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ARGENTINA: Needs Outstrip Efforts to Build Affordable Housing

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 12 2011 (IPS) - The Argentine economy has grown steadily since 2003, and hundreds of thousands of social housing units have been built. Nevertheless, the protests and conflicts that periodically break out make it clear that the solutions have failed to keep up with the need for affordable housing

The Federal Planning Ministry reports that 617,660 housing units have been built nationwide since 2003, another 223,434 are under construction, and work is about to start on more than 22,000 additional units, benefiting a total of nearly four million people, 10 percent of the population of 40 million.

Nevertheless, demand has outstripped supply. The deficit is not only of housing, but of basic services like piped water, sanitation, heating and cooking gas, and rainwater drainage systems.

“Housing is being built, but it’s not sufficient to keep up with demographic changes,” Dan Adaszko, an expert on housing issues at the Catholic University of Argentina’s Observatory on Social Debt, told IPS.

Adaszko is the author of a study on “Housing conditions and access to goods and services in Argentina 2010”, recently published by the Observatory, which points out that the country’s high rates of economic growth have failed to guarantee access to decent housing.

The study says 20.5 percent of households have problems like overcrowding, lack of basic services, poor physical conditions of housing and lack of maintenance, or the fact that the family does not own the land, or the housing unit itself.

The problem is structural in nature, Adaszko said. Ten years ago, when the population stood at 36 million, the percentage of inadequate housing units was basically the same as today. In other words, the gap between supply and demand has not shrunk with time.

The report says some three million housing units are needed, to cover demand.

It also says there are other “irrefutable indicators” of the lag in making basic services available, and that there has only been “slight improvement” on that front in the last decade.

The study reports that nationwide, 12.4 percent of urban households lack piped water, 34.6 percent have no sewage services, 32.3 percent lack rainwater drainage systems, and 26.8 percent have no piped gas, used for heating and cooking.

Besides these challenges, many poor households face other problems such as exposure to polluting industries and open air dumps.

“The housing deficit is not the only aspect that has to be taken into account, when analysing a country’s housing problems,” the report underlines.

In this South American country, where 92 percent of the population is urban, the persistent deficit of housing and basic services is “unacceptable,” Adaszko said.

The report adds that, although public spending on affordable housing was resumed in 2002, “the deficit remains high.”

But “a broader, larger-scale programme is needed to compensate for four decades of failure to address the housing problem, which is concentrated in the outskirts of Buenos Aires and the poor provinces in the north of the country,” Adaszko said.

It is in the country’s poorest areas where serious social conflicts have broken out when squatters on land and in unfinished buildings have been forcibly evicted.

Two people were killed in November when the police in the northern province of Formosa evicted a group of indigenous people laying claim to their ancestral land.

And in December, a wave of land occupations, protests and police crackdowns broke out in Greater Buenos Aires, leading to the death of two protesters.

But the most serious incident happened two weeks ago in the northwest province of Jujuy, where some 700 families were living in camps on 15 hectares of land owned by the Ledesma sugar company outside the town of Libertador General San Martín.

The families were brutally forced to leave the premises by the police, who set fire to their belongings and caused the deaths of four people and injured 67 others.

As a result of the incident, the provincial legislature urgently expropriated 40 hectares of the vast properties owned by Ledesma.

But the wave of land occupations and camps set up by people without any housing options had already spread to eight other areas in Jujuy, highlighting the serious deficit in housing in that province. One of the settlements was set up by the wives of police officers.

“The deficit is concentrated in the provinces of northern Argentina and in the metropolitan area of the city of Buenos Aires, where sewage services, water, gas and paved roads are also needed,” said Adaszko. “It is not enough to just build housing; what is needed is comprehensive urban development.”

The regular outbreaks of unrest show that, even during a time of high economic growth and with a national government that puts a priority on public works and social housing, it is hard for construction efforts to keep up with need.

From 2003 to 2008, Argentina’s economy grew at an average of 8.5 percent per year. And despite the impact of the global economic crisis, the national economy even managed to grow in 2009 – 0.9 percent, compared to -1.9 percent for Latin America as a whole, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Growth for 2011 is forecast by the government at eight percent.

The late centre-left president Néstor Kirchner took office in 2003, and his wife Cristina Fernández became president in late 2007.

Adaszko said some provinces, like Córdoba, Mendoza and San Luis, have come up with different political solutions. In San Luis, for example, the provincial government has provided new housing units in exchange for token monthly payments.

But in other provinces, a number of structural factors come together, such as heavy concentration of land ownership, deep-rooted poverty, and overall lack of development. In Jujuy, for instance, one of the country’s poorest provinces, land is mainly in the hands of large agribusiness companies, likes Ledesma.

“In some districts, you find officials who say they have the money to build, but no land to build on,” he said.

Publicly owned land is often located far from cities, and thus from workplaces, schools, health centres, transportation and urban infrastructure.

“Sometimes the solution is to push through a law on expropriation” of idle land, said Adaszko, who added that there should be a move from a housing policy to an urban development policy, which would guarantee not only the right to housing but to all basic urban services.

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