“How could (this policy) have been improved? With what I have always said, information” (Leslie Dayanna Rojas Romero, 2023)
By Barbara Bonelli, on 20 June 2023
I first met Leslie when I took the Ombudsperson’s office’s seat in the Barrio Padre Mugica’s (BPM) Council for Participatory Management for the Redevelopment Process (CPMRP). Leslie and her neighbours were furious. I wanted to understand why, fundamental changes occurred since BPM’s urban and social integration Law was passed. All residents would access a formalised housing solution with legal tenure, houses would be upgraded, and public services would be delivered onsite with a decision-making CPMRP. These women that were meeting after meeting shouting and crying to be left in their homes had had no information and were never part of the decision that established that, since they lived below the highway, they had to move from their houses to new homes close by, as the Law established. The government has been delivering a policy focused on distribution but needs more regard for the justice of decision-making power and procedures (Young, 1990). I learnt that lesson from Leslie, Sonia, Angela and Mirta, who showed me through their fight for their homes that “just organisation of government institutions and just methods of political decision making” (Young, 1990, p.12) need to be raised in order to achieve social justice.
Hoping for a better future
The city of Buenos Aires (CBA) is the heart of a large metropolis five times its population size. The impossibility of accessing formal housing in a country with a dolarised formal market struggling with recurrent economic crises, inflation and no offers to consolidate social housing has led the most vulnerable population to live in informal settlements. Around 7.5% of the inhabitants of the CBA live in slums (DGEyC, 2021). This is the story of one of them, Leslie Rojas, a migrant from Cochabamba, Bolivia, that came to Argentina at age 9 in 1991. Her parents came chasing the dream of a home of their own “They said that in Argentina, your salary was in US dollars. The majority of people who came here saved enough money to go back to Bolivia and buy a house”.
After the hyperinflation crisis, the economy was on the verge of collapse, so the tales of neoliberalism penetrated Argentina deeply. Under Menem’s government, profound changes in the country’s economic organisation were made, which included trade liberalisation, privatisation of public services and the Convertibility Law. This measure established a fixed parity of the Argentine peso to the US dollar. Argentina was soon able to stabilise its economy. However, neoliberalism soon hit the country’s economy: opening markets made Argentina’s emerging industry unable to compete in a liberalised global market with products in USD currency. The economy collapsed, leading to increasing unemployment. This occurs along the implementation of structural adjustment programmes (Davis, 2004), which reduced social policies and welfare (Hirst, 1996). In terms of urban governance, the participation of private actors in the development of real estate operations that encouraged speculation, intensified the commercialisation of urban land, pushed up land prices, and, with this, significantly increased informality” (Gelder, Cravino and Ostuni, 2013, p.128).
In 2000, due to a critical economic situation, Lesli’s parents could not continue to send money to their children in Bolivia. Hence, she and her siblings came and started living in a rented space in Villa Crespo. “They decided to stay because they hoped the country could improve and regain stability”. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The economic situation worsened, leading to one of the most challenging economic and political crises of Argentina’s democratic history in 2001, when poverty reached 66% in 2002 (CEDLAS, 2022). In 2004, after the death of their landlady, with an economic situation that made it impossible to buy a house in the formal dolarised market, the Roja family experienced the difficulties of finding a new place to rent without a property warranty “We did not know anyone who had a formal deed”. They did not have many choices and moved to BPM, one of the largest informal settlements of the CBA, “we had family living there, and my parents learnt about a house that was on sale”. They bought a half-built house in the informal market and started living there incrementally upgrading it.
The fight for a house of her own
Leslie wanted to become independent when she finished school, and she learned about squatted land under the highway. With a clear opportunity to rent there “a very precarious house: with brick walls and sheet metal roof”, she found a job and moved in 2008. In 2015 her husband and Leslie managed to buy that house and started incrementally upgrading it, with many material expenses. She put countless hours of sweat equity into that house “I could have enjoyed life, but I deprived myself of many things because I was making an effort to live better. I invested in my house below the highway”.
People living in informal settlements in the CBA have been steadily increasing since the return of democracy after slum eradication during the last dictatorship. The state had recognised the right to housing through various laws but did not deliver. This gave rise to a process of judicialisation of the policy (Delamata, 2016) as a strategy to achieve housing. As a result of a long process of mobilisation that included judicial appeals, in 2009, dwellers of BPM managed to pass Law 3343, which established general guidelines for the redevelopment but did not include precise urban planning and regulatory instruments (ACIJ, 2021). However, many dwellers like Leslie had no idea about it “I did not know anything about the Law or our rights. I knew that if you squatted or bought a squatted place, and a formalisation process occurred, you would need to pay for the land, but your house and everything you had invested in it was your own”.
