Chavez struggles to fix Venezuela's housing crisis

December 27, 2011 - 3:16 PM
Venezuela Housing Crisis

In this photo taken on Dec. 14, 2011, refugees Katiuska Hernandez, 32, center, with her son John Frain, left, and daughter Karina, right, stand outside the disaster shelter where they live before leaving to spend the holidays with relatives, in the neighborhood of Antimano in Caracas, Venezuela. Torrential rains and landslides in late 2010 destroyed homes in parts of Caracas and forced tens of thousands of evacuees to move into disaster shelters nationwide. A year later, the government of President Hugo Chavez is struggling to cope with a shortage of affordable housing so severe that it could easily take a decade or more of heavy construction to remedy. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — For more than a year, thousands of Venezuelans have been living in disaster shelters, sleeping in bunks and sharing bathrooms.

Their long wait for government homes shows how far President Hugo Chavez still has to go to fulfill his promises of aid for the poor after nearly 13 years in office.

Opposition politicians estimate that more than 30,000 people remain in the shelters waiting for Chavez to deliver. And yet, his inability to keep such grand promises doesn't seem to be a serious handicap as he seeks re-election next year.

"I trust Chavez will get us into an apartment. I just don't know when that could occur, and waiting so long is becoming more and more difficult," said Christian Ortiz, who spent a second Christmas in the crowded shelter with his wife and two children.

For months, Ortiz and his family have been watching construction workers shoulder steel rods and pour cement as they build a government apartment building two blocks away from the community center where they are living. They expect to eventually be assigned one of the 400 apartments in the half-finished building, and are hoping that 2012 will be their year.

Caracas has long had large hillside slums of "ranchos" slapped together with bricks and concrete, many built on unstable ground that regularly collapses in rainstorms. Torrential rains and landslides in late 2010 destroyed homes in parts of Caracas and forced tens of thousands of evacuees to move into disaster shelters nationwide.

A year later, Chavez's government is struggling to cope with a shortage of affordable housing so severe that it could easily take a decade or more to remedy.

Those living in disaster shelters are only part of the problem. A recent government survey found that more than 3.1 million of the nation's roughly 29 million people have inadequate housing.

Chavez set a goal of building about 150,000 homes this year, and he said on Saturday that more than 125,000 housing units have been completed. His opponents question the official figures, and the government hasn't provided a detailed breakdown of homes built by the government and private construction companies, nor has it specified whether the figures include refurbished housing.

"It's December and we have the same homeless people waiting for houses for a year due to lack of commitment and inefficiency," opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said at a recent news conference. He accused the government of inflating its figures and providing far fewer homes than it claims.

"If 100,000 houses were built as they say, to whom did they give them?" Borges asked.

Housing Ministry officials did not respond to requests for an interview.

Chavez's construction effort has leaned not on local builders but instead has enlisted construction companies from allied countries such as Iran, China, Russia, Brazil and Cuba.

The leftist leader has also expropriated buildings and vacant lots where construction crews have been cleaning debris and laying foundations. The government has seized 1,045 parcels of land and buildings this year, including 461 properties and assets from construction companies, according to a report by Conindustria, the country's largest industrial chamber.

Chavez recently said his government has poured 52 billion bolivars, or about $12 billion, into housing projects this year, according to the state news agency. That helped the construction sector grow 10 percent in the third quarter of the year and contributed to overall quarterly growth of 4.2 percent, according to the Central Bank.

The lofty goal of constructing more than 150,000 homes in a year hasn't been reached, critics say, in part due to excessive bureaucracy and lack of communication among dozens of companies and institutions that Chavez has tapped. The country's construction chamber has also complained about shortages of supplies, including cement.

In addition to construction firms, the government has enlisted the Housing Ministry, state-run oil and petrochemical companies and a host of pro-Chavez state governors and other officials to oversee the projects.

The government also has used an unorthodox variety of buildings to temporarily house displaced families: an unfinished shopping mall, a horse-racing track and even tent-like shelters in a courtyard behind Chavez's presidential palace.

Some of the homeless have moved into privately owned hotels that opened their doors to evacuees at the government's request.

When Chavez was sworn in as president in 1999, the country already suffered a major shortage of housing, a problem that grew from heavy migration to urban slums and a construction industry that had focused on building homes largely for the middle class and the affluent.

The country's housing deficit has long been more severe than those of many other Latin American nations, said Paulina Villanueva, who heads the Villanueva Foundation, a Caracas-based think tank that analyzes urban planning.

The problem goes back to the 1940s and '50s, when the growth of Venezuela's oil industry and the decline of its farming economy prompted many to migrate to the cities in search of jobs, Villanueva said. She said that for much of Chavez's presidency, the government seems to have had priorities other than the housing crisis.

Many poor Venezuelans live crammed in slum housing with zinc roofs, sometimes lacking running water. Others have seized abandoned buildings where they live as squatters.

Hundreds of such squatters fill an unfinished 45-story skyscraper in Caracas that has been abandoned since the mid-1990s. Often known as the Tower of David after the late entrepreneur David Brillembourg, who invested in the building, the high-rise's helicopter pad marks a strong contrast to the smashed windows that leave many occupants exposed to the wind and rain.

Chavez has fed the hopes of many Venezuelans by vowing to provide a roof for every family in need, and the government is heavily promoting its efforts. Banners flying beside newly built red brick buildings tout the "Great Housing Mission," while during the televised inauguration of one apartment complex in western Lara state, a giant inflatable likeness of Chavez wobbled in front of the building.

Opposition politicians have tried to use the government's performance against Chavez in the run-up to the October presidential vote, when he will seek another six-year term. But thus far, the potential for political fallout seems limited.

Ortiz and many others living in the shelters still hold out hope that Chavez will eventually come through, and the president's approval rating has been hovering around 50 percent in recent polls.

"We trust Chavez. He promised us a house, and we're sure we'll have one sooner or later," said Katiuska Hernandez, 32, who gathered her belongings in boxes as she and her family left a shelter temporarily to spend the holidays with relatives. "The problem is the delay. This process has taken too much time."

Some have grown so impatient living in the shelters that they have begun venting frustration in small protests where they hold hands to block streets and demand results.

Chavez has urged patience. When heavy rains earlier this month forced more Venezuelans into disaster shelters, he offered about $350 in cash assistance to each displaced family.

"We are resolving numerous problems such as housing all at once," Chavez said last month.

On a breezy hilltop overlooking the Caribbean Sea near Caracas, a flagship housing project is being built by a joint company formed by the Venezuelan and Cuban governments.

Chavez calls it Caribia Socialist City, and the government says it will become a model self-sufficient community with a state-run supermarket, small farms and schools.

The Socialist City may be a metaphor for how far Chavez still has to go in addressing the housing shortage. Plans call for about 80,000 homes to be built. So far, after more than three years of construction, the Housing Ministry has said that about 600 families have been able to move into the first apartments.

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