Self-help housing in South America

WILLIAM MANGIN’s fascinating case-history of the human problems encountered in migration to the city and locating and housing a family in a “barriada” or squatters’ settlement, is reproduced by kind permission of Architectural Design.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 16, 2018

THE ORDINARY WELL-HOUSED CITIZEN IS VERY ILL-INFORMED about other people’s housing conditions here: small wonder that he knows or cares very little about housing in Latin America. What he does know he will have gleaned from the media of film and television. For instance, the recent BBC television films on Latin America have shown him the superblocks at Caracas which were one of the less bizarre manifestations of the building activities initiated by the former Venezualan dictator Perez Jimenez, as well as the utter hopelessness of rural life in Peru which the peasants are leaving in great numbers to squat on the rubbish tips of the capital. Or he may have seen the film Orfeu Negro, in which case he will have grasped the fact that the city of Rio de Janiero is bursting at the seams, and realise why the former Brazilian dictator felt impelled to embark on his project for a new inland capital Brazilia, whose visitors, one imagines, escape from the official receptions and broad avenues, to the petrol-can shanty-towns on the outskirts where the building workers live, for a bit of local colour. The thoughtful recipient of these titbits of information may be curious about the less sensational aspects of the housing problem in the South American countries, and in particular about the ways in which people can exercise their own initiative to overcome their own problems.

John Turner, whose name will be familiar to some of our readers, first as one of the “anarchists” among the first postwar generation of architectural students, and later as a furniture maker and contributor to FREEDOM, left Britain seven years ago with Kitty Turner and Pat Crooke, to work for various specialised agencies on community development and housing plans in Peru. He recently prepared a report on Dwelling Resources in South America which was published as a remarkable special number of the journal Architectural Design for August 1963. (Architectural Design Vol XXXIII No 8, four shillings plus postage from 26 Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1).

What happened to the spectacular “superblocks” at Caracas which were built between 1954 and 1958 to house 160,000 people, mostly recent immigrants from rural Venezuela? One of the articles in Turner’s report tells us that:

By the time the dictatorship finally collapsed the superblocks were in social chaos which, even now, has only been partially resolved, The incomplete and unoccupied apartments and many community buildings were invaded, controlled by gangs, the utilities and even the lifts broke down, the facilities were totally inadequate, the groups were often isolated, by difficult communications, from the rest of the city, and, on top of these and many other difficulties the political situation made it extremely difficult to do anything at all.

Extensive social rehabilitation and community development pros were subsequently initiated, and “their success shows that the
blocks can function well and suggests that the failure of social and financial planning, at least partly due to political interference, was the cause of the initial failure rather than the original concept”. An account is also given of “aided self-help” rural housing in Venezuela carried out under the auspices of the anti-malarial division of the Public Health Ministry, and of the work of the Instituto de Credito Territorial in Colombia and its recent evolution from providing credit for middle-class housing to its present policy of giving priority to self-help plans by individual effort (esfuerzo proprio) and mutual aid groups (ayuda mutua) which enable it to finance effectively and economically, housing for the “lower income groups” which could not benefit from previous schemes.

The description of a successful co-operative housing venture in Chile notes that “Theoretically, this type of limited co-operative is ideal in low-cost housing and in South America there have been frequent waves of enthusiasm for housing co-operatives ever since the ’forties. Although the first housing co-operatives were started in the first years of the century very little progress has been made anywhere until very recently; the waves always seem to have been followed by troughs of disillusion. Now it looks as though the Chileans may have made real progress.” The example described, after years of frustration, gained technical and financial assistance from newly formed savings and loan associations. Without these essential props, the author comments:

the co-operative would have gone the way of many hundreds throughout the continent; after years of patient effort and considerable sacrifice, the group would have failed and its failure would have destroyed the hope and faith of many families and wasted a large part of their savings. Pioneer Co-operative groups are formed by a minority of the population which has done its best to act constitutionally, to buy land instead of taking the law into its own hands, and thereby avoiding the incomprehensible delays over apparently unnecessary and often illogical requirements. Only too often are these well-intentioned groups, often surprisingly well-organised and self-disciplined, made to look foolish by their lawless neighbours who just go ahead, take their land and build as best they can, often quite well and almost always improving their condition, with very little delay and of course, no red tape at all.