With the arrival of Rodríguez Larreta to the government of the CBA, different socio-urban integration processes were initiated, with a substantial increase in the housing budget. The scheme adopted from 2016 onwards was “a model of territorial intervention that simultaneously comprises physical transformation, social intervention, institutional management and community participation; seeking to promote territorial equity, privileging state action in the peripheral areas of the city, with lower indices of human development and quality of life” (Quinchía Roldán, 2012, p.8). However, in the case of BMP, Lesli witnessed the complex participatory process.
In 2016 the re-urbanisation process began with a census: “I remember there was a census, and I told my husband that he should not tell them anything because I thought it was better. The census was held without information of what it would entail”. Mistrust and misinformation about government action are recurrent in Leslie’s narrative. Even though this policy was aiming at economic redistribution (the what), it did not include recognition of different members of the community (the who) and framing the project in a way in which all members participate as peers in social life (the how) (Fraser, 2009). To achieve social justice, “institutionalised obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others, as full partners in social interaction” (Fraser, 2009, p.13) need to be dismantled. According to Leslie, this did not happen in BPM, leading to severe opposition from dwellers.
Two years later, Law 6.129 was passed, establishing housing improvements, new housing construction, provision of infrastructure and tenure regularisation (ACIJ, 2021) in BMP. It also created the CPMRP and determined that all those enlisted in the census had the right to tenure formalisation. Also, relocations would exist due to project needs (opening roads or public spaces) and environmental and building risk areas. However, they would be carried out as a last resort and with the beneficiaries’ consent. Relocations would be within the neighbourhood (in grey in the picture below), and new homes resulting from them would be built in the areas in light blue. The Law also said that the government must guarantee the availability of units of equal or superior characteristics concerning the original dwelling before moving and vacating the property.
At this point, Leslie found out that the process directly affected her house since regulations in the CBA forbid housing below the highway. “Many things had been going on behind my back, meetings had been going on for years, and I knew nothing about them. They were not going to recognise all the materials I had in my house, and I would have to move to the new houses that, for me at that point, were going to be made of sheet metal and cardboard. All my effort, work and sacrifice would be lost. I was angry and wanted to fight for my house”.
Even though she had never been involved in community mobilisation, she started attending CPMRP meetings, going door to door, sharing information and inviting her neighbours to get involved. An insurgent movement emerged; they did not “constrain themselves to the spaces for citizen participation sanctioned by the authorities (invited spaces); they invent new spaces or re-appropriate old ones where they can invoke their citizenship rights to further their counter-hegemonic interests” (Sandercock, 1998).
Once I developed a relationship with her, I got to know her house, built with much effort. That was when I fully understood her claims and, in different ways, why she did not want to move. Her house was affordable, adequate, accessible and viable; she already had a just housing solution (Bhan and Harish, 2021). A policy based on regulatory frameworks irrelevant to her needs (Payne and Majale, 2004) demanded that she move because the Law states that it is forbidden to leave below the highway. She was not part of that decision and did not understand it. “I still maintain that even though the highway was a highway, it protected us”.
We started working together once the resettlement process began when it was easy to see how a very comprehensive but top-down policy can have severe implementation problems when not acknowledging realities and voices on the ground. The authoritative disciplinary dominant forms of knowledge that shaped the project needed to be challenged to deliver a consciously collective policy that could address dwellers’ real needs (Bhan, 2019), not those established by the state. This policy falls under the “power of representation dilemma” (Uitermark and Nicholls, 2017). A planner with a privileged position to marginalised communities promotes a specific view of social justice under the risk of making assumptions that sideline specific segments of the urban poor.
Moreover, the government used a steel frame system of construction, unknown by dwellers of BPM, many of whom work in construction. “Nobody understood why we were not getting brick walls. We did not know anything about that system of construction; we had doubts, and they never explained what this system was about. We were afraid, and this was going to be our home. We thought they wanted us to move to houses that would last 30 years, and once we finished paying the mortgage, they would fall apart.” Again, a sense of mistrust, of not getting enough information, of not being part of the decisions that directly involved them emerge. Leslie, like her neighbours, had been directly involved in the incremental construction of their own houses; they knew everything about it, how to fix them, where to add rooms, how to make them more secure, and were happy about the place they lived in. Now they were supposed to move to a place without participating in the decision and to houses they knew little about. “After I moved, I found out that steel frame was a good system of construction and a quick one to deliver 1044 houses in two years. Why did they never explain that? I believe that if you give someone information, arguments, examples, people take it better than if you hide everything”.
While she continued resisting, a second problem emerged by the end of 2019. When people moved out, the government demolished their old houses below the highway to prevent squatting. Everything was left covered by dust and debris. Often, they broke pipes, so places started flooding; the electricity of the houses close by was still on, people threw garbage everywhere, and rats were all over the place. For those still negotiating their relocation, this was perceived as a method of pressure which again increased the mistrust and tension with the government. That was a difficult moment for Leslie, “I was resisting alone. People started to move and everywhere around was demolished, it looked like a war zone, it was insecure, I was afraid. It was unliveable”.
