Property politics

Time to tackle Latin America’s severe housing deficit

For decades, Latin America has struggled with chronic housing shortages. Its existing stock is structurally poor, badly designed, massively overcrowded, and insufficient to serve the needs of the people who live there. It is a persistent public policy challenge and one that has been repeatedly kicked into the long grass by successive governments across the region. Over half of the housing stock across Latin America is classed as deficient, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Poor housing can also pose profound social and economic challenges to residents, especially poor and vulnerable communities who live in the informal dwellings of Latin America’s sprawling slums, cumulatively home to some 100 million people. Slums are often constructed with dangerous materials – what’s available rather than what’s safe. Worse, it is the privileged few who enjoy consistent access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity. You’d have thought governments would pay the issue more attention, but this challenge is a particularly expensive one. One country is attempting to buck that trend. Argentina is increasingly eschewing electoral politicking on the issue and looking to long-term and clear-headed policy.

We spoke to a political scientist in the capital Buenos Aires who specialises in public policy and social development. He remarked that, “Argentina has a chronic and historic housing deficit. Unfortunately, the promise of housing construction is often used as an electoral bargaining chip. Because of this, there is often little in the way of long-term policy planning and it is rarely adopted by governments in any meaningful sense. As we can see with the current administration, the Government focuses on the construction of new homes for the lowest-income sectors. There is a clear supply-side challenge so it’s understandable that that’s the policy focus. The problem is that there are also many homes that need to be finished or have basic maintenance or renovations.” 

Argentina has a chronic and historic housing deficit. Unfortunately, the promise of housing construction is often used as an electoral bargaining chip.”

Political scientist, Argentina

However, there is cause for optimism in policy successes so far. The political scientist added, “Today, there is a notable plan that seeks to address the problem of accessible housing for those most in need. ‘Casa Propia’  intends to reduce the housing deficit and guarantee the right to housing. From what we see, it appears to be working effectively.”

“‘Casa Propia’  intends to reduce the housing deficit and guarantee the right to housing. From what we see, it appears to be working effectively.”

Political scientist, Argentina

Has Covid exacerbated the problem? The political scientist didn’t think so, “I do not believe that the pandemic has aggravated the housing deficit. In fact, it is one of the sectors that recovered the fastest. We have to keep in mind that the housing deficit happened not only because of the quantity of houses, but also because of the quality. Government actions were focused on home improvements and not just the construction of new ones. What the pandemic undoubtedly did was to highlight the extent of the problem.” 

It remains to be seen whether Argentina, where a highly polarised congress obfuscates long-term policy planning, will be able to cast aside electoral opportunism to push through much-needed policy in the longer-term. Elsewhere in Latin America, action will need to be taken to ensure the issue is tackled much more assertively. If not, increasingly aggrieved residents will make it harder and harder for governments to continue kicking the issue into that long grass.  

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