Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

VENEZUELA: Ambitious Promises of Affordable Housing

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jun 23 2011 (IPS) - “I want my own roof over my head, my own home. I don’t want to live in a curtained-off cubicle surrounded by masses of people,” says Elena Díaz, who does ironing for a living and lives in a temporary shelter in the centre of the Venezuelan capital.

Since torrential rains and flooding left 134,000 people homeless in November 2010, the longstanding deficit of affordable housing has become more visible in Venezuela, where people who lost their homes have taken refuge in all sorts of places, squatting in buildings, and holding street protests demanding solutions.

In response, the government has passed new laws and announced ambitious plans to tackle the problem.

Díaz, a 37-year-old mother of three, used to live in Alta Vista, a neighbourhood in west Caracas. Now she is in a temporary shelter in the car park of a shopping mall that the government took over for the purpose just days before its inauguration. Here families have food, water, electricity, and health care, and have been offered flats that are being built.

“But they tell me the flat assigned to me might be in La Guaira (on the Caribbean coast, 30 km to the north), and when a group of women here went to see the place, they showed them a vacant lot that doesn’t even belong to the government yet,” Díaz told IPS.

Thousands of families like hers were taken to improvised shelters in squares, schools (which have now been vacated), hotels, warehouses, military barracks, government ministries and other state institutions, including facilities belonging to the Venezuelan presidency.

For instance the Casa Amarilla, the Foreign Ministry headquarters opposite the central Plaza Bolívar in Caracas, sent filing cabinets off to a warehouse and improvised cubicles to shelter a group of families. Every morning the families, towels in hand, formed a queue outside a nearby hotel to take their showers.

In the last 10 years Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has launched a score of social programmes, referred to as “missions”, including food, health, education and employment plans. Now he has created a special plan to tackle the housing emergency, called the Great Housing Mission.

“In the next six years, the government, the people, members of the business community who wish to participate, together with allied countries, will build two million housing units,” said Chávez at the launch of the new mission. “This is my commitment, and I will personally vouch for it. The tragedy we have experienced due to the heavy rains in recent months compels and presses us to do this.”

The immediate goal is to build 150,000 housing units in 2011 and 200,000 in 2012, when Chávez will again be a candidate for reelection to the presidency for the term 2013-2019.

Chávez’s opponents are critical of the promise, pointing out that in the 11 years of his presidency the government built 325,000 housing units, and questioning how six times that number will be built in half the time, when production of cement and steel bars has fallen.

According to the state National Institute of Statistics, the population of Venezuela stands at 29 million people, over 90 percent of whom live in urban areas. They are distributed in 6.5 million households, of which 26 percent are still living in poverty in spite of the decline of the poverty rate by 23 percentage points since 1999.

The housing deficit is 1.8 million, and another 750,000 homes are in need of urgent repairs.

Latin America as a whole continues to experience a severe housing deficit, according to studies by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in spite of high levels of urbanisation (76 percent) and of home ownership (73 percent) among the region’s 540 million people.

According to the IDB, 26 million housing units in the region are sub-standard; 128 million people live in shanty towns; and 28 million new housing units are urgently needed to reduce overcrowding and improve appalling living conditions.

To arrive at a better estimate of Venezuela’s housing problem, the Housing Mission is carrying out a census of families needing homes in one-third of the country’s 24 states, and 1.3 million applicants have already registered, according to the authorities.

“I applied, hoping to win this lottery. So did my mother and one of my sisters,” said 27-year-old Boris González, who drives a motorbike taxi and lives with his wife, two children, mother, two sisters and a nephew in a two-room shack in Las Mayas, a shanty town in southwest Caracas.

Provea, a human rights organisation that is often critical of government policies, applauded the Housing Mission “because it is based on recognition of the limitations of past efforts, and is deploying legal and financial resources to satisfy the fundamental human right to housing,” as its coordinator, Marino Alvarado, told IPS.

Opposition politicians, in contrast, regard the census and the handover of a few thousand housing units as an attempt by the Housing Mission to create the illusion that work is in progress to solve the problem, while raising hopes among the needy that they might be lucky enough to be given their own home.

Marco Negrón, a former dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Central University, told IPS that “with the construction industry dismantled, only compulsive liars could promise to build in the next two years nearly 100,000 more housing units than have been built in the last two six-year terms.

“The new Housing Mission lacks the minimum amount of planning for housing and new cities; instead it consists of senseless promises and random expropriations of buildings, warehouses and car parks, and scale models (of proposed housing units), plenty of scale models,” Negroni said.

Chávez has asked his supporters to report vacant or under-utilised lots where the government could build housing. At the same time the authorities have taken over agribusiness company warehouses, old or unfinished buildings, parks and gardens, and car parks next to shops or residential buildings.

With special powers granted by Congress, the government has decreed laws authorising the urgent occupation of plots of land or buildings that it classifies as idle or under-utilised, as well as other laws to protect tenants, stipulating that they may not be evicted if they have nowhere else to live.

In the new climate in Caracas and other cities, groups of families in need of housing are squatting in buildings or houses that are under construction or have been abandoned, and are camping out in parking lots, shops, parks and even evangelical churches.

People in established neighbourhoods, meanwhile, have more and more frequently organised to block what they call “invasions,” and the police have had to take action to quell outbreaks of violence.

Díaz says she does not participate in the occupations. “They have warned us that if we carry out invasions or street protests, we will lose our chance of being allocated a house some day. But this country is too rich for us to spend our whole lives without ever sleeping under a roof of our own,” she said.

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