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Urbanization with "people plots"

Marcin Sliwa
Marcin Sliwa
Sliwa is a PhD candidate, Department of Sociology and Social Geography, University of Oslo
ARGENTINA / In the last century, the dream of becoming a home owner in Buenos Aires could be realized through a legal and formal type of urbanization called loteos populares, or "people's plots".


It is an offense when something illegal is done. But new and amended laws can also create crime. For example, when there is high demand and low supply of a product, such as land and residentialthe market where people's lack of purchasing power is a growing global problem. Examples from Argentina shows how illegal land occupations and the development of a pirate market followed as a result of a change in the law. It limited access to affordable building sites for most people. In order to curb criminal activity and ensure effective urban planning, we should reconsider demands for unrealistically high housing standards and think anew. The question ultimately becomes: should housing be treated in the same way as other goods?

Development of infrastructure

In the last century, the dream of becoming a home owner in Buenos Aires could be realized through a legal and formal type of urbanization called popular lots, or "people plots". This development model was adopted in the 1930s and lasted for approx. four decades. The condition that made it possible was that the development of infrastructure came after moving in. Under popular lots large suburban properties were subdivided and sold to working-class families before buildings, roads, water, electricity and sewage were in place. The buyers took out interest-free loans that were repaid monthly and built their houses in their spare time. It happened gradually, in line with needs and preferences. Deeds, as well as infrastructure, public transport, parks and facilities such as schools and health centers were eventually provided by local authorities. Gradually, most of the settlement areas developed into ordinary middle-class neighborhoods.

Larger suburban properties were subdivided and sold to working-class families
before buildings, roads, utilities, electricity and sewerage were in place.

This legal public land-the model was stopped in 1977 at the provincial level through "decree 8912" – ratified by the then military dictatorship. This new, comprehensive land regulation prohibited the sale and occupation of small plots of land without infrastructure. It also made high demands on how the development was carried out. On the one hand, the decree encouraged the development of gated communities. On the other hand, it effectively de-legalised one of the main methods of legal access to land and housing for poor households. It envisioned an ideal, yet unrealistic urban development. Although some important changes and exceptions to the unpopular regulation have been introduced, it is still valid today.

Because the severe shortage of affordable housing persisted, a new generation of working-class families, no longer able to buy cheap plots without infrastructure, had no other option than to occupy land illegally. Or buy plots informally from "pirate developers".

Fake real estate investors

The unwanted result of "decree 8912" was the emergence of completely new methods to secure access to land and housing and a new parallel, unofficial and illegal property market.

Some land occupations were driven by the greed of mafias, criminal groups and political opportunists who stole land and posed as fake real estate investors or owners. They often took over land at gunpoint, broke it up and sold the plots at low prices. The customers were desperate people who were misled as to the owner or who was behind the original land robbery. In extreme cases, the mafia only protected buyers who paid their installments on time. While those who failed to pay were evicted or even killed to make room for another family. At the time, such "pirate development" was among the most profitable real estate operations in existence.

Illegal land subdivision is also done by property owners who do not want to offer infrastructure in advance or when their development proposal does not meet the requirements laid down in "decree 8912". For example, lack of road access or measures against flood risk. Therefore, the owners secure income by selling individual plots in the informal market and thereby getting rid of land they have little use for.

© Edward L. Brown. Dr. Goma Congo

Informal occupations

However, most land occupations are planned and carried out by poor people who want land for themselves. They are organized by various political, religious or social organizations and grassroots movements where the members know each other and share the same values. Other types of illegal occupations are more spontaneous and individual, such as take ants or "ant invasions". They usually occur in the least attractive areas, for example in waste landfills. Questions such as who moves in next door are important to ensure that the area remains free of mafia or criminals. When several families settle down, a new neighborhood is established, and a local committee takes responsibility for neighborhood planning, infrastructure and security.

The size of new informal occupations varies from a few families to 20 people. Illegal occupations of private property often end up in court and usually result in violent evictions. Some municipalities remove the intruders as soon as they arrive, while others negotiate with the residents to withdraw voluntarily in exchange for financial compensation or housing support. Such practices do little to stop illegal land occupations and rather lead to them being moved to other areas. Therefore, the most pragmatic choice for the authorities is often to accept, integrate and formalize illegal occupations, especially when they already follow or resemble the formal planning and building regulations.

Access to affordable housing for the working class was in practice made illegal by a government decision. It is important to recognize that the degree of what turned into crime varies. But regardless of how violent or peaceful the occupations are, all such actions are illegal. Whether it is certain "opportunists" who steal land and divide it up to make money by selling land to poor families. Or it is residents themselves who decide to occupy and claim plots of land to live and live on. The question becomes whether we can legitimize such illegal strategies in a context where both the right to property and the right to housing are secured in various articles of the Argentine constitution? To illustrate the dilemma, I will present two examples of recent land acquisitions in the country.

Seen from the perspective of someone who defends housing as a basic human right, informal occupations must be justified.

Guernica and Los Hornos

The land takeover in Guernica happened in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 10 involved, most had lost their income and were struggling to pay rent. The occupation took place partly on public and partly on private property. The new street and plot structure became a simple extension of adjacent neighbourhoods. But to increase the chances of recognition by the authorities, a committee of residents, architects and activists drew up a land plan. It referred to laws which enabled the formalization of similar types of land occupation.

However, residents and supporters of Guernica do not like the term land occupation. Instead, they say that what they did was "recovering land" (recuperación de tierras). They claim that they used abandoned property to create housing solutions or what they like to call "land to live on" (land to live). They also claim that they are not demanding plots for free, but that they are open to taking affordable mortgages to pay back. They were opposed by conservative politicians and landowners who called the occupiers criminals and demanded their immediate expulsion. The judges agreed and after 101 days of illegal occupation, residents were violently evicted. Despite promises, they have so far not received compensation or housing support.

A similar takeover took place in The Furnaces 40km away from Guernica. After two years of uncertainty, the verdict fell in favor of the occupiers. Not surprisingly, conservative media have criticized the decision. The judge claimed that the occupation took place on state property that was not intended for any special purpose. The judgment referred to a local population survey which confirmed that the residents could not afford housing in a formal way. The fact that the takeover took place in a peaceful manner and that the settlement was laid out with an orderly street and plot structure also spoke in the occupiers' favour. Therefore, the judge decided that the most reasonable and practical solution would be to recognize the occupation as a neighborhood, formalize the property takeover and support the residents by providing infrastructure.

The rise of an informal housing sector, illegal occupations and "pirate development" appear to be the result of bad policies and conflicting understandings of different rights. The examples of Guernica and Los Hornos show that there are clear contradictions between the right to protect private property and the right to a decent home. Consequently, there is much inconsistency in the way politicians and judges interpret different informal housing strategies and property disputes. Seen from the point of view of someone who defends the right to private property, all land occupations, regardless of intention and context, are criminal acts. Seen from the perspective of someone who defends housing as a basic human right, informal occupations must be justified when there are no better, more affordable housing alternatives, which is a growing problem throughout the world.

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