The Porteños (citizens of the City of Buenos Aires) are currently immersed in electoral activity. The superficial proposals abound. The simplistic criticism too. Isn’t is time to ask ourselves in which kind of city we want to live, and how acceptable it is that the wealthiest district of the country has large poverty pockets where marginality is mixed with drug dealing and crime, which is specially suffered by their inhabitants?
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The Misery in the Midst of the Plenty
Villa miseria is the name Argentines give to informal settlements characterized by a dense proliferation of substandard housing. They are the product of the lack of response of the administration or the authorities to the community as a whole, as well as to the people who doesn’t have the economic means to acquire a house, but need a place to live. Of temporary or emergency origin, over time they became permanent and a new social category emerged, the villero, and with it, its cultural forms and social identities.
The substandard settlements are characterized by a spontaneous and unplanned occupation of the space, resulting in an irregular layout.
My Dear Buenos Aires: a Little Bit of History.
The historical origin of neighbourhoods is directly related to the concentration of population in the urban centers because of migration, both internal and external. Buenos Aires quickly grew and the city infrastructure was not prepared to receive millions of people from both within the country and overseas.
Though there is no consensus on which was the first *villa miseria *in Buenos Aires, most studies suggest it was Villa Esperanza, today Villa 31, settled in 1932. The economic crisis and the flow of internal migrants led to social and urban contradictions that would be present throughout the history of the villas in Buenos Aires.
Emerged during the growth of the railway and port activity in the area, the villas origina also had an European accent. In 1940, the government provided precarious housing to a punished social group: these inhabitants of what would be the villa of Retiro had Italian origins and the neighbourhood would be known for decades as the «Barrio Inmigrantes» (Immigrants Neighbourhood). Today the Inmigrantes is one of the neighbourhoods of the Villa 31, along with the Güemes, Comunicaciones, YPF, and the growing 31 bis. And the immigrant origin is still present in the neighbourhoods, since most of the people are immigrants, though it is not a temporary situation, as it was in its origins, but a stable and definite one.
With the Peronism the housing issue had its place in the Government program. The State encouraged the construction of working-class and popular neighbourhoods. The ‘right to housing’ was one of the basic demands of Peronism, as part of the more general ‘right to welfare’.
However, the measures of the first two Peronist Governments regarding social housing couldn’t include the migratory flow which exceeded the recently created infrastructure.
The National Housing Commission, created in 1956, had as its first mission to carry out a census of the city population. The first report to the Executive Power reported the existence of 21 villas, with a population of 33,920 people. Till then, the villas issue had not been addressed by the authorities as a problem in itself, and therefore there were no plans or measures for them. After 1956, the villas were a problem and the solution was their eradication.
The scene of the late 50s and early 60s was then marked by the increasing pressure on the eradication by the State and, as the counterpart, the increasing organization and politicization of the villa population.
With the last Argentine military dictatorship this growth process was dramatically reversed. Between 1977 and 1981 a systematic plan of eradication of the villas was implemented, mainly in those located in the Capital Federal, with the deployment of strategies of forced eviction and massive expulsion of its inhabitants.
With the return of democracy, a process of re-appropriation of the city started its development by the re-occupation of empty houses and the villas that still existed. The State adopted a different position regarding the *villa *phenomenon, and the political decision was to settle the inhabitants in their places by the regularization of their domain over the occupied lands and the urbanization of these neighbourhoods.
“The Problem is Part of the Solution, and the Solution is Part of the Problem”
The villas are a problem of underdevelopment. Their existence in the wealthiest district of the country shows that development is a basic issue. The villa is in itself an expression of urban marginality or, factically, a non-accomplishment of development. With ‘marginal’ we refer to the opposite of ‘integration’, what is close to the periphery. It is influenced by social, cultural and personal factors: non-participation in the educational system, the distance from the central norms and values, the type of employment and salary, as well as the rules to access social services are key elements that define, or not, the marginality situation.
The villas, from their origin are settled within marginality since they represent strategies of illegal residential occupation. The villas, in their origin, are a problem of legality and marginality.
The situation is complex since different types of rules that build the core part of our society are in conflict. On the one hand, the right to housing, to a dignified life and to a full development of the capacities.On the other hand, the right to property, to legal certainty and an integral situation of the social whole.
We must accept the existence of these areas as part of our city, and provide them with the accessibility, infrastructure and services according to a city like Buenos Aires. Not accepting the issue makes it more complex and more serious. The dynamism of the current situation requires interdisciplinary and interjurisdictional measures.
Its exponential growth shouldn’t be underestimated. The presence of these settlements in the city is an issue to address. The State must deal with the living conditions of those currently living in them. But, on the other side, its growth must be stopped to apply measures that foster their full integration in the urban fabric and improve the life quality of their inhabitants. This can’t be solely addressed by the Municipal Government, but has to be coordinated with the National authorities and the migratory regulations. Argentina is an open country, and it should continue to be so, but ensuring the possible and full development of those who want to live in it, and not a certain subjection to marginality and deprivation. We are called to populate, so that those who want to live in Argentina can do it fully enabling their happiness, and not being sentenced to the exclusion which generates structural situations of marginality.
While it is true that eradication is the wrong policy and that it doesn’t solve the underlying problems of this issue, it is also true that the naturalization of the living conditions of the marginal neighbourhoods is just as risky. The acceptance of the rights of their inhabitants doesn’t imply an endorsement to the deprivation, precarity and marginality presents in these contexts. The right to a dignified housing doesn’t justify the illegality of the settlements nor their undignified conditions. Both eradication and naturalization of these areas lead to the same point: the violation of the basic rights of their people.
The State should have an active role, designing serious policies and not only “facelift” what we see on a daily basis. Controlling the growth of these settlements and the development of new ones is key. The oversize of the problem only increases the ineffectiveness of the State apparatus.
The need to integrate these areas to the urban and social fabric is essential. Therefore, the plans of urbanization with access to services La necesidad de integrar estos ámbitos al teji and infrastructure are key. We must find a way to respect the people’s values and traditions within the urbanity frames that characterize a big city.
The villas are neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires and as neighbourhoods it is logical that they have particular characteristics that give them a distinctive profile. The cultural functioning of the neighbourhoods must be respected, and also seeking for a place to the Argentines and Porteños idiosyncrasy within them. But by no means can the marginal and precary conditions hide behind the respect to the settlements. The life conditions and the accessibility must be guaranteed and agreed with the communal organizations. The opening of the settlements to the city and of the city to the settlements must be an integral path.
Each inhabitant of the villas are human beings entitled to the dignity which characterizes mankind, and deserve the possibility of accessing the conditions that allow the full development of their capabilities. The villas must be places that foster these goals. It is therefore necessary the presence of institutions, social services and finally the State, respecting the particularities of each neighbourhood and the interests of its people, establishing as limit the dignity a human being deserves regarding living conditions.
The right to the city from a human development perspective implies focusing on the people’s dignity and freedom; without them the right to housing represents a statement without content. These rights require a bidirectional effort from both the State and the citizens, the first by ensuring the services, and the last by being committed to perform a responsible role in the civic life.