What’s the Solution for Squatter Settlements?
Government officials recently announced they’ve found a decent formula for improving housing in the country’s slums, but a much stickier problem looms ahead: addressing the legal and social nightmares of Costa Rica’s squatter settlements, known as precarios.
It’s no easy task to build homes for the 40,000 families who live in substandard housing in Costa Rica, sheltered by makeshift plastic or tin roofs built over rocky dirt floors. And when those families don’t legally own the land they live on, the problems increase exponentially, with the country’s knotty property law turning social aid into a complicated balancing act.
Though the Legislative Assembly’s Social Affairs Commission is working on a law to help turn squatters into property owners, commission president Ofelia Taitelbaum says it’s hard to know where to start.
“At any of those (settlements), there’s no distribution of lots, no design, nothing,” she told The Tico Times. “How can you give a property title to everyone? It can’t be done. You have to do studies, see if they’re citizens… You need resources.”
Even housing officials often conflate precarios – illegal settlements which, in theory, may or may not include substandard housing – and tugurios, or shantytowns where housing doesn’t meet basic health needs. However, the two are often one and the same.
Triángulo de Solidaridad. La Cuenca. La Candela. The illegal shantytowns, like their legal counterparts, have colorful names and are colorful themselves, a hodgepodge of building styles, the streets generally filled with chatting adults and lively kids at seemingly any hour. While the communities have much in common, each one is different, and, as in the case of La Carpio – arguably the granddaddy of precarios, settled in the mid-1990s when people set up homes on land belonging to the Social Security System (Caja) – significant differences can exist between housing conditions within the same community. In La Carpio, a mix of squatter and legally inhabited lots, some homes on its main streets are solidly built and decades old, while others perched along its winding footpaths are little more than shacks.
These complications make the country’s shantytowns very difficult to unravel. Whether the settlement is legal or illegal, one problem with the government’s onsite-construction strategy is that many families are often crammed into a tiny lot.When slightly more spacious homes are built for those families, there’s not enough room for everyone, Leda Castro, a resident of the western San José shantytown Finca San Juan, told The Tico Times.
“They won’t have anywhere to put them,” she said, standing outside the shanty of her neighbors Ingrid Ríos and Adolfo Morales, who received one of the first housing grants in the area in a much-publicized ceremony last month led by
Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado (TT, June 1).
Taitelbaum echoed the same concern, adding that in settlements where residents don’t own the land, the situation is even more complicated because some families who feel they’ve gained the right to the land they inhabit may refuse to leave, even if the government is promising them a better residence down the line.
“Once you have a good design, (you can say) 3,000 people are going to stay here, 1,000 will be relocated… but there’s the problem,” she said.“People often believe they have acquired rights, because they have lived in that place for years and they don’t want to leave it.”
Costa Rica’s Civil Code states that a person possessing a title to land can claim rights to the property after living there for 10 years, even if the title is flawed or invalid. Often, illegal “brokers” sell precario residents a title to their land, as an informal Tico Times survey revealed last year in the now-evicted precario La Candela (TT, April 21, 2006).
Another complication: many residents of both legal and illegal settlements, but especially illegal precario residents, are not Costa Rican citizens, and therefore are ineligible for housing grants or other forms of aid.
It’s certainly tricky – but Taitelbaum, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), and legislator Luis Antonio Barrantes, also on the Social Affairs Commission, say they’re working full speed ahead on a bill to facilitate the process.
Barrantes, the legislative faction head for the Libertarian Movement Party and the commission’s most outspoken critic of a proposed luxury-homes tax to raise funds to eradicate shantytowns, says his party is fully in favor of a title reform law.
“The Precario Title Bill was presented by previous Libertarian Movement legislators (so that in precarios) where there aren’t physical risks for people, they can receive a title,” he explained. “We believe in a society of entrepreneurs and property owners.”
The proposal is set for discussion in commission shortly, he said.
Taitelbaum proposed a bill of her own last year, including structure to ensure the titling process is handled properly. She says she hopes she and Barrantes can combine the two proposals.
Ennio Rodríguez, head of the stateowned Housing Mortgage Bank (BAHNVI), says that because of the complications involved in improving illegal settlements, the government is focusing on legal shanty towns, followed by illegal shantytowns where the land belongs to the government.
In cases where land belonging to other parties has been invaded, “those aren’t being considered yet,” he told The Tico Times last week, emphasizing that a major government priority is to prevent such settlements from occurring in the future.
“We’re not going to tolerate new invasions,” he said. “We’re monitoring it very closely through the Housing Ministry and Public Security Ministry.”
Along these lines, the government is not attending to settlements less than three or four years old, he added.
“We want the message to be very clear.
We’re trying to resolve situations from the past, not promote new settlements,” he said.
After the one eviction from government lands during this administration – undertaken to free up the lands for the expansion of the San José-San Ramón section of theInter-American Highway
– the government arranged housing for the displaced families on lots in the southern San José suburb of Desamparados. In general, housing leaders intend to focus on onsite construction rather than further evictions, which Zumbado has said simply drive residents “from one precario to another.”
However, if judicial authorities order an eviction from private land, the government’s hands are tied, Rodríguez explained.
“When the court comes with an order –private evictions that happen, happen,” he said. “We don’t attend to them.”
How to Help
Those interested in contributing to Catholic priest Luis Gonzalo Mateo’s efforts to help those in need can deposit funds into one of two Banco Nacional accounts belonging to Catholic charitable organization Caritas: a colón account (82188-4) or a dollar account (100-02-000-0617961).
For additional information, contact Father Mateo at 222-5057.
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