If abortion has long been a taboo subject in Argentine society, so too in many ways have been villas, or shantytowns – a no man’s land long abandoned as a reserve for a self-perpetuating poverty, which nobody seems able to end and about which the less said, the better. But now the Mauricio Macri administration is planning to address this taboo in the shape of a bill to expropriate the land of 4,228 shantytowns across the country and distribute it among their 3.5 million residents in the form of property deeds. Even the most hostile opposition politician would acknowledge that this initiative is superior to the brutal slum clearance techniques of the military dictatorship and support for the idea is almost universal, it seems.
But – apart from the bizarre notion of the state expropriating itself (at least 81 percent of the land in question is theoretically national, provincial or municipal property) – where the doubts start to creep in is at the level of financing and implementation, and while the target is highly specific, these details remain hazy. Viewing the progress of other ambitious Macri initiatives (for example, the Belgrano Plan for northern infrastructure, where there is little to show after over two years beyond some Tucumán airport expansion, quite apart from “zero poverty” as a whole), these doubts are entirely justified but it is also very early days to discuss whether or not they can be overcome – at this initial stage the idea is best approached at the conceptual level.
While coming out of the blue this year, this idea was not born in a vacuum but rooted in the City Hall projects of Macri’s centre-right PRO party and experience abroad alike. Conceptually the scheme strongly evokes Tony Blair’s “stakeholder society” idea, levelling up instead of down – Macri often likes to present his presidency as a “third way” between left and right, toward which end he is at least free from the trade union and socialist baggage carried by Britain’s New Labour. But the origins of this alternative to classic slum clearance policies can perhaps be traced back to the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who over three decades ago advanced the idea that Lima’s most appalling slums were actually bigger gold-mines than anything in the Andes because of the vast untapped value of the real estate on which they were sitting – giving slum-dwellers this land could achieve the same results as taking it away from them, he argued, because legalising this real estate would equally release the capital market potential. De Soto’s idea was brilliant but at the same time it must be said that the impact of both the kindest and the greediest schemes is often remarkably similar once the laws of the market kick in, judging from the gentrification of some of the most traditional working-class neighbourhoods in London, Paris and elsewhere.
Similar questions apply to City Hall’s ambitious project to urbanise the notorious Villa 31 shantytown (backed by a US$170-million loan from the World Bank), complete with mayoral offices – a work in progress with alleged underspending which has yet to define whether the Retiro neighbourhood is to be transformed into a low-cost housing area or a hub of real-estate speculation. Residents must be integrated into any process of renewal and the infrastructure and services around them must be improved too. Once in national office, Macri has tried to be proactive (no pun intended) with housing but it is an uphill task – only around 20 percent of the housing starts needed just to prevent the shortage from growing have been made and delays have been reported even here. But this is not necessarily a failure by international standards – the United Nations has calculated that the billion people now in substandard housing worldwide will treble to a third of global population by mid-century.
Yet despite this global challenge and all the problems, the idea of upgrading slums via property legalisation and empowerment, rather than by eviction and exclusion, deserves to be applauded and encouraged.