High housing costs drive Argentines to squatting | Globalization | DW | 02.08.2013
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High housing costs drive Argentines to squatting

Affordable housing options in Buenos Aires are becoming increasingly scarce. That has led many of the Argentine city's poor and working class residents to move into abandoned buildings as squatters.

A curtain is the only thing separating the Bravo family's six beds from their dining table. They cook over a stove connected to a gas canister. It's a tight squeeze for the family of 13, but they cannot afford anything better.

The section of an old fruit warehouse is home to 47-year-old Maria Bravo, her husband, four of her children and seven of her grandchildren.

The warehouse, in the impoverished Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca, doesn't technically belong to the Bravo family, or to any of the other five families who live there. About 15 years ago, a family moved into the abandoned building, and others soon followed. Cinder blocks divide the space into six individual homes. The inhabitants don't pay rent or for tap water, but they do pay for electricity and tanks of gas. 

For the Bravos, a four-room apartment would cost at least 400 euros ($530) a month, and the family, each working 40 hours a week cleaning plazas and sidewalks, only makes a combined income of 800 euros.

Most of that goes toward food, clothes and books for the children and grandchildren, all of whom are still in school.

Maria Bravo and family

The Bravo family face the constant threat of eviction

In greater Buenos Aires, 1.5 million people live in precarious housing: in shantytowns, abandoned buildings or on the street. From 2001 and 2010, shantytowns in the city itself grew by 50 percent. More than 150,000 people, five percent of the city's population, live in makeshift housing.

The housing pressure stems from the price of land rising as salaries remain stagnant and the city's population grows.

"Many families that used to be able to pay for a house no longer can because of rising real estate costs," Jonatan Baldiviezo, a lawyer who has defended squatters from eviction, told DW. "Many families have had to leave the city to live in greater Buenos Aires. Others have to leave their neighborhoods to live in shantytowns, and others have become homeless." 

Relief program 'barely scratches the surface'

The city government is trying to solve the housing problem by offering mortgages to those who most need them.

But sociologist Mercedes di Virgilio says providing 3,500 subsidized mortgages a year barely scratches the surface of the city's massive housing deficit.

Street in Buenos Aires

High housing costs have driven millions of Argentinians to squatting

"The city should have a policy of housing projects and urban restoration that it doesn't have," said Di Virgilio.

She says there should be incentives to rent, disincentives to leave property vacant, government housing projects and more restoration of buildings abandoned by deceased or absent owners.

While there is a lot of new construction in the city, investors often buy homes and leave them vacant, so that they can sell them when the market improves, di Virgilio said.

Legal difficulties

In Argentina, squatters can become the legal owners of the homes they occupy, but the requirements are steep: They have to live in a property as its owner - that is, paying taxes and energy bills - for 20 years.

A street in La Boca

Under Argentinian law, if people live in a building for 20 years, they can legally claim ownership

In greater Buenos Aires, many families have made it to the two-decade cutoff by occupying empty lots. But, in the city itself, it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay for that long, because evictions are on the rise, says lawyer Jonatan Baldiviezo.

Parliament is currently considering a revision of the nation's civil code that would allow squatters to become a building's legal owners after only three or five years of occupation. Now, squatters on private property tend to get kicked out quickly.

"The government has the obligation to guarantee the right to decent housing, so it can't evict people from a building unless it first guarantees them a home. When the family is living on private property, potential defenses are related to procedural errors - such as that the whole family wasn't notified of the eviction," Baldiviezo said.

Sometimes evictions are postponed because the school-age children are involved and the school year is underway or because a family member is sick and can't be moved, he added.

City officials underline owners' rights when asked about the evictions policy.

"In Buenos Aires, we respect private property," said Emilio Basavilbaso, director of the city's Housing Institute. "If a person builds a house in a park, for example, that's illegal, and it has been for many years."

Living under threat of eviction

That's nothing new to the Bravo family, who lives with the prospect of being kicked out by police at any time. Maria Bravo says in 1998 the family was violently evicted from a building they had occupied in downtown Buenos Aires.

"It's ugly because the police come into your house. If they tell you to leave and you don't leave right away, they want to hit you; they grab your hair. The kids are all crying," Bravo said. "They come in and they kick you all out, without being able to grab anything - a bed, blankets, nothing. You lose everything."

The Bravos' boss has offered to rent them a house with four rooms and a bathroom for 480 euros a month - more than half the family's income. Maria Bravo says she might accept the offer when the family gets evicted - if she doesn't find a better option.

The important thing, she says, is to have a roof over the children's heads. Lawyer Jonatan Baldiviezo agrees. It's about time, he says, for the government to live up to the country's constitution, which declares housing as a universal right.

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