When Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado slurped down his noodles Tuesday night, it was no ordinary occasion – not just because he ate his supper at a home in one of San José’s slums, but also because a bank of cameras flashed nonstop during the simple meal.
Zumbado’s heavily hyped decision to spend the night in a shantytown known as Finca San Juan drew criticism from some who claimed he was pandering to the media, though the minister, who heads President Oscar Arias’ policies to combat poverty, brushed off such comments. The purpose of his visit, he said, was to show the Legislative Assembly why two initiatives stuck in the Social Affairs Commission need immediate attention if the government is to make substandard housing a thing of the past.
“Kids are growing up without being able to crawl,” a visibly ruffled Zumbado told reporters Wednesday, responding to the criticisms against him by referring to the rocky dirt floors of homes like the one he’d stayed at the night before. “What do I care when they tell me I’m putting on a show, if a child can crawl a year earlier than if we didn’t act?
“We (Costa Ricans) live separate lives, and I don’t think people realize,” he added.
Throughout Costa Rica, an estimated 40,000 families live in more than 400 shantytowns, or tugurios, defined as groupings of five families or more where housing conditions do not meet basic health requirements.
These are often confused with precarios, communities where people live on land that does not belong to them; in many cases, of course, these squatter communities also have substandard housing.
The Arias administration has begun its quest to elevate the living conditions of at least half of shantytown-dwellers by 2010 by targeting legal settlements like Finca San Juan, where lots were assigned to families by the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU) in the 1980s. Settlements where residents don’t own the land are farther down the list, but still slated for aid.
Ingrid Ríos, 38, and Adolfo Morales, 40, the couple who hosted Zumbado in their tinroofed shanty this week, watched affably as legislators, news crews and officials scurried around their small lot Tuesday night. Ríos told The Tico Times that she and her husband came up with the idea to invite Zumbado to spend the night at their home when they met him at a community meeting last month.
She said that they invited Zumbado so he “could see how we poor people live. They (government leaders) live in fancy places.” Legislators such as Carlos Manuel Gutiérrez of the Libertarian Movement, a member of the commission considering the shantytown-related bills, said Zumbado’s sleepover was a waste of time.
“That was pure politicking, pure demagoguery,” Gutiérrez told The Tico Times yesterday, dismissing Zumbado’s claims that more money is necessary. He added that although the assembly last year doubled funds available to eradicate shantytowns (TT, June 30, 2006), Zumbado “has done absolutely nothing, as far as I can see. So it’s not a money problem.”
After a night at the Finca, Zumbado and Ennio Rodríguez, president of the National Housing Mortgage Bank (BAHNVI), presented the Ríos-Morales family and 15 of their neighbors with housing grants and began construction on new homes on their lots. In all, the government will invest a total of ¢474.9 million (approximately $913,000), with an average expenditure of ¢4.5 million ($8,654) per family, to build homes for 105 families at Finca San Juan.
Projects are also set to begin in the Central Valley towns of Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela, and are already under way for approximately 3,000 shantytown-dwellers in Puntarenas, on the central Pacific coast, and the Chirripó Cabécar indigenous community in south-central Costa Rica, as well as in additional San José neighborhoods.
The administration’s strategy is to build new homes on-site. Families stay with relatives or neighbors during the approximately month-long construction process, Rodríguez told The Tico Times.
“For eight years (before 2006), shantytowns were pretty much not eradicated in Costa Rica. We had to start from zero,” Zumbado said.
Despite advances in construction, the administration’s housing push has not gone entirely according to plan.
According to Zumbado, who also served as Arias’ Housing Minister during the President’s first administration (1986-1990), too much bureaucracy and too little funding have combined to bog down the process.
Before building can begin, BAHNVI must obtain permits from a laundry list of institutions such as municipalities, the Public Health Ministry, the National Sewer and Water Institute (AyA), as well as have environmental-impact studies approved by the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).
These trámites must be simplified, particularly the SETENA studies, which can delay construction by three to six months, Zumbado said.
“It’s irrational to ask for an environmental-impact study for terrain that’s already (suffered) such an impact,” he said of Finca San Juan and other overcrowded, healthhazard-filled shantytowns.
In addition, BAHNVI needs more funds. It will cost approximately ¢240 billion ($461.5 million) to eradicate all the country’s slums, but at the bank’s current spending rate of ¢20 billion ($38.5 million) per year, it will take more than a decade to reach that goal.
The solutions to both problems lie in the Legislative Assembly’s Social Affairs Commission, the minister said. One bill would create a tax on “luxury” properties, those valued at more than ¢125 million (approximately $240,000), to be used to eradicate the country’s substandard housing.
Under the proposed law, owners of such properties would pay an additional tax of 0.25-0.75% of the property’s value each year.
The other bill, the Law of Titles, would simplify the process involved in titling land and obtaining construction permits for shantytown eradication, the minister explained.
Lawmaker Gutiérrez said that while he supports the second bill, among the commission’s top priorities for discussion, the luxuryhomes tax would backfire for middle-class and poor Costa Ricans, since it would require everyone to declare the value of their properties, luxury or no, and allows the Tax Administration to fine those who make a mistake.
The bill would also penalize farmers or coastal dwellers whose properties may be valuable, but whose homes and lifestyles are humble, Gutiérrez said, adding that he’ll oppose the bill unless changes are made.
Rebeca Araya, advisor to commission secretary Ana Helena Chacón of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), said legislators have already made some changes to the bill, such as adding a requirement that the Finance Minister report to the assembly eachyear regarding how tax funds were spent. She echoed some of Gutiérrez’s concerns, adding that the effect of such a tax on properties such as large nursing homes and rehabilitation centers is also worrisome.
However, most commission members “are in favor of the spirit of the law,”Araya said.
Adolfo Morales, a maintenance worker atthe BritishSchool, said he just wants a house.
“This means so much,” said the father of three as he watched Zumbado speak with legislators at his home Tuesday night. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for for 16 years – having a decent house.”