HOUSING FOR THE POOR

publicado a la‎(s)‎ 1 ene. 2012 4:42 por Carlos A. Gonzalez G.   [ actualizado el 5 feb. 2012 16:07 ]
Carlos A. González G.


'El Tiempo' Newspaper
Digital Edition, Opinion Section
Colombia, 15th September 2009


Opinion article

Original title: 'Vivienda para pobres'

It is clear that in recent years a great effort has been made to provide social housing to low income families in some of the main Colombian cities, this without a doubt is a light in the dark in our exasperating social injustice. But, that from the point of view of other more revealing indicators than quantity, these projects could be considered “good practices” to provide social housing (priority state-subsidized housing VISP and state-subsidized housing VIS) or that they could contribute to a real reduction of the social inequality, is not too clear.

Although the provision of social housing (the maximum value of which is of about 25 million Colombian Pesos for the VISP and of about 63 million pesos for the VIS) represents an economic effort on behalf of the national government and of the local and regional administrations, for the construction sector it is a really significant business. The social housing market business has not only been profitable in the past and still nowadays, but it has also been a cushion against economic recession periods for the construction sector as shown in recent reports. Given the double condition, public practicing and private execution, sometimes when the first one (local administration) does not exert an effective regulation over the second one (construction company), the social housing stops being a social function of the government to become a profitable business for the private sector, where in the name of profitability, all tricks are valid.

Why are these houses always in such remote and badly communicated areas? Why are they always concentrated in the same marginal areas of the city? How can a family live in such a small and overcrowded house? Why do these neighbourhoods have so few green areas and hardly any park? All these are obvious questions when we see the politician of the moment announcing, with great song and dance, a new social housing project. Not only do not all of us ask ourselves these questions, but in fact some people decide to ignore them in spite of how obvious they are and because they feel too distant from the precarious world of “cheap houses”.

Firstly, the disadvantaged location of these social housing projects is due to the fact that in the outlying areas with worse accessibility of the city, the land value is lower. Furthermore, since social housing is legally related to “cheap”, thus intrinsically linked to “precarious”; the decision of the local administration in regard of where to locate the new social housing project is obvious. Thus, it seems that the urban sprawl, the marginalization and the unsustainable urban growth model do not matter to anyone, while inside the city the local administration fakes to be blind given all the undeveloped plots, as well as they pretend not to hear about the possibility of carrying out urban regeneration projects by re-densification in wide areas of the city.

Regarding the socio-spatial segregation, it is not necessary to be a genius to understand that as long as the public sector –local administration- does not promote the social cohesion by means of its main role in the urban planning, it will continue being common to find these big districts of “beautiful people” far away from the poor districts of “ugly people?” in our cities. This is that it is necessary to ensure that every new real estate project of free market housing assigns a percentage of its supply to social housing as part of the urban obligations for new residential developments (which is at current the model in several European cities). Apart from some populist distortion and from malicious classist comments that some people put forward hastily, this new urban model invites us to reflect about the need to reduce the socio-spatial stigmatization of social housing, achieving as a first step, that the state-subsidized housing –VIS- has participation in the housing supply in more areas of the city.

The reason for the small size of the social houses is not a secret. On the one hand, a malicious interpretation of the article 15 of the law 388/1997 (paragraph 1), has made it possible to modify the minimum standard of quality for social houses “... according to the conditions of its price...”. This means that based on the law, since the social housing is cheap, its construction could be precarious. Subsequently, the “ingenious” decree-law 2060 of 24 June 2004 also established a minimum plot of 35 square meters for a house, which in practice has became the maximum. On the other hand, the terms of the agreement between the local administration and the construction company, makes it possible for this last one to increase the number of houses in a single piece of land in order to obtain a greater profit at the expenses of quality and habitability of the social houses. This situation has turned the construction companies into a factory of little Barbie houses, of course not because of the beauty of the social house, but because of its shamefully tiny size.

Last but not least, the precarious public space is on the one hand, a technical problem of urban management which is easy to resolve. This problem consists not only on the fact that usually the percentage of land allowed for public space and urban services is calculated only according to the total area of the land (about 25% of the land) without taking into account the density of houses, but also on the fact that the evil article above mentioned, makes this kind of urban aberrations in the development of social housing projects possible. On the other hand, these urban aberrations are commonly brewed on the design tables of the construction companies, since they understand the public space as “residual land”. Finally, the regulation organizations of the local administration are permissive regarding the dark interests of the construction companies, and worse still, some times these urban aberrations have been organized by the same local administrations.

In spite of that some in the construction trade dare to insinuate with cynicism that the public housing cannot aspire to become much more given the present outlook, it is precisely this kind of mentality that we have to start changing. First, because while the economic profits of the private sector continue taking priority over the collective welfare of the society in the provision of public housing, there will not be much to do for the people. Second, because it is necessary that we expand our concept of public housing beyond the present and stigmatized perception of housing for the poor in order to create a real alternative supply to cover a wider portion of the society. This matter, by the way, is already invented, something we would know if we stopped being inward-looking when we try to resolve local problems.

In the light of the four indicators presented here, and far from trying to turn this into an urban dogma, every citizen may evaluate if the present public housing projects can be qualified as “good practices” or not. This evaluation has to be done keeping in mind that under the current Colombian regulations there are urban management tools to regulate this kind of proceedings; but to use them adequately the local political will is needed, which in spite of the election promises and of some rare cases, very often is conspicuous by its absence.

For the moment, if we are conformists we can be happy with the good intentions and with the fact that more and more families with low incomes now have a “decent house”; a term that still has not been clearly defined, but that for sure does not yet imply an effective integration to the dynamics of the city and a greater social cohesion in our fractured society.

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This is a translation of the original version in Spanish entitled 'Vivienda para pobres'. The opinions expressed in this article are solely responsibility of the author and they do not compromise the point of view of any related institution.

+ Link to this article on the website of El Tiempo Newspaper