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September 19, 2017
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‘People really need this. Especially the children.’

A motorcyclist drives past graffiti that reads in Spanish: “Urbanisation now!” in the Villa 31 slum.
A motorcyclist drives past graffiti that reads in Spanish: “Urbanisation now!” in the Villa 31 slum.
A motorcyclist drives past graffiti that reads in Spanish: “Urbanisation now!” in the Villa 31 slum.
By Almudena Calatrava
AP

Unprecedented effort to urbanise the Villa 31 shantytown continues, yet residents’ fears persist

Miguel Molina lives in a windowless brick shack in the heart of the iconic Villa 31 shantytown, just blocks from the high-fashion stores and luxury hotels of one of the wealthiest areas of the City.

His family of four shares two old mattresses and water leaks through the zinc roof when it rains. The dirt floor is covered by a dusty carpet. Clothing and other belongings pile up in the corners. After two decades living like this, Molina hopes things are about to get better.

The Buenos Aires City government is trying to better integrate Villa 31 into the fabric of the city by offering its 40,000 residents improved homes, credit to buy land, sewage, running water, and a connection to the power grid by 2020. There are also plans to open a bank branch, schools and even a McDonald’s restaurant in the shantytown.

“Some people really need this. Especially the children,” Molina said, adding that his children used to get ill from the humidity in his leaky house.

But while residents like Molina see hope, others view the project with distrust, complaining of the slow pace of work and remembering previous heavy-handed attempts to deal with the slums known as villas during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

At least 30 percent of residents say they don’t know what will happen to them once property ownership is regularised, said Agustina Márquez of the structural change and social inequality programme at Buenos Aires University’s Gino Germani Research Institute.

“We interviewed several neighbours of the villa and there’s fear and bitterness because over the years there have been many announcements about this so-called ‘urban integration’ of the city,” Márquez said.

An estimated 275,000 people live in the roughly 50 informal housing settlements in Buenos Aires, which have spread chaotically with little planning or regulation. The improvised homes often lack basic public services and are scattered along labyrinths of mostly unpaved streets with tangled power cables. Villa 31 is considered the oldest, dating back to the 1930s, and one of the best-known because of its central location near the business district and the elegant French-inspired buildings of Recoleta.

Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta hopes to more fully incorporate all the informal settlements into the capital by 2023. The US$320-million plan for Villa 31, which is being financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, also seeks to resettle families living beneath an elevated highway into 1,350 new homes. City officials deal with daily complaints from residents frustrated because the work, which began last July, is not moving as fast as they would like. Others worry that they’ll be forced out of their current homes or that they won’t be compensated.

“If they’re talking about moving us to a better place, why can’t they build the houses and show them to us first?” said Jonathan Vásquez, a Peruvian who lives in a shack underneath an elevated highway at Villa 31.

Improvements

Some remember when the military junta destroyed homes and forced many families to the outskirts of the capital in an effort to get rid of the squalid “misery villages.” The tactics were sometimes brutal and the problem was merely moved outside the city limits, where new shantytowns were formed and existing ones spread.

The government says about 30 percent of Argentines live in poverty, unable to afford a basic basket of goods. Many of the poor live in the villas.

Only 27 percent of the youths at Villa 31’s have a high school degree compared to 80 percent in the rest of Buenos Aires, said Diego Fernández, the City’s secretary for social and urban integration.

“About 52 percent of the neighbourhood lacks a sewage system or running water,” Fernández said.

City officials are also in talks with the residents of Recoleta to calm their fears about expanded street access to their neighbours, saying that drug hubs in the slum have been dismantled.

“Our job is to hear both sides and work to crumble fears based on prejudices,” Fernández said.

Tania Villanueva, a 33-year-old resident who works at a laundromat, said she wants to pay for utilities just like the residents of wealthy neighbourhoods because utility bills are a requirement for getting a bank loan.

The roughly 900 businesses in the villa will also be paying taxes. Some residents worry the project might shoot up the cost of living and real estate prices, forcing them out, but officials say they will fight speculation.

“It seems like this government is serious about this plan because the works are advancing,” Molina said. “This means a good future for the children.”

 

@almucalatrava

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