist zones like Abasto coincide with a zone of occupied dwellings.

The situation was aggravated by the decision of government leaders to veto the Emergency Housing Law in January 2009. This project, passed by all the opposition parties, had as an objective the prioritizing guarantees of rights to housing, blocking the state from evicting taxable properties. But Buenos Aires’ political rightwing block had been advancing on occupied homes along the planned route of Highway 31 in its sights, land that the real estate lobby is exercising strong pressure for, and it was not going to permit this law to hold up future business. As a result, in 2009 not only did the private evictions continue, but administration-ordered evictions also began to be implemented.

This expulsion is complemented by a lack of public policy to reduce the housing deficit. The hollowing out of the City Housing Institute (IVC) budget is one example: it went from 480 million pesos to less than 120 million pesos—while a million goes to the payment of salaries and administrative functioning alone—and so far, in the first trimester of 2009 only 3.34% of the total has been spent.

The same outcome is applicable in Law 341 destined for housing cooperatives; as such 90% of the organizations that had already bought land have halted construction due to a lack of fund transfers. The number is not minor considering that Macri’s administration never constructed social housing and they finished 800 buildings approved by the previous administration. It is also calculated that since the economic recovery of 2003, 80% of real estate development in the city has been the construction of luxury buildings for the upper and upper-middle classes.

"This is a war by the real estate industry and the state against the poor," affirmed Jorge Abasto of CIBA on the issue. "The bubble of financial speculation made housing prices triple compared to the median inflation index. People are left with little option but to leave the city and move to the periphery."

Since 2006 a number of legislative changes have increased the penalties for squatting, but the takeover of unoccupied dwellings—which according to the 2001 census and in spite of the discourse about the lack of land, totaled 110,000 dwellings—has not been an option.

Rental units in tenement or rooming houses are also not stable means to resolve the situation, especially considering the increase in prices: it has been calculated that in Constitución or Barracas (Buenos Aires neighborhoods) the cost of a room went from 300 pesos in 2003 to 1,000 pesos in 2009. In addition, due to the tourism boom in some zones, above all in the southern zone, many hoteliers have converted those properties into hostels and throw people out without notice. If the residents resist by defending their rights to the location, they encounter problems, pressure, and thugs from the hotel mafia.

The villas, becoming denser and more crowded every day, do not seem like a safe option either. According to the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ) and the Center for Rights to Housing and Against Evictions (COHRE) the population living in villas is approaching almost 200,000 people, with an average age of 24.4 years. Nevertheless, urban planning to decompress these structures remains only in declarations and the rapprochement continues advancing.

In the meantime, the real estate lobby counts on protection: the silence of the media and the fear the people have of young street thugs and cops that would kill you for two pesos or a bike. As a result, public spaces are abandoned, people are dispossessed, and the streets are empty. Argentines prefer to look the other way and quietly say what used to be politically incorrect, "Take the poor anywhere, but get them out of here."

Making the Invisible Visible

"Slowly, in silence, they are carrying out evictions," the port city’s cabinet chair Horacio Rodriguez Larreta announced with extreme sarcasm ahead of the drive to get rid of the Emergency Housing Law.

Today there are various social organizations that seek to make public what no one wants to see, the violence from the top. After the destruction of the Huerta Orgázmika during the month of May, a cultural center in the barrio of Caballito, the Assembly Against Evictions was created, a group that integrates the city’s social movements and conducts various protests and complaints. Also, the Struggle in the City Coordination is participating in discussions and mobilization work against the UCEP operations.

Thanks to this drive the brakes have already been applied to various administration-ordered evictions. One of those is Alejandra’s house in the barrio of Almagro. Alejandra, her mother, her sister, and her seven children have lived on this municipal property for more than 20 years and have spent at least three trying to buy it with the individual credit of 120,000 pesos that she received from the IVC. A demonstration at the Welfare Administration Building was able to block the eviction and an auction has already been prepared.

This movement also joined the work that grassroots organizations have been carrying out around the problem of housing and as such they are criminalized more and more each day. "They call us professional squatters, extortionists, the movement has prison members and various people with criminal records," comments Rubén Sabouland of the Assembly of San Telmo. "We are resisting what the government is doing for the tourist boom, throwing out the poor, the prostitutes, the indigents, and the immigrants. But when it comes to the drug dealers and the hotel mafia they do nothing."

Resistance also comes from the housing cooperatives that fight to receive financing through Law 341. In the nine years since its enactment, there are only four or five finished complexes and of the 400 organizations registered, 110 have purchased land, but are unable to begin construction. Only organizations with business capacity received the money; like the Movement of Squatters and Roomers (MOI) that have spent eight years in the process of constructing two buildings, La Fábrica and Yatay, providing space for 50 families in each.

Organizations are denouncing the lack of housing policy that began in the last dictatorship and does not seem destined to change in the coming years. At the same time they assert that this is not only a problem in the city: "The Kirchners want to make us believe that Buenos Aires is a municipal bubble, but this is a policy of expulsion at the national level," commented Néstor Jeifetz of the MOI on the subject. Carla Rodríguez, also of MOI, added, "The example of privatization in Puerto Madero, which comprises the entire edge of the Rio del la Plata, is not that distinct from what is happening with the selling off of the land to foreigners in Patagonia and Calafate."

End Notes

  1. Freeway 3—a rapid route that was to cross the capital region from General Paz to Pompeya—was meant to be a symbol of progress, but ended as part of the list of monumental works that were never completed. The project was promoted by the former dictatorial Intendant Osvaldo Cacciatore and for it expropriated more than 800 properties and destroyed the urban fabric of each of the places through which it would have passed. Many of the properties in this planned route, some taken 30 years ago, are in the high value zones of the federal capital.