A Right to Low-Income Housing in Chile

The making of a long-term right to housing has constrained the largely unfettered free-market policies embraced by the Pinochet dictatorship and the democratic presidencies that followed. 

October 18, 2015

A style of subsidized housing built on a massive scale in post-dictatorship Chile

Since 2006, popular protest movements have roared back to prominence in Chile. Secondary and university students have been at the forefront of these movements, but their call for free access to education has been far from the only cause that has motivated activists.  Chileans have also rallied around such issues as indigenous rights, environmental protections, and labor conditions. The re-emergence of protests has put Chile’s long tradition of confrontational politics back in the spotlight, following a nearly twenty-year hiatus when a technocratic elite oversaw a democratic transition dominated by a commitment to neoliberal economic policies and carefully managed stability.

Housing rights activists, however, have been notably absent in this resurgence.  Since the early twentieth century, housing had been a major rallying point for low-income urban residents (referred to in Chile as pobladores) and one of the central issues that government bureaucracies, civic associations, and political interests have addressed. Given this history, in addition to extremely high rates of inequality overall, why has housing activism generally not re-emerged in the present?

Government support for low-income housing has, in fact, been expansive and sustained since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).  Low-income Chileans have historically earned a right to housing, an achievement that still orients politics and urban development today.  Past struggles to expand the rights of citizenship in housing have constrained the largely unfettered free-market policy orientation embraced by the Pinochet dictatorship and the governments that followed.

This process has not been without its ironies. During the 1950s and 1960s, the central government sought to expand individual home ownership by following a market-oriented model based, at least in part, on the experience of the United States.  Chilean housing and banking officials created agencies such as the National Institution for Investments in Social Welfare and the State Bank of Chile.  Like the U.S. institution Fannie Mae, these entities provided the means for gaining access to government-backed housing loans.  Through an expansion of debt, they increased the number of long-term home mortgages.  The government also financed the development of numerous housing projects, in which they offered subsidies for middle and low-income Chileans and sought to grow the construction industry.

For conservatives and Christian Democrats, influenced by transnational development specialists and U.S. cold warriors, these policies to foster both homeownership and capitalist financing would deliver a lot.  They would develop Chile’s financial infrastructure, expand the middle class, overcome so-called marginality, reduce social unrest, and blunt the appeal of socialism and Communism.  This approach, in other words, was meant to set the country on a path towards successful capitalist modernization.

Little turned out as the planners hoped. By the late 1960s, many pobladores began to mobilize collectively, seizing land at an unprecedented rate in the country’s main cities. Between 1967 and 1973, some 400,000 people—about 14% of the city’s population—occupied land in the capital, Santiago. Other land seizures took place in the 1980s and 1990s, albeit on a smaller scale.

The occupations were a response to abysmal housing conditions. During the 1950s and 1960s, the proliferation of shantytowns and run-down tenements stood as a powerful symbol of injustice and underdevelopment.  For many observers, and especially for those on the left, the seizures showed that pobladores could become more politically assertive and lay the revolutionary foundations for a more just society.  During their mobilizations, housing activists adopted such mottos as “from the seizure of land to the seizure of society.”

In fundamental respects, the land occupations were radical and insurgent, even as their symbolism often superseded their revolutionary content.  Far from spontaneous events, the seizures were planned, often with the sponsorship of leftist political parties.  The pobladores who took part transgressed property laws and built neighborhoods based on solidarity and shared struggle. In establishing their neighborhoods, they tended to organize themselves collectively, providing security, leisure activities, communal forms of childcare, access to neighborhood libraries, and community meals for residents. 

If the seizures were part of a collective insurgency, they also contributed to the expansion of private property. Most of the pobladores who occupied land were already tied to the government’s market-oriented housing programs.  They had previously saved money in state-sponsored savings programs by setting aside down payments on subsidized housing, thus demonstrating to authorities that they could assume mortgages.  By making these payments, pobladores had a powerful justification for seizing land.

At the same time, social workers and so-called “homeless committee” leaders surveyed the occupiers, seeking to determine whether they properly deserved a state sanctioned home.  They assessed whether the pobladores had the right kind of family, were good workers, and acted in solidarity with their neighbors.  They also investigated whether pobladores were “homeless” (sin casa).  In the Chilean case, being homeless did not mean living on the street but rather that one was either living in substandard housing, renting a temporary residence, or staying in the home of extended family members or fictive kin. 

Those who seized land sought the housing benefits they believed they were entitled to as citizens.  Housing activists justified the seizures as an attempt to overcome a contradictory shortcoming of citizenship, which had made many Chileans “homeless”.  At the same time, the seizures also expanded the boundaries of permissible activism.

After the military coup of September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s dictatorship disproportionately repressed many of the neighborhoods established through land occupations. Military and police forces raided dozens of these neighborhoods, especially those known for their leftist militancy, leading to mass detentions. The armed forces targeted the leaders of land seizures with particular venom, committing the human rights violations for which the dictatorship is well known: secret imprisonment, torture, exile, sexual violation, and murder.

Yet for all its violence, the dictatorship let the majority of neighborhoods established through land seizures remain. The dictatorship, in fact, helped pobladores gain both property titles and access to crucial infrastructure, often with loans from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank.

The government did so as a part of property titling programs, the kind that the influential Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto would subsequently champion as a key to reducing urban poverty in the Global South. Chile, in fact, would become a successful model for these programs, an image that obscured the origins of these neighborhoods in leftist demands for a right to housing.

Maintaining a right to housing under a pro-free market dictatorship was never easy, however.  Even as the dictatorship legalized many squatter settlements, it forcibly removed the majority of pobladores who lived in areas with the most valuable real estate in Santiago. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, the government displaced these pobladores in massive slum removal programs, relocating them to subsidized housing in the city’s periphery.  The dictatorship also mandated that pobladores live in uniform housing with a minimum lot size that was about half of what had been the standard before the coup, contributing to overcrowded living conditions.

Most importantly, by the late 1970s, the dictatorship sought to define housing as a good in the marketplace and not a right of citizenship.  Yet following an economic crisis in late 1981, more than 50,000 pobladores in Santiago successfully organized to seize land once again, establishing new homes and neighborhoods. As before, the dictatorship harshly repressed many of the leaders, but nonetheless permitted the majority to develop the lands they had seized.  The dictatorship ultimately accepted, however grudgingly, the idea that housing was a right.

In the quarter century since the return to representative democracy, the government’s subsidies for housing have helped to spur a massive building boom in low-income areas, especially in Santiago. Even Sebastián Piñera’s center-right government from 2010 to 2014 kept up the support for low-income housing, providing subsidies for units at a rate that nearly matched those of previous governments led by the socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet between 2000 and 2010. Many of the poorest, moreover, have received housing while only having to pay a minimal initial fee.

Governing elites and development specialists have interpreted the provision of housing as a technical success and key in building a more just and orderly society. Few