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CENTRAL AMERICA: No Right to Housing for Millions of Slum Dwellers

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 31 2011 (IPS) - “The governments of Central America outline a number of requisites for access to housing, and people don’t have the money to meet them,” says Roly Escobar, an activist with a Guatemalan movement of slum dwellers fighting for the right to decent housing.

Nearly half of the 43 million inhabitants of the seven countries of Central America – Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – live in poverty, and millions have serious difficulties in gaining access to decent, affordable housing because that right has been left to the mercy of the market forces, experts say.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in the region live in slums, which are often located in high-risk areas like steep hillsides or the banks of rivers, where they face the risk of landslides and floods.

In Central America, 43 percent of the population lacks decent housing, according to the latest figures from the Central American Council on Housing and Human Settlements (CCVAH), from 2008.

“Poor people (in Guatemala) who are in need of housing do not have access to loans because they have no collateral, not to mention the bureaucratic requirements involved and the 6,666 quetzal (865 dollars) fee that they have to pay to the government in order to buy a house, which they often cannot afford,” Escobar, of the Movimiento Guatemalteco de Pobladores (CONAPAMG), told IPS.

Last week, the activist and dozens of other demonstrators blocked traffic on several main avenues in the Guatemalan capital to press Congress to pass a law on housing that would facilitate access to what they describe as a “social right.”

The bill under consideration in Congress would create a multisectoral council with the mandate to propose housing policies, and would establish a fund and other measures aimed at finding solutions to the problem of access to adequate housing.

“What we want are solutions for 800,000 families who live in slums, including access to financing as well as legal security of tenure,” Escobar said. . The right to adequate housing is enshrined in several international human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

But housing policy has not been a priority of most of the governments of Central America.

“Business interests have prevailed and the state has failed to live up to its social responsibility in the question of housing,” said the director of the centre of urban and regional studies at the public University of San Carlos, Eduardo Velásquez.

“Regulations have been lacking, and the construction of housing has been totally left in the hands of the private sector. The draft law is aimed at getting the state to play its proper role,” he told IPS.

Velásquez said legislators are blocking the bill because they do not care about the plight of the poor majority in Guatemala. “If you are financed by an economic group to maintain the status quo in terms of housing, you can’t vote against that,” he said.

Guatemala, where half of the population of 14 million people lives in poverty and 17 percent in extreme poverty, will have a deficit of 1.6 million housing units by the end of the year, according to the chamber of the construction industry.

The outlook is similar in the neighbouring countries of Honduras and El Salvador.

“Incompliance with constitutional rights to property and decent housing is not only due to the lack of actions to guarantee accessibility, but even worse, to the hurdles that keep the poor from having access to affordable housing,” Ismael Castro, with the Salvadoran Foundation for Development and Low-Income Housing (FUNDASAL), told IPS.

Insufficient or nonexistent budget funds, lack of access to land, and “the exclusion of low-income families from access to state financing and subsidies are some of the greatest difficulties,” he said.

Castro also complained that the current policies “commodify the question of housing by focusing only on market concerns, which restricts the right to housing.”

In El Salvador, a country of 6.1 million people, 550,000 housing units are needed, according to social organisations.

But public spending on housing amounts to just 0.12 percent of GDP – the lowest level in the region, followed by Nicaragua, with 0.14 percent in 2008, according to the CCVAH.

FUNDASAL has sponsored a draft law on social housing, which the legislature has been considering since November 2010.

In Honduras, meanwhile, “some priority” was put on housing since the second half of the 20th century, activist Luis Enrique Trundle told IPS.

But in the 1990s, “because of the influence of financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the size of the state was reduced, and the construction of housing was left in the hands of the market and private enterprise,” said Trundle, with the non-governmental Institute for Cooperation and Self-Development (ICADE) of Honduras.

“Since then, the construction of housing has not been a priority in government planning, since in the best of cases, each government gives its own party slant to the issue of housing and creates its own programme,” the activist said.

Instead, the state should promote policies focusing on participation, solidarity and shared responsibility, in which people build their own quality housing, Trundle said.

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