The moral of this is plain to see, and is exemplified by the experience from Lima, the capital of Peru, which is documented and illustrated with very striking photographs of the squatter settlements which are variously known as barriadas in Peru, barrios in Colombia, callampas in Chile, ranchos in Venezuela, villas miserias in Argentina, and fevelos in Brazil. John Turner calls these “the unaided self-help solution: a demonstration of the common people’s initiative and the potential of their resources.” And certainly if we are to discuss housing in Latin America, this is its most important aspect. The three authors indicate this in their conclusions:

In the seven years 1949 to 1956 the Peruvian government built 5,476 houses: less than 1 per cent of the housing deficit during those years, and at a unit cost that made repayment by the average urban family impossible. And this in an exceptionally active period in government building work.
During the same period no less than 50,000 families, the great majority from urban working class groups, took matters into their own hands and solved at least part of their housing and community development problems on their own initiative, and outside the established legal, administrative and financial superstructure.
Official policy led, on the one hand, to an authoritarian imposition of public housing and, on the other, to an almost total neglect. Until 1958 no attempt was made in Peru to guide the common people’s own contribution into local development programmes.

Some extraordinary photographs illustrate the Pampa de Comas, a squatter settlement with a population of about 30,000, part of the Caraballo group of barriadas which has a total population of about 100,000. “The initial invasion was carried out in 1957 by a group of families evicted from a slum in the centre of Lima in order to make room for an office and apartment block which, as a matter of fact, is still largely unlet.” The entire development was organised and carried out by spontaneously formed associations of lower-income blue- and white-collar workers and their families in much the same way as that described in William Mangin’s fascinating case-history which is reproduced in this issue of ANARCHY.
Margaret Grenfell, an English architect working privately with owner-builders of Lima barriadas describes the way in which these can be improved and completed more satisfactorily. Understandably the attitude of the house-owners to the terms on which lending agencies approve their houses for loans for completion is “We have survived for ten years without their help alright, if they will not lend us money to roof our house as it is we will do it ourselves, even if it takes us another ten years.” And an account of the effect of the legislation passed in 1961 for the “Remodelling, Sanitation and Legalisation of the Marginal Developments” notes that “It is still too soon to say how long the average barriada dweller takes to build his house. His own estimate is about ten years for a properly finished one—with no credit or technical assistance. With credit and a minimum of technical assistance he can build a house in six months, and finish the typical half-completed structure in two or three months.”

This comparison illustrates the way in which the labour of the house-builder and his family is a substitute for the capital to which he is usually denied access, and this point is poignantly demonstrated by the detailed examination of a village artisan’s self-built house in Southern Peru, built over the past thirty-two years by Senor Pedro Vizcarra, who in the early years would work on the house from 4 a.m. until he left for the factory, and again when he came home until it got dark, carrying stone for the foundations and walls on his back one mile to the site.

The authors, commenting on the neglect of popular resources remark that:

The form of the programme and works which the planner and architect propose must be suitable vehicles for these resources. Refinement of designs and techniques that cannot be effectively used by these resources are a loss of time, money and effort: a loss often made more tragic when the real “executive forces”—those of the people—are sowing the seeds of urban chaos, at immense cost and sacrifice, simply for lack of technical aid. It is terrible, and too common, to hear the complaint: “Ingeniero, si nos habian dado las ayudas y orientaciones cuando las necesitabamos …” “Mr. Engineer (or Architect) if only you had helped us when we most needed your knowledge …”

And they present the projects illustrated in Architectural Design to show not what architects and planners are doing in South America, but what they should be doing.

