Wednesday, December 28, 2011

homes v. archeology

Hundreds of squatters have erected new shacks on archeologically important spots in southern Peru, Peru This Week reports (based on an earlier article in the Peruvian paper El Comercio). The new settlements, which were built with the support of local politicos, have apparently endangered portions of the Nazca lines, the 1500-year-old geoglyphs that were created by an ancient Peruvian culture. The Nazca lines were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.

Preservation of archeological sites is crucial for greater understanding of our origins and history. Nonetheless, this land invasion shows how desperate people are for a place to live. The political structure and property-owning system conspire to deny people a right to a place to call home. As a result, people often seize the most readily available land where they will be least likely to be immediately displaced--tracts with disputed titles, parcels in dangerous locations, or properties that have been removed from private development because of other concerns--in this case the need for preservation of the archeological record.

If the towns in the Nazca region would allocate other parcels for the squatters, they wouldn't have to obliterate the geoglyphs.

Friday, December 09, 2011

inexcusable evictions in Rio

Rio de Janeiro is using the coming World Cup and Olympics as an excuse to demolish major swathes of favelas in the Zona Sul--the tourist zone of the city. These videos--at once jaw-droppingly awful and incredibly inspiring--tell the story. Note, in the second video, about the community called Pavao Pavaozinho, that you can see the beachfront highrises out peoples' windows. This shows just how valuable the real estate is in these areas.

People have lived in these favelas for generations. The government has never cared about their lives or their communities. Now, suddenly, with the spark of development and the increase in real estate values due to the games, their communities are areas of interest. The city plans to tear down 123 areas and relocate 13,000 families (though relocation is often to the most remote areas of town, impossibly far from work and economic opportunity, and there is no compensation for the decades of commitment and labor people have put into their communities.)

The World Cup will be taking place in eight major cities around Brazil--and all of them are using the contest as an excuse to eradicate vulnerable communities. These neighborhoods are not primitive. With no investment from outside and no government assistance, people have improved their communities, going from mud and stick settlements to brick and reinforced concrete structures in one generation. They get no credit for this. In fact, it's just the reverse: they are called illegal occupiers and criminals.

Brazil has lost a major opportunity to show the world that major global sporting events can be organized in an inclusive and egalitarian manner.

(hat tip to Tanya for sending the link my way.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

social commerce, DIY-style

Writing in The Guardian, Adam Werbach, the former head of the Sierra Club, endorses squatter savings schemes and do-it-yourself development through the informal economy as the way forward for the megacities of the developing world. "Who will fix this?" a squatter asks rhetorically as she imagines the monsoon rains that will flood her newly-tiled home next year. "It is we, ourselves."

Monday, November 28, 2011

140 characters in search of Caracas

Francisco Toro writes on his blog on the New York Times site that 600 squatter communities in the Venezuelan capital have joined a non-profit called Radar de los Barrios, which uses Twitter to help neighboring communities communicate. “Working-class settlements here don’t communicate much with one another,” the group’s director, Jesus Torrealba, said. Community activists often have little insight into what is happening in the next barrio just a few miles away. Twitter cuts through this isolation, helping create a network among independently minded activists who contest the government’s policies.

Toro, who identifies himself as "opposition-leaning-but-not-insane" also blogs at Caracas Chronicles, and has written that "one of the more difficult things about my job is communicating to a First World audience that unmistakable taste of sheer thuggishness the Chávez government leaves in your mouth."

Friday, November 11, 2011

the wierd turn pro in Rio

Nem -- aka Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes -- the dono do morro of Rocinha, was captured this week by police in Rio de Janeiro. It's a wacky story (The Guardian offers details): the local drug gang boss tried to flee the favela in the trunk of a car. And his bodyguards apparently told the cops they were African diplomats.

According to the article, police claimed that Nem's drug trade in Rocinha involved "200 rifle-toting soldiers who were responsible for selling some 200kg of Bolivian cocaine a month" and brought in an annual fortune of around $57 million.

