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Writer Gabriela Massuh explains how Buenos Aires is becoming increasingly more segregated

By Santiago Del Carril
Herald Staff

Writer Gabriela Massuh explains how private real-estate investment reshaped Buenos Aires and why the capital is becoming increasingly more segregated


Writer Gabriela Massuh, the author of the 2014 book El robo de Buenos Aires (“The robbery of Buenos Aires”), is considered to be something of an expert on how private real-estate investment has transformed Buenos Aires over the past decades, with the support of the city and federal governments. And what she’s discovered isn’t pretty.

The academic is very critical of the changes in the capital, which she says are forming a city that is becoming increasingly more segregated by the day, leading the City to lose its soul. In an interview with the Herald, Massuh spoke about the differences between the north and south of Buenos Aires, and argued the current government’s plans to “integrate” is really much more sinister than what first appears to the eye.

When did the demographic and sociological divide between the north and southern part of Buenos Aires City begin?

The south was never given much attention. The focus was increasingly given to the north, from the very beginning. It started with the yellow fever plague that affected the city during the 1870s, leading the neighbourhoods of Barracas and San Telmo to be abandoned, with people moving north to flee the plague. Since then people with more purchasing-power have started to move north, and the south has ended up with the irregular settlements and social housing, which continues to this day.

How has that changed?

This year it has changed a lot. Both President Mauricio Macri and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner refer to any empty spot in the city as a “black point” and that value had to be put into these “points,” or actions taken to sell or build the land and allow the real estate businesses in.

Now, the south — mainly Commune 8 comprised of Villa Soldati, Villa Riachuelo and Villa Lugano — is a focal point for real estate speculation. This is where the main informal housing areas such as irregular housing settlements (Villas) 11-14, 20 and Lugano are located, as well as public lands such as the Indo-American park, the City Park and the racetrack. They are commercialising these green spaces in the city, transforming them into sports centres — part of the racetrack is being sold to companies that will produce sportswear.

Why did the residents agree to this?

Because they are urbanising irregular housing settlements in exchange, and promising to give residents low-rate mortgages so they can purchase housing developments — which they will build.

This isn’t the same as a public housing development. While the BA City government mediates these business deals and makes a lot of money off them, they continue to remove the residents with fewer resources for the area. The association of irregular housing settlements agreed to it because they will receive some crumbs, but it is not an integrated development nor (does it) give real jobs to the residents. These types of exchanges are being done in the north as well.

Do you have other examples?

Eduardo Elsztain, the owner of the major construction company IRSA bought the Sporting Centre of Boca for a small price. He plans to build seven skyscrapers with 50 floors each, right next to a shantytown that is right next to an ecological reserve. In exchange he will give the Buenos Aires City government US$60 or 80 million to urbanise the irregular urban settlement Rodrigo Bueno (in the Costanera Sur).

This is disturbing, it’s wrong to build a luxury building right next to a slum. Their two forms of life are very different, and this money isn’t enough to help them. These are the big challenges the City faces, but it only uses commercial methods to address them...

At least 30 percent of the housing in Buenos Aires is vacant, so a part of the society is excluded and it becomes more expensive, and people are moving to cheaper suburbs such as Vicente López.

In many parts of the city, old historic buildings are being bulldozed and replaced with condominiums…

Not only historic ones but also six-floor buildings from the 1950s — much better than the ones today — are also being destroyed. Many construction companies are given permits to build without real controls. For example, an environmental impact study must be conducted before a skyscraper can be built, but the company in charge of the construction is the same one that conducts the study. This is a conflict of interest. Secondly, there is a trick used in measuring growth in the City. GDP growth is directly tied to the City’s construction growth, and it is a commonly held belief that this creates jobs. This has tricked us all.

How?

Well now there is a recession and construction growth has fallen, but that is really just speculative real-estate projects not public works construction projects. Investors put their money in real-estate projects because international banks give very little interest, allowing them to maintain the value of their money. There are many historical examples of real estate bubbles that then pop. The same thing is happening in China. Construction is the prime motivator, which generates a lot of accumulation and displacement.

So, is the south of the City gentrifying? With lower-income residents being displaced and pressured to move outside of the city?

This could all be contained. Buenos Aires City has almost three million residents — the same amount as in 1946 — but 450,000 residents, around 25 percent of the (City’s) population, are living in irregular housing settlements. This is because of gentrification. People sold their houses and immigrants moved to precarious residences, while those who can move outside the City do. It’s much cheaper to live in a gated community outside the city, than in (the City) for many families.

How is financial investment in real estate affecting the irregular housing settlements?

The government isn’t taking into account the importance of public space as a public good. They are really only focusing on how to do business, which they claim will trickle down like an orthodox capitalist would say. It’s a huge distortion. These people don’t really care about the City.

Has the City government sold more public properties to private real estate businesses over the past decade?

No, this really started with Puerto Madero in 1991. Before that area belonged to the port authorities. But with the stroke of a pen, 190 hectares were privatised. It’s ridiculous. And there isn’t a school, a general shop or a newsstand in Puerto Madero. Seventy percent of the skyscrapers are empty. This began with former president Carlos Menem but has continued even more in the following decades. (Former City mayor, now president) Mauricio Macri privatised 200 hectares during his administration. He privatised Roca Park in the south and the City government is now looking to privatise 170 hectares more. Land that used to belong to the state railway company. During the Fernández de Kirchner administration this was suspended, but now it has been lifted. On the other hand, there hasn’t been one new plaza in the past 10 years. And I’m not talking about a plaza of “cement.” That doesn’t count as a green plaza.

What effect does a 30-floor tower have on a neighbourhood without high-rises?

A key example is Juan B. Justo Avenue. If you go with the Metrobus, you have masses of cars coming and going. You start to realize that the avenue, which used to have houses, has converted itself into a type of no-man’s land. All this investment is focused on the wealthy segment of the population, which is allowed to continue living there. Since they have skyscrapers, they also have their private security; there is no federal police so it becomes dangerous. The problem is when you segment the population into the different groups, the poor gather altogether on one side and the rich on the other, and in the middle you have a no-man’s land.

So before the City was much more integrated and diverse, and when the skyscrapers start to be built, it starts to segment?

Yes, it starts to divide much more, but with communities where everyone is the same. It may be safe inside, but when you leave there are islands of wealth and poverty. Because when you throw out the people with less means, they try to enter and rob those on the inside. Buenos Aires used to be one of the safest cities.

In terms of public services is there a big difference in quality between the north and south of the city?

The public services are the same, but the transport isn’t. It’s much more difficult to travel from the south of the City. Residents spend hours walking and waiting for buses. For health, the difference is in the north of the City the residents aren’t as dependent on public hospitals, while the south of the City is. The real difference is purchasing-power. The south is much poorer. The City government uses slogans claiming they are integrating the south, but they are doing the opposite. They are expanding it for people with means but not for those who live there.

Would a law to prevent or reduce the number of empty apartments or residences help?

That is fundamental. It would stop all this construction. And you restore another type of legitimacy, which is the right to housing...

The state needs find a way so that the people who don’t have the capital to buy can live in the City.


@delcarril

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