Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is a city of contrasts. In guidebooks it’s referred to as “the Paris of South America,” and plenty of first time visitors, strolling through the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, where the avenues are lined with lavish historic buildings and European style cafés, would be inclined to agree with this description.
But the south side of the city tells a different story. For locals, everything south of Rivadavia is considered sketchy. The biggest trouble spots are considered to be the neighborhoods along the Riachuelo (a small, polluted creek that forms the city’s southern border), which are home to many of the city’s villas: informally constructed poor enclaves, where basic services like water and electricity are hard to come by, crime abounds, and life is only slightly better than living on the street.
Despite these dire conditions, the demand for these villas is increasing. And starting last month, Buenos Aires residents were given a biting reminder of this fact when residents of an already crowded villa in the Villa Lugano neighborhood occupied part of a public park, the Parque Indoamericano (which literally means “Indian-American Park”), adjacent to the community.
The occupation began at the end of February 2014, on a roughly thirteen hectare section of the much larger park, near the intersection of General Fernandez de la Cruz Avenue and Pola Street. Occupants first began to live on the land in tents; after a few weeks, they began installing basic drainage fixtures and other amenities. They also named their settlement after a local hero: Pope Francis.
At the end of March, the Buenos Aires city courts ordered the settlement to be vacated. Nevertheless, the occupants persisted, taking advantage of the fact that the eviction order was left open ended. The occupants are currently challenging this eviction, and have found allies both in the city legislature and in the architecture department of the University of Buenos Aires, where a team of architects has drafted a plan for conventional residences to be built on the site.
Skeptics of the occupation, and similar occupations that have come before, point to the problematic precedent that it sets. Occupations may be the only hope for people in dire living situations, but it’s still illegal and may create the dangerous perception that all land at public parks is “up for grabs.” However, considering the vast number of people with no housing living next to essentially unused park land, it’s certainly possible that using that land for housing is more advantageous for the greater good. Whether breaking the law to convert the land is justified or not is the subject of heated debate, but it must be kept in mind that occupants don’t have a lot of options. As one stated in a report by news site InfoBAE, “We don’t need a housing solution by the end of the year. We need it now.”
The occupations may be somewhat functional as a stopgap solution, but is there a way to fix the underlying issues that caused it? The problem these informal dwellers face is made considerably worse by structural housing shortages. There are no easy solutions to this issue, but one potential long-term fix may be found with the plans of the group Habitar. One of its key organizers, Raúl Fernandez Wagner, recently stated in an article in the Página 12 newspaper that in the city of Buenos Aires, 24.91% of housing units are unoccupied. His group seeks to create a legal framework that views housing as a right, by both increasing the supply and rethinking how it is considered as “property.” The group was founded in 2010, and has made some noteworthy gains during its existence. But as the occupation proves, they still have a long way to go.
Needless to say, creating a long term housing solution is a long process that will be difficult to accomplish. And in all likelihood, occupations such as the one in Villa Lugano will continue for the foreseeable future.
What about the long term? Will plans, like Habitar, help to make housing more accessible for Buenos Aires residents from all walks of life?
Credits: Images by Drew Reed and linked to sources. Data linked to sources.