Of course, my time in Rocinha was a decade back, so I can't really talk about current reality (though, given what I've read about recent coke busts, the value given seems absurdly high.) But, a friend has pointed out that the police are about to occupy Rocinha in a highly publicized putsch, which probably means that the local cops were no longer going to be able to take their traditional pay-offs from the drug lord. Add to this the fact that Rio is desperately trying to clean its image in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics, and the bust seems like a pretty shrewd PR move.

If anyone from Rocinha reads this, please let us know what's going on.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The UK's anti-squatter plan

The UK government has fast-tracked its attempt to change the law to make it easier to evict squatters, and the proposal is set to be debated tomorrow. The charity Housing Justice opposes the Cameron Administration plan. Money quote: "The existing law already allows for the fast track eviction of squatters if the displaced occupier needs the home to live in....The proposed amendment is particularly worrying as it will mean that all of the people currently living in squats will be committing a crime should it come into law. This will create a situation in which tens of thousands of people nationwide stand to lose their home." Independent Catholic News has details.

Monday, October 31, 2011

good for goats, bad for people

Count 80,000 people homeless and a bunch of goats happy after Kyang’ombe, a squatter community near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, was demolished last week. The airport authority suggests that the neighborhood was dangerously near runways and in the flight path of many planes. But Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, a squatter federation and advocacy group, has suggested that the real impetus for the eviction, which started at around midnight on Friday, was that politically connected developers had taken control of the land.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Me on NPR's 'Fresh Air'

I will try to avoid posting too many plugs for my new book on this blog. But I can't resist popping this one up: Today, the National Public Radio show Fresh Air discovers the informal economy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

my new book

crossposted from my blog Stealth of Nations

Well, it's finally arrived:

Stealth of Nations, the book, hits the stores tomorrow. On Saturday, the The Wall Street Journal reviewed it. And you can get a taste of what's inside the covers on Bloomberg View.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

squat or what?

Britain's conservative government wants to tilt the nation's laws against squatters, The New York Times reports. But at what cost. While some landlords may find ejecting squatters legally a cumbersome process, the article also notes that "Housing advocates say there are an estimated 762,000 empty and abandoned properties in Britain that would actually benefit by having tenants. And with homelessness likely to increase in the next few years, as deep cuts in housing allowances for welfare recipients take affect, advocates say it would make sense to match tenantless homes with homeless tenants

After all, as one housing lawyer told the paper, squatting is hard work and most people are serious about needing a home. “Most squatters who are actually looking for a place to live are doing it on entirely rational grounds, and not looking for somewhere where there’s a homeowner likely to turn up at any moment,” that attorney, Giles Peaker, said. “They’re looking for something that’s long-term vacant, where the owner has dropped the ball."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

mud vs. sheetmetal

Five more people have died in the wake of the oil leak inferno that burned through the Sinai squatter community in Nairobi. The disaster is mind-boggling and awful. But it has left me wondering about a simple but little remarked fact: As the picture of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga touring the community shows, Sinai was built mostly of corrugated metal--a cheap and incredibly time- and labor-saving building material. A stick frame and some rolls of steel and a community can be created in minutes. Older squatter communities -- Kibera, for instance -- feature homes built mostly from mud, which must be dug, and mixed with water to the right consistency, and built up by someone who knows what they are doing. Mud is a better insulator--keeping homes warm during cool seasons and cool during warm times. Steel, by contrast, conducts the heat--and metal homes often become overheated in sunny weather. I'm wondering if a community made from mud or brick would have fared better in warding off the flames, and how many of the burn injuries were from the flames and how many were inflicted as people attempted to flee their superheated sheetmetal houses.

Monday, September 12, 2011

river of bodies

Tragedy in Kenya's capital as an oil pipeline in a squatter community ruptured early Monday morning, and turned deadly soon thereafter when it ignited into a fireball, killing 100 and sending hundreds more to the hospital.

