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Buenos Aires authorities push ahead with bold slum renewal
STANDING next to his self-built home accessible by a steep ladder in a Buenos Aires slum, resident Miguel Romero is sceptical about the future, despite ambitious government plans to improve the oldest shanty area in Argentina's capital.
"I built this home 11 years ago with good materials," said the former builder-turned-taxi driver of his brick two-bedroom house.
City authorities have invested millions of dollars to develop and improve the sprawling Villa 31 slum in the heart of Buenos Aires.
Home to about 43,000 people, the informal settlement stands in sharp contrast to the city's most affluent residential neighbourhoods with French-inspired architecture and clean, leafy streets just a short walk away.
Over the past decades, Villa 31 has become a symbol of the deep divide between rich and poor, along with the challenges that come with urban development and improving the lives of people living in informal settlements.
The bright green and pink three-storey buildings of Villa 31 have been expanding, despite being under the threat of eviction, since the first families moved here in the 30s.
But in the past four years, city hall and government authorities have invested in projects to give formal land titles to local residents.
Other investments include connecting some homes to sewage, water and electricity systems, and building new houses, a school and several playgrounds and football pitches.
Several new government offices are also set to move into the area, including the soon-to-be inaugurated Ministry of Education and a McDonald's outlet, which is expected to employ about 80 residents in the coming months.
Yet Mr Romero and other local residents, many of them poor immigrants from neighbouring Paraguay and Bolivia, are not sold on the renewal plans.
Some residents say they have not been properly consulted in decisions about the area's development and their needs have not been taken into account.
They fear development projects are going to push those with fewer resources out of the area, which sits on prime real estate in one of Buenos Aires' most expensive neighbourhoods.
Signs of such concerns and discontent became apparent during the general and local elections last October.
Only 20 per cent of Villa 31 residents voted for Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta - the name and face behind the urban renewal drive.
Back in 2016, city authorities offered Mr Romero and his family a bright new apartment, a few blocks away from his existing home. He declined.
"The new homes aren't built as well, and they are too far away, so we're not leaving," the 43-year-old said.
Many residents say the government should make more efforts to consult them when deciding on what they need amid Argentina's deteriorating economy.
They want a balance between immediate and long-term needs, like jobs, healthcare and education.
Urban experts say the authorities prioritised fast development instead of reaching a consensus about development plans for the area, and the project lacks an overall vision.
"Many residents feel they weren't included in the decision-making process. This level of uncertainty generated a lot of problems, fear and distrust. Many say this has been a lost opportunity," said Pablo Vitale, co-director of the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, an Argentine human rights group.
But city authorities say efforts were made to improve Villa 31 beyond just building new homes and connecting it with the rest of the city.
"The project isn't just about homes," said Juan Salari, an official from the Buenos Aires sub-secretariat of infrastructure.
"This is about integration and transformation. The idea is for the Villa 31 to be like any other neighbourhood. We want to break with the idea of the ghetto," he said.
The narrow streets of Villa 31 are filled with cranes and construction workers as they build new buildings and homes.
Tall fences guard newly finished projects, with large banners displaying "before and after" photos to show locals the progress made so far.
About 800 apartments built in warehouse-style buildings four storeys high are meant to house families who have been living under a busy highway.
So far, 150 families have moved into these apartments, after signing 30-year-long mortgages with monthly payments based on their income.
The authorities have also built some 126 additional homes in another part of the settlement for people who lost their homes after new development projects began.
To pay for their new properties, the residents' current homes have been valued and will serve as partial payments for the new ones, officials say.
But some residents are wary of signing such contracts, a rarity in Argentina where long mortgages are practically non-existent because of ever-fluctuating interest and inflation rates.
"I saw the new apartments. They are very nice, but they don't look stable and it's too far for people to get to. I'm staying here, although we don't know what's going to happen to us," said local resident Rocio Martinez, who runs a clothing stall.
Mr Salari said if families cannot make their mortgage payments - a scenario many fear in a country with nearly 45 per cent annual inflation and high unemployment - then the authorities will step in with solutions.
"We work with residents and we're always negotiating. It's challenging," he said. "People are anxious because of the economic situation and that's understandable."
Barbara Bonelli, an official at the Buenos Aires Ombudsman's office, said that much of the fear stems from long-standing mistrust between residents and authorities.
"For many years, residents of Villa 31 felt abandoned," she said.
"It's a very large and heterogeneous community with many different political parties involved, so it's often hard to reach agreements," she added.
For Alejandro Maccio, a 25-year-old local resident and health promoter, urban renewal must develop alongside providing more job opportunities and better education.
He said: "If you look at the money the government has invested, we should be a lot better off. The question is: why isn't that happening? People here work and study very hard to try and improve their lives. Why doesn't anybody invest in that?" REUTERS