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Argentina tackles urban over-crowding

September 20, 2009




—La Boca district, a teeming port neighborhood in Argentina’s capital, is a bipolar mix of cheery tourism and dismal squalor.

Its main street is lined with artists, modern lofts and historical apartments in canary yellow, tomato red and Popsicle blue. Around the corner, squatters and marginalized citizens reside in dilapidated tenements and transitory hotels.

Restoring La Boca’s rundown buildings into livable quarters is Habitat for Humanity’s priority in Argentina, according to Connie Ledesma, Habitat Argentina’s resource development coordinator.

“Argentina is one of the first [countries] to do urban work,” Ledesma said during a lunch presentation for Habitat staff held Aug. 19 in Atlanta.

It is also one of the most recent additions to Habitat in Latin America, having opened its doors in 2003.

“We built only one house in 2004, because only two families could meet all the criteria that Habitat requires,” Ledesma said.

The biggest hurdle was finding land to build on and families that met the minimum income threshold.

“Social production of habitat”
Due to Argentina’s economic breakdowns in the past decade—the price of a bag of cement shot up from 9 pesos to 40 pesos since Habitat for Humanity launched there—many Argentines live close to the poverty line, and 32 percent live below it. Even Habitat’s low-fee mortgages are unattainable for the poor.

“We decided we needed to go deeper into finding solutions that were effective, given the high housing costs and the population we were trying to reach,” she said.

This led them to the concept of the “social production of habitat,” in which communities work together to brainstorm how to solve problems locally.

“We discovered we should learn from what the people were already doing,” she said, “and work together to add value by using everyone’s resources.”

It became clear that restorations were the most viable solution in Buenos Aires. Argentina’s urban zones contain 90 percent of the population, one-third of which live in substandard or poverty housing.

The first goal in La Boca is to renovate an abandoned building into seven single-family apartment units, serving at least 27 low-income families over the next 20 years. Five units will be rented to those who can’t afford a mortgage (for a maximum of four years), and two will be sold to families of means.

“That is also part of the social plan,” Ledesma said, “not to create ghettoes, but to integrate these families into society and to preserve the culture of the neighborhood.”

Cultural construction
To date, Habitat for Humanity Argentina has served 298 families, building 90 new homes and repairing 208. A majority of the repairs, 119, were accomplished last year.

Urban Habitat Solutions for Buenos Aires is the overarching program under which the La Boca initiative falls. It aims to reduce city over-crowding and includes components such as financial and legal literacy workshops as well as a public awareness campaign.

The urban program seeks US$5.8 million in project-based funding, much of which will likely come from the United Sates.

Eugenia Salazar, resource development coordinator for Latin America/Caribbean, said one of the region’s greatest challenges is to convey to U.S. donors that affordable housing doesn’t always translate as a brand-new, single-family home.

“We need to invest more time communicating the different ways we work to our affiliate donors,” she said in an interview Monday while visiting Atlanta.

Salazar liaises between 18 country offices and Habitat’s U.S. affiliates, who are required to give 10 percent of their yearly earnings to the international program of their choice as tithe.

In 2008, affiliate tithe made up 27 percent of Argentina’s income, just 2 percent less than the country’s leading source: funding from Habitat for Humanity International.

Latin American philanthropy is currently much less significant, Ledesma said, but she predicts that trend will change.

“Donations and support from abroad serve to inspire Argentines to develop our own philanthropic culture,” she said, adding that Argentines by nature have an attitude of solidarity.

Still, in South America, the rules of U.S. donor cultivation don’t always apply.

“Many people there, and even some corporations, don’t want to be recognized publicly for their donations,” she said. “It’s part of their Catholic culture: ‘When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’.”

To learn more about Habitat’s work in Argentina, visit their online profile.

Ruth E. Dávila is a writer/editor for Development Communications based in Atlanta.