The Barriada:
a case history from Peru

FORTUNATO QUISPE, A QUECHUA-SPEAKING INDIAN from an hacienda in the mountains of Peru, contracted himself out to a coastal sugar plantation for a year’s work in order to earn some cash for a religious festival. After a year on the coast he took a wife and settled down on the plantation leaving his mountain home for good. He and his wife had seven children. When their oldest, Blas, was 18, he found himself with no job, no possibility of schooling, and under pressure from his father to leave and get a job. The small two-room adobe company house was hardly big enough for the parents and the seven children and the sugar company was mechanising the plantation even as its resident population expanded rapidly. Blas, who had spoken mainly Quechua as a child, was at 18, fully at home in Spanish. He had visited Lima, the capital city, twice, was an avid radio and movie fan, and considered the life of the plantation town dull.

Six months after his eighteenth birthday he and his friend, Antonio, took a truck to the Lima valley and took a bus from the edge of the valley to the city. Having been there before, they knew how to get to the house of an uncle of Antonio’s near the wholesale market district. The uncle had heard via the grapevine that they might come. He was renting a three-roomed house on a crowded alley for his own family of seven, and his maid and her child slept in the small kitchen. He was only able to put them up for one night. They moved into a cheap hotel and pension near the market, and through Antonio’s uncle were recruited for a provincial club, Sons of Paucartambo, the native mountain district of Antonio’s and Blas’ father. Much of their social activity is still with members of the club, and their first orientation to life in Lima was from club members.

Antonio went to work for his uncle, and Blas, who had been robbed of all his clothing from the hotel, took a job as a waiter and clean-up man in a modest boarding house catering to medical and engineering students. He worked six-and-a-half days a week in the pension, taking Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons off. During his first year he saved a little money. He impregnated a maid from a neighbouring house, Carmen, and agreed to marry her sometime. Meanwhile, they rented a two-room, one-storey adobe house in a large lot not far from the boarding house. The lot was packed solidly with
similar houses and the walks between them were about five feet wide. They had filthy, constantly clogged common baths and water taps for every ten houses and the rent was high. They paid extra for electricity and for practically non-existent city services.

Through a relative of one of the students Blas got a better job as a waiter in a rather expensive restaurant. In spite of the distance and the extra money spent for transportation it paid to take the job. With the arrival of a second child plus a boost in their rent, they found themselves short of money even though Blas’ job was quite a good one for a person of his background.

Carmen, Blas’ common law wife, had come to Lima at the age of fourteen from the southern highland province of Ayacucho. She had been sent by her mother and step-father to work as a servant in the house of a Lima dentist, who was also a land-owner in Ayacucho, and Carmen was to receive no pay. The dentist promised to “educate” her but, in fact, she was not only not allowed to go to school but was rarely allowed outside the house. During her third year with the dentist’s family her mother, who had left her step-father in Ayacucho, rescued her from the dentist’s house after a terrible row. Her mother then found a maid’s job for Carmen where she was paid. Carmen worked in several private houses in the next few years and loaned a large part of her earnings to her mother. Blas was her first serious suitor. Previously she had had little experience with men and when Blas asked her to come and live with him after she became pregnant, she was surprised and pleased.

In her own crowded house with Blas and their son she was happier than she had been since her early childhood with her grandmother. Although her work was hard, it was nothing like the work she had done in the houses in Lima. They were poor but Blas had steady work and they ate better than she had in any of her previous homes. Her infrequent arguments with Blas were usually over money. He had once hit her when she had loaned some of the rent money to her mother, but, on the whole, she considered herself well-treated and relatively lucky in comparison with many of her neighbours.