Sinai is a small squatter community in Nairobi's industrial area, not far from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The oil pipeline, which slices across the community and apparently runs to the airport, sprung a huge leak, sending oil cascading down the community's streets and into the nearby Ngong River. Many community residents headed towards the leak, to gather some of the valuable fuel. Somehow, the oil ignited--the New York Times reports the blaze took hold because cinders from a nearby garbage fire blew over in the wind, though other sources speculate about different causes. But whatever happened, the blast of flame was deadly.

The Nation newspaper reports that a loose gasket in the pipeline was responsible for the oil leak, and notes that "There were two different accounts of the cause of the inferno. While some of the survivors said the petrol from the pipeline came with the fire, others said it was lit by a man smoking a cigarette." The paper also offers a 2 minute TV news report from the scene.

The Standard reports that oil pipelines have a lifespan of about 25 years, while this one had been in continual service for 33 years, adding that and a decade-old study commissioned by the public/private commission that manages the pipeline had concluded that it was obsolete--but that the commission rejected the report and instead expanded its usage. Just a few weeks back, the government's energy secretary called for it to be replaced within three years.

The Guardian also has details, and a short video.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Accra politicos vow demolition & eviction

The political class of Accra, Ghana, have vowed to evict 80,000 people from the squatter community called Sodom and Gomorrah. "Whether or not the people have their homes there does not matter, the final decision is that it has to go.” the municipality's Public Relations Officer, Numo Blafo, told My Joy Online.

It seems as if the municipality doesn't understand why people come to the city. As stalwart anti-demolition advocate Farouk Braimah, from Peoples Dialogue on Human Settlement, explained, "it is income that brings people to the city and not shelter."

In other words, demolishing a community doesn't stop people from coming to Accra and certainly doesn't make the housing crisis go away. It just pushes poor and working people further out of town. That's urban removal not urban renewal.

when the city owns vacant buildings

The Squatters Advis­ory Service in the UK submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Camden Council in London seeking a complete list of vacant properties in the area. The group has now won a court judgment in its favor -- a decision one City Councillor described as "lunacy."

But Paul Reynolds, a spokesman for Squash, a squatters' rights group, makes a lot of sense when he explains the decision: “It is about accountability. They will no longer be able to hide the extent of empty, publicly-owned housing in Camden. And if nothing is done to fix, repair or fill an empty home, homeless people can move in until this is done, which is a good thing. If Camden does not want this to happen, they should put people in these properties.”

That's a bright idea. Are you listening, Detroit (and all the other American cities with large patches of abandonment)?

The Camden New Journal offers the details.

Friday, August 26, 2011

what's sensible for Detroit?

Here's a city with an eviction problem, a vacant building problem, and a squatter problem. According to the Detroit News, the city has more than 100,000 vacant homes. Yet as columnist Mitch Albom, of the Detroit Free Press, noted the other day, good families are getting evicted even though they're struggling to live by the rules. The question is: why can't the city government bring these things together. No more demolition and eviction. Instead, a guided program that will turn decent homes over the families willing to engage in serious sweat equity.

As the Detroit News article shows, people feel very mixed about squatting -- because some of the squatters aren't serious and aren't good neighbors. But if the city and community groups policed the program so that only squatters intent on rehabbing their new homes and becoming part of the neighborhood were involved, it could work to preserve the city. After all, the prior policy of demolishing everything that lay vacant for too long resulted in a city with blocks dominated by the devastation of vacant lots.

As Quincy Jones, head of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, put it, "We should look at it both ways: How do we embrace it and turn the negative into a positive? All these homes are sitting and it's an open invitation for squatters. It [squatting and thus reoccupying vacant houses] helps prevent homes from being stripped. It's become the elephant in the room. We should promote keeping up the house."

Over to you, City Hall.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

struggles of Jo-berg's squatters

The Los Angeles Times offers a take on the perils faced by squatters in what the newspaper refers to as Johannesburg's "Mad Max downtown." Sadly, though, the paper seems to look at developers who buy derelict squatter-occupied properties as potential white knights, capable of revitalizing the central city. Rather, they are seeking to profit from the opportunity to purchase big buildings at fire-sale prices. Though no family should have to live in a 5 X 10 foot room with no electricity and no water, this good family will simply get pushed to worse and more precarious accomodations if they are evicted.

One owner, who the newspaper identifies as Mark, told the reporter that "he'll do everything by the book, including getting a court eviction order, but he's not planning any meetings with tenants. "We don't encourage that," he says brusquely. "They are welcome to apply to move back in when it's renovated," he adds, although many will probably not be able to pay a deposit and higher rents. He believes there's a pile of money to be made from Johannesburg's low-cost housing shortage, if you're brave enough."Still, he's not brave enough to actually visit the building he bought. Instead, he had a black friend go there to take pictures.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

favela cable cars

Rio de Janeiro has opened a cable car line that makes 5 stops up the hill into the Complexo do Alemao collection of favelas in the city's Zona Norte. Dow Jones Newswires reports that the $134 million system can transport 3,000 people every hour (though this may not be the exact truth: each of the system's 152 cable cars would need to make two trips per hour at the full capacity of ten people to move 3,000 folks up and down the hill.) "We're already looking at an extension of the Alemao cable car, as well as putting cable cars into Rocinha and Mangueira," the head of the state-run company that built the system told the news service.

While it's great that the government is willing to make an investment in mass transit, the article doesn't report what residents must pay to use the cable car system, nor what its hours are, nor how many people were forced to move to make way for its installation.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

who benefits?

With the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later, it seems that authorities in Rio de Janeiro are following a well-worn path: remaking the city in ways that help the rich and hurt the poor. First on the list--a project called the Transcarioca--an express bus route that would link Barra da Tijuca, one of the city's toniest neighborhoods, with the international airport in the north. 

The Associated Press reports that 1,000 families have been moved to make way for the Transcarioca. All told, the government says, 3000 homes will be demolished, and these city residents will be relocated 40 or 50 miles away. Several favelas, like Vila Autodromo, have also been targeted for extinction, and The Rio Times reports that Amnesty International has concerns about human rights abuses. Theresa Williamson, of Catalytic Communities, a local watchdog group, told Rio Times that the city is violating its own rules, which require residents to be relocated within 7 kilometers of their existing homes.

“I don’t think the idea of having games here is to harm anyone,” an Olympic official told the AP. “Everything will be done with a very human touch.” But how human is it to put people out of their homes?

Monday, March 07, 2011

did arson destroy the shantytown?

The fire that roared through Garib Nagar on Friday, rendering slumdog millionaire star Rubina Ali and 750 of her neighbors homeless, may have been deliberately set, United News of India reports. The mostly-Muslim shantytown was adjacent to the Bandra train station along the Western Express Railway.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

the opportunity tower

In Caracas, squatters have taken over an uncompleted office tower that was designed to have a helipad on the roof. The squatters first invaded the structure in 2007, and The New York Times reports that the 45-story building has over time become a vertical community, with stores scattered throughout the edifice.

A beauty salon operates on one floor. On another, an unlicensed dentist applies the brightly colored braces that are the rage in Caracas street fashion. Almost every floor has a small bodega. Julieth Tilano, 26, lives inside a small shop on the seventh floor with her husband and in-laws. They sell everything from plantains to Pepsi and Belmont cigarettes. Her husband, Humberto Hidalgo, 23, has a side business in which he charges children from the skyscraper 50 cents per half-hour to play PlayStation games on the four television sets in the family’s living room. “There’s opportunity in this tower,” said Mr. Hidalgo, who immigrated here last year from Valledupar, Colombia.
As the BBC has reported, the housing shortage is so severe in the Venezuelan capital that homeless families have taken over portions of the still operating Foreign Ministry building.

Monday, February 28, 2011

no explanation necessary...

...but I'll provide one anyway. I took a hiatus from posting as I finished a book manuscript (see my Stealth of Nations blog for more on that) and then dealt with the emptiness that followed having finished the manuscript. Instead of blogging, I spent my time repairing manual typewriters.

Squattercity will be on the march again in March.