Soon after, the pandemic started, and Leslie got sick in May. “I was 16 days in the hospital. I was afraid that if people found out my house was empty, they would squat it, and I would lose everything I had been defending. So when I got out, I said, I will accept the new house but under my terms”. As soon as she was discharged from the hospital, Leslie saw the available flats and found a house she liked. Even though she was happy, she did not want to show it because she did not trust the government officials and wanted to negotiate the recognition of the value of all the materials in her house. Through her fight, she moved to a house of her choice and will pay fixed monthly repayments for 30 years, minus the value she negotiated with the government. Every year she has to make an income statement, “I can pay for now, but I know that if I lose my job, I can make the income statement and stop paying”.
Again, misinformation and mistrust are present in her narrative: “If I had money to pay it all at once I would, I would feel safer if I fully own the place and nobody can move me”. The Law raises relevant tools for dweller´s permanence after tenure formalisation stating that dwellers must be provided with tenure security in the dwellings they occupy and that in no case the inability to pay could hinder guaranteeing this right. The Law discourages possible gentrification or uprooting processes, seeking the current dwellers’ permanence.
Information could have brought dwellers certainty regarding the policy outcome and their right to stay. However, Lesli does not trust the policy or the Law because her participation was not a “democratic stance; a right of people to decide, in an informed manner and through processes of collective reflection, on the direction of their habitat” (Populab, 2022, p.32).
Learning and growth
A lot of Leslie’s fear existed because she did not access information “If you give people information and tools, you don’t hide anything, and you make them part of the process, even if you think that they can oppose it, I think it is worth it and better. If not, it is like gossip”. Leslie believes she is in a better place one year after her move. Nevertheless, how different things would have been if this policy had included and recognised her in the first place, benefiting from her right to participate in those decisions that involved her own life and home. “I would have liked to be involved; I think everything would have been better. In this type of redevelopment process, participation is necessary”.
When I met Leslie, she challenged me to rethink justice rather than come up with a single normative or political vision of housing justice (Bhan, 2019) to reshape my approach of participation in planning to participation as planning (Frediani and Cociña, 2019). During those years, many of her neighbours and even government officials tried to discredit her, accusing her of doing politics. She was fighting for her right to housing; she knew nothing about bills and laws until they directly impacted her. She got involved at that point but did not do things only for her sake; she insurgently fought for justice. She wanted to be recognised, exercise her capacity, express herself and participate in determining her actions and the conditions of those actions (Young, 1990). Those are “universalist values, in that they assume the equal moral worth of all persons” (Young, 1990, p.37).
When I asked her how she could describe this process, she said it was about learning and growth. She became self-conscious of her status as a citizen, collectively demanding rights and battling oppression and domination (Young, 1990) to fulfil that dream that, 32 years ago, her parents sought. She informally bought a house eight years ago. However, a policy intended to upgrade her quality of life made her feel threatened of losing it, mainly because she was never included in the development of that path that comprehended her life and her home. Now, she has a house with a formal deed and a mortgage. She is happy about it, but that was not the only thing she wanted. She was unrecognised, on the side-lines, but she finally determined the conditions under how she would accept her new house, showed she could insurgently and collectively fight until her equal worth was recognised. This is why it is so important to tell her story.
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Bhan, G. (2019). Notes on a Southern Urban Practice. Environment and Urbanisation, 31:2
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CEDLAS (2022) Poverty Statistics. Available at: https://www.cedlas.econo.unlp.edu.ar/wp/en/estadisticas/sedlac/estadisticas/#1496165262484-7f826c3f-b5c3
Delamata, G. (2016). Una década de activismo judicial en las villas de Buenos Aires. Revista Direito & Práxis, VII 14, 567-587.
Dirección de estadísticas y censos (2021) Porcentaje de viviendas habitadas, hogares y población en villas sobre el total de la Ciudad. Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Años 2006/2021. Available at: https://www.estadisticaciudad.gob.ar/eyc/?cat=164
Fraser, N. (2009) “Scales of justice: Reimagining political space in a globalizing world”, Columbia University Press: New York, pp. 12-29. (Chapter 2: Reframing justice in a globalizing world).
Payne, G. K. &Majale, M. (2004) The urban housing manual: making regulatory frameworks work for the poor
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Sandercock, L. (1998) “The Death of Modernist Planning: Radical Praxis for a Postmodern Age”, in Douglass, M. and Friedmann, J. (eds) Cities for citizens: planning and the rise of civil society in a global age. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 163–184.
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Young, Iris Marion, (1990) Justice and the politics of difference, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
 Available at : https://digesto.buenosaires.gob.ar/buscador/ver/21159
This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.