She did not have too much to do with her neighbours, mostly longer time residents of Lima than she, and she was afraid of the Negroes in the area, having been frightened as a child in the mountains by stories of Negro monsters who ate children. She found herself being drawn into arguments over petty complaints about children trespassing, dogs barking and messing the sidewalk, husband’s relative success or failure, mountain Indian traits as opposed to coastal Mestizo traits, etc. She was mainly occupied with her son and her new baby daughter, and the constant arguing annoyed Blas more than it did Carmen. Blas had also been disturbed by the crowded conditions. There was no place for the children to play and the petty bickering over jurisdiction of the small sidewalk was a constant irritant. Thievery was rampant and he had even lost some of his clothes since they had to hang the washing outside above the alley. In Lima’s damp climate, it often takes several days to dry clothes even partially.

He had been thinking of moving and, although Carmen was settled into a more or less satisfactory routine, she was interested as well. They carried on for another year and another child without taking any action. When their landlord told them that he was planning to clear the lot and build a cinema within six months, they decided to move. A colleague of Blas’ in the restaurant had spoken to him about a group to which he belonged. The members were organising an invasion of state land to build houses and they wanted fifty families. The group had been meeting irregularly for about a year and when Blas was invited they had forty of the fifty they sought.

The waiter’s group came mainly from the same central highland region and their spokesman and leader was a bank employee who was also a functionary of the bank employees’ union. The other major faction was a group of career army enlisted men, including several members of a band that plays at state functions, who were stationed near the proposed invasion site. About half the group had been recruited as Blas was. Blas himself recruited a neighbour and another family from the Sons of Paucartambo, to which he still belonged.

They met a few times with never more than fifteen men present. They were encouraged by the fact that the government seemed to be tolerating squatter invasions. Several earlier invasion attempts had been blocked by the police and in many barriadas people had been beaten, some shot, and a few killed. The recent attitude, in 1954, seemed tolerant, but under a dictatorship, or under any government, the law is apt to be administered whimsically and their planned invasion was illegal. Another factor pointing to haste was the loss of seven of their families who had found housing some other way. Blas was one of those suggesting that they move fast because his eviction day was not far off.

Many barriada invasions had been arranged for the eve of a religious or national holiday. Their invasion site was near the area used once a year, in June, for a grand popular folk-music festival, so they decided to wait until that was over. The next holiday was the Independence Day vacation, July 28th, 29th, 30th; so they picked the night of the 27th. It would give them a holiday to provide a patriotic aura as well as three days off from work to consolidate their position. They thought of naming their settlement after the dictator’s popular wife, but, after taking into account the vicissitudes of current politics, they decided to write to her about their pitiful plight, but to name the place after a former general-dictator, long dead, who freed the slaves.
A letter was drawn up for mailing to the dictator’s wife and for presentation to the press. The letter stressed equally their respect for the government and their abandonment by the government. They had no hesitation about wringing the most out of the clichés concerning their status as humble, abandoned, lost, helpless and disillusioned but always patriotic servants of the fatherland.

During the last month word was passed from the active meeting goers, still never more than 20 or 25, to the others and preparations were made. Each family bought its own straw mats and poles for the house, and small groups made arrangements for trucks and taxis. Each that it would be difficult to put on a roof. It took considerable money, time and energy to rectify the mistakes and put on the roof, but when it was done it was a good job and strong enough to support a second floor some day. Meanwhile a straw mat room has been erected on the room and Blas helps out with the houses of friends and neighbours against the day he will ask them to help with the second floor.

Skilled bricklayers and concreters abound in barriadas and the bulk of the construction in these places is cheaper than on contracted houses. Much of it is done through informal mutual aid arrangements and when contractors are hired they are generally very closely supervised. There is considerable cheating by contractors on materials and many of the specialists hired for roofing and electrical and plumbing installations are not competent. Transport of materials is often expensive but the personal concern of the builder often results in lower prices at purchase. Some barriadas have electricity from the central power plant and public water; the one in this story does not. The front room shop combination they have in their house is not only fairly common in barriadas but throughout the provincial area of Peru.

