In the early hours of the morning on 12th August a violent eviction took place. Police closed off the road and surrounded the Almagro Cultural Centre, Medrano 743, brandishing riot gear, firing tear gas, and shooting people with rubber bullets. The public fought back, throwing stones at their aggressors.
Four journalists were injured including Rolando Aparicio, 23, who was shot in the head with a rubber bullet in the middle of a broadcast for radio FM La Tribu. “I was about to go live on air when I was hit just a few centimetres below my eye; it was a big shock.” He sustained injuries but was later discharged from hospital.
Aparicio believes that the force used by the police was “brutal” and “over the top”. He describes how everything happened suddenly: “They started saying that they were going to arrest people, and then they started pushing people against the wall. That is when people started to fight back.”
According to witnesses the owner of the warehouse arrived with the police to evict the people from the building. One man inside said that “there was no eviction notice” however. The centre was being used by the community for various activities, including a stockpile area for the city’s cardboard collectors. Whilst the cartoneros went about their work, they would leave their children in the care of the centre, which provided supplementary educational activities.
A neighbour described the eviction as “a brutal act of repression by the police” and denounced city mayor Mauricio Macri’s politics as “persecution”. La Nacíon reported the woman as saying the government “needs to give them a solution and not kick them out onto the street like dogs”.
In reference to the eviction Macri said: “In the capital there are more than 300,000 people with housing problems, but on the other hand we have a history of disrespecting the law. Because of this we need to remain calm and conduct ourselves prudently.”
The increasing evictions carried out by the city government stem from the housing problem: in short, there are not enough homes for everyone, forcing people to live on the streets, move to a shantytown on the city’s fringes, or squat an empty building. The fact that there are buildings lying empty whilst people sleep on the streets is evidence of the government’s lack of prudence.
María Aboli lives a few blocks away from the Almagro Cultural Centre and chose to take the option of squatting an unoccupied building; for her living in a shantytown or on the street was too dangerous. Her eyes are drawn from their sunken sockets to the crumbling, rotting wall and the corrugated iron roof. She has lived there for the past 20 years after leaving her village San Javier in Santa Fe province to come to the capital in search of work.
Hidden between modern apartments and sharing the same leafy avenue, the squat practically goes unnoticed. Only when one peers closely through the shady doorway will they notice the alleyway, the diseased dogs and the dirty children, presenting a microcosm of a shantytown seeping through the cracks and into the domain of the bourgeoisie.
María, 59, shares the squat with 14 other families that make up the 120 people living in the cramped building. The house currently has electricity and running water, but everyone is struggling to keep up with the bills. She and her family barely have enough to eat with five of them relying on just one income from the only employable family member. The painful ulcers covering her feet prevent her from working but she cannot afford the treatment for them.
Instead her time is spent looking after the neighbours’ children whilst their parents are intoxicated by the highly addictive drug paco, a cocaine residue. Whilst we talk she cleans the small room where she lives which serves as kitchen, dining room and bedroom, complaining that the building is derelict and is not a safe place to live. Years ago the government mended the deteriorating wall, but the wooden planks they erected to support it have long since rotted away. Bricks fall into the alleyway where the children play, and the unstable structure threatens to collapse at any moment.
Squatters in the capital have no rights and could face eviction at any time. The Unit of Control of Public Space (UCEP) is a state body that was created two years ago by Macri, for the purpose of evicting people as an end to the process of ‘recuperating public space’. It promotes a culture of fear, removing people from parks, streets and houses in a violent and intimidating manner. Maria says: “I feel very insecure living here, I live in fear. I am scared that UCEP will come in the night and beat us up, throw us out onto the street.”
UCEP is notorious for evicting people under the cover of darkness. They have failed to recognise that it is detrimental to their reputation since it implies a clandestine activity that acknowledges that something is not right. The amount of cases filed against UCEP has grown, culminating in a formal complaint made by politician Liliana Parada against Macri on 4th December last year. The lawsuit is headed with the title ‘Macri, Mauricio and others regarding threats made with weapons’.
On 17th May UCEP tore up an allotment in the Caballito neighbourhood belonging to a group of people who had been donated the land by the National Organism of the Administration of Goods (ONABE). ONABE are in charge of taking care of derelict, disused public spaces beside railway tracks. The community, under the name of ‘Huerta Orgázmika’ took over the area when it was full of rubbish and overrun by vermin, turning it into an organic garden that provided food for the needy through the global programme ‘Food Not Bombs’.
Nitai Rivelli was there when UCEP came at 4am. “They were beating people up, trying to get them off the land so that they could tear it up with their diggers.” Three people were injured including one who was hospitalised. Rivelli affirms that within the last two years that UCEP has been operating, 113 people have died at their hands. She says that they claim to look after public areas but in reality “they do no such thing. All they do is beat people up and crush resistance.”
Where the garden once was now lies an ugly, concrete square. According to Rivelli, in the majority of cases, the government wants to use the space to build expensive apartments, aggravating the housing problem even more since poor people simply cannot afford them; effectively they are excluded from society.
“Slowly and silently, they evict people.” The words of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, head of city cabinet, emphasise the surreptitious nature of the evictions and the way in which the government deals with people who it seems to regard as insignificant.
As María says, “the government has forgotten us.” The only help she received was $400 a month, over ten months from the Institute of Accommodation (IVC). Critics argue that this is only a temporary solution and would in fact cost the government less money if they were to invest in building low cost housing.
Of the situation, Jaime Sorin, director of the Investigation into Emergency Housing has said: “When the government of Buenos Aires designated a budget to the legislators, it abandoned all hope of advancing the programmes of the IVC, decreasing credits so that, programmes do not exist that tackle the profound necessities of low income society. The subsidy is completely ineffective and humiliating; it only serves to get people out of their present situation for a few months.”
María’s case clearly demonstrates that the handouts are ineffective, showing that the government’s incompetence has affected future generations; she has lived in the squat for 20 years where she brought up her family, and her daughter now lives there with her two children. She complains that “they give you money for a while, but they don’t give you a solution”. She believes that the government ought to provide affordable housing, or a subsidy with which to buy a house.
The legislator Martín Hourest sustains, “the only logic that the Buenos Aires government has is that of putting people in a hotel, or evicting them.” The subsidy that the government doles out serves neither to buy a house nor to rent one. Hourest affirms that the solution is not to hide the evicted in hotels and he states that “UCEP does not respect human rights and must be dismantled.”
He adds: “The problem is related to the compulsive evictions on which the government of Buenos Aires feeds itself, but also with the aggravation of the housing crisis. The solution is not to make invisible those that get evicted.” Regarding the number of homeless people in Buenos Aires, Hourest says, “there are a lot more people that live in this condition compared to last year, but no real statistics exist.” He estimated that the number could be “twelve thousand or more, because you need to take into account that the current policy of putting people in hotel, or hiding them, so it possible that there are a lot more, and also that the people who have received the subsidy could be on the verge of becoming homeless once the credit finishes.”
In a city where supply cannot meet demand, Hourest suggests some solutions to tackle the housing crisis: “One is the urbanisation of shanty towns, the other is the creation of low cost housing, and the other involves freeing up leisure apartments.”
‘Leisure apartment’ is the term given to the large number of vacant buildings in the city. He also signalled that there are areas such as Av Montes de Oca which are going through a phase of speculation: properties have remained shut for over ten years while estate agents wait to see if the area will convert itself into a valuable neighbourhood. “Once they have acquired value, they will be turned into garages, ponds, gardens or buildings for high income earners.”
In the last two years alone, the capital’s population grew by 25%. The poor have been pushed out to the so-called ‘emergency villas’, the city’s shantytowns. They have become so overcrowded that residents are being forced to build on top of the existing precarious structures.
According to Hourest “the city lacks approximately half a million houses. In a city with three million people, of which 500,000 have accommodation problems, it is a serious housing emergency. We are talking about more than 15% of the population.”
An investigation carried out by the government of Buenos Aires on 27th April this year revealed that the number of people sleeping on the streets has doubled from the previous year. This suggests the government’s policy to tackle the housing crisis is inefficient.
Since the government declared a housing emergency in 2004, little has been done to address the issue. Overcrowding and evictions force people to live in destitute circumstances. The housing deficit appears to go beyond the matter of space, questioning human rights and revealing a society that is deeply unequal.
The government must recognise that access to a dignified home is a basis human right that is written into the Argentine Constitution. Only once then can it work towards an effective strategy to provide housing for each and every citizen in their care.