Monday Jan 21

SPECIAL REPORT The Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Paraguay ~ Housing in Paraguay

In Paraguay 70% of the population lives in cities and around 1,100,000 people have a housing need; something we learned from Habitat for Humanity, one of the groups we met with. In terms of housing quality, around 22% of homes have insufficient sanitation. In Asuncion, which was our base of operations, there were plenty of luxury condos and housing developments coming up outside of the downtown – just like any big city. There was also some large shanty towns, or slums, with makeshift housing, with one large slum practically next door to the houses of legislature which was quite the juxtaposition.

These slums or illegal settlements are fairly prevalent throughout Paraguay. TECHO, another group we met with which focuses on housing told us that through their work they’d counted 405 illegal settlements, but the government’s official count was 120, which is a pretty large difference but goes to show the importance of being on the ground.

TECHO and Habitat were the two main groups with a housing focus that the Organizers Forum visited. Most people will probably have heard of Habitat, but not TECHO. TECHO has been working in Paraguay since 2008, but also works in 19 different countries across Latin America. They started off building transitory housing, and would go to slums or makeshift settlements and build houses. Since they began doing their work they’ve built 6440 emergency houses – think wooden walls, metal roofs that last for about 10 years and are a portable commodity for the people that live in them.

In 2012, TECHO started to expand their mandate to focus on public spaces like sidewalks, land recognition from the government for illegal settlements and public services like education and water. Most of this work is done by a volunteer army. TECHO has around 10,000 volunteers a year managed by 24 staff with a budget of $900,000 USD, half of which they try to raise internally through volunteer street fundraising canvasses. We happened to be in town during their big fundraising canvass and were told that they had 6,000 volunteers out over the weekend who had set a fundraising goal of $400,000 USD – a pretty big number but something they had been doing for 9 years, so it must be working out!

The other group we met with was Habitat, which has had operations in Paraguay for 20 years at this point. They told us the majority of their work was either building houses or doing major improvements to existing houses and that they had built around 8,500 houses or improvements in their time in Paraguay, and averaged around 800 houses a year. A lot of Habitat’s work involves getting volunteers from corporations to help with building, providing architectural services to families, securing bank loans for families in order to build houses and they were now starting to act as service providers in newly built government relocation and rehousing projects. More about that later. Unlike the American Habitat operation, Habitat in Paraguay doesn’t make families take part in building a house if they don’t have the time. This is a recognition of the reality of life for many with housing needs in Paraguay, who simply won’t have the time to volunteer.

The previous government of Paraguay, according to those we met with, had felt pressure to deal with the housing issue in a visible way and had come up with a project called Barrio San Francisco. This was a federal project that involved the ministry of housing and public works and was a pilot project to clear up illegal or unregulated settlements. For this particular neighbourhood, 1000 families that were living in makeshift homes were told that they were living in a flood zone and had to move. People living there were given two choices: they could re-settle into a government built neighbourhood an hour or two away by bus, or they could receive compensation and move on their own. We were told the compensation amounts were not enough to buy a house in Asuncion, so it was really more like one option. The government spent $40 million building lots of 3 storey apartments in the north end of Asuncion, and Habitat was involved doing ‘social work’, which involved getting people acclimated to the neighbourhood and also handling a lot of complaints from the relocated families.

Although supportive of a frequent coalition partner, organizers with Oxfam Paraguay, described this whole project as a social failure and a photo opportunity. People that had been living in the old neighbourhood who were relocated, were moving back to the flood zone. In the old neighbourhood there had been illegal connections to the power grid, giving people free power. Families now had to pay for power and were unable to handle the cost. Relocated families were also finding their commutes to their jobs much harder as well – which is about what you’d expect if you’re moving across a city like Asuncion where rush hour can be brutal in a taxi, never mind a bus.

This whole government relocation project seemed like a disaster for the people who were moved and for the people involved, with some groups sitting out of the whole thing due to government money being involved or because they could see the writing on the wall. This was worrying, because Habitat told us that there are future plans to move another 4,000 people. Who knows if Habitat will be involved in another project like this, the way they described it was that they were the cheese in a sandwich when it came to the problems that arose with the project, where they would organize local meetings of families to discuss problems and then Habitat would bring the complaints to the government, essentially lining up Habitat to be the proverbial messenger who gets shot. One specific example they gave was that the Ministry of Housing had promised to give deeds to relocated families, but didn’t give deeds out to everyone. The families protested and wanted to confront the government, but instead had to go through Habitat in order to connect with the local municipality. It didn’t seem like a great position to be in, essentially covering and taking the heat for the real target.

What we heard again and again from most groups was that they had issues they wanted to work on, like food security or labor standards or higher wages, but that they often would not push on politicians. The one group that seemed to be on the threshold of making political demands was TECHO, which makes sense once we learned about the way they work on the housing issue.

The first thing to know about TECHO is that all the staff we met were young. It’s a youth, volunteer focused organization that works on housing. The way they described their work is that each staff is responsible for managing around 10-15 volunteers, some of whom are permanent volunteers (usually residents of a community they’re working in), and some are temporary volunteers who commit to working for six months to a year. TECHO works permanently in thirty communities, twenty of which are in the periphery of Asuncion and then ten more in three other parts of the country, but all within fifteen kilometers of each other.

The model they follow is diagnosing problems through group conversations, and forming committees from residents who can then choose priority issues to work on. They told us that the priorities are always chosen by community members, never the volunteers or staff and that after the community chooses priorities then they work together with staff and volunteers to come up with an action plan. Because the organization broadened their mandate in 2012, the priorities can be things like getting recognition of illegal settlements from the local government, or getting sidewalks and community centers built, or getting public services like water and education set up. This was an exciting meeting to be at, because it sounded a lot like how we set up a neighbourhood chapter of ACORN – through organizing committees, power plans, setting priorities locally and then targeting whoever’s responsible in order to win the demands.

TECHO told us that a lot of the time community members will go to the TECHO committee before they go to the government recognized neighbourhood organization, because the neighbourhood is better represented by the committee. They also told us that they have sometimes gotten signed agreements with local government, but that the government doesn’t always follow through. The folks we met with said that because of this, and because of the failure by the government to address housing issues in the last election that TECHO was at the threshold of whether or not to become actively political. They would definitely have a base of members that they could use to move the government, just due to their work in the neighbourhoods.

The housing issue is obviously huge no matter where you go. People in Paraguay are obviously interested in addressing the issue – Habitat said that 80% of their funding comes from inside Paraguay, and TECHO has been able to enlist 70,000 volunteers over their 10 years in the country. With more relocation projects planned by the government, and TECHO saying that there are over 400 illegal settlements, organizations that work on housing in Paraguay have their work cut out for them.

Andrew Marciniak is the head organizer of ACORN Toronto.

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