Their principal room fronts on the street and doubles as a shop which Carmen and the oldest children tend. Blas is still a waiter and they now have five children. The saving on rent and the income from the shop make them considerably more prosperous than before, but, in spite of their spectacular view of the bright lights of the centre of Lima some twenty minutes away, Carmen has never seen the Plaza San Martin and has passed through the central business district on the bus only a few times. She has never been inside the restaurant where Blas works. She gets along with most of her neighbours and has the company and assistance of a fifteen-year-old half-sister deposited with her by her mother.

Blas and Carmen have a television set which runs on electricity brought from a private motor owner and they are helping to pay for it by charging their neighbours a small amount to watch. It also brings some business to the store. Carmen and Blas bemoan the lack of sewage disposal, running water and regular electricity in the barriada and they complain about the dust from the unpaved streets.

They are also critical of the ramshackle auxiliary bus which serves them but on the whole, they are not dissatisfied with their situation. They own a house which is adequate, Blas has steady work, their oldest children are in school, and Blas has been on the elected committee that runs barriada affairs and feels that he has some say in local government. Since local elections are unknown in Peru the barriadas’ unofficial elections are unique. The committee passes judgement on requests from new applicants to settle in the barriada and cut new lots out of the hillside. They also decide on requests to sell or rent. Renting is against the rules of the association. Another important function is presenting petitions and requests to various government ministries for assistance. Until 1960 barriada residents had no legal basis for their ownership of lots. Any recognition by the government in the form of assistance or even taxation was an assuring sign. In 1960 the congress passed a law saying, in effect, that what could not be changed might as well be made legal, and residents of barriadas are to be given their lots. As of 1963 a few land titles have been given out by the government, but the people have been buying and selling for years with home-made titles.

The committees are also concerned with internal order. Barriadas are ordinarily quiet places composed mainly of hard-working family groups, but the public image is one of violence, immorality, sloth, crime and revolutionary left-wing politics. Barriada residents are quite sensitive about this and the committees try to screen out potential trouble makers and control those present. They also try to get as much publicity as possible for the productive work done by barriada people.

The experience of this couple is probably happier than that of the average family but is certainly well within the “typical” range. They feel, in comparison to people like themselves and in terms of their own aspirations, that they have done well. When asked what they would do if they acquired a large sum of money, they both answer in terms of improving their present property and educating their children. There is some resentment of the children, and Blas beats the oldest boy for not doing well in school, all five children are bedwetters, but they give the impression of a happy family, and, although Carmen cried during several interviews, they smile frequently and seem to be getting along. Carmen speaks some Quechua with her neighbours and her half-sister, and has actually improved her Quechua since coming to the barriada. Spanish is the principal language, however, and neither she nor Blas have any strong interest in their children learning Quechua.

The children themselves learn some Quechua but they speak Spanish with their peers, and in a group of children it is difficult to distinguish those of recently arrived near-Indian migrants from those of the most Criollo coastal families. There is a certain amount of antagonism among the adult barriada dwellers over race, cultural difference, politics and place of origin. The children however, are strikingly similar in attitude and have very little of the mountain Indian about them.

The situation of Blas and Carmen is similar to that of many others. They have some friends, some relatives and some income, but they could be ruined by a loss of job or any chronic illness of Blas, and they are aware of it. If there is a potentially disruptive factor in their lives it is that the high aspirations they have for their children are vastly unrealistic. They are sacrificing and plan to sacrifice more for the education of the children, but they over-rate the probable results. They say they want the children to be professionals, doctors, teachers, people with comfortable lives, and in this they are similar to most interviewed barriada families. But it is highly unlikely that they will be, unless there are monumental and rapid changes in Peru.

When the children come to this realisation they may fulfil the presently paranoid prophesy of many middle and upper class Peruvians who see the barriada population as rebellious and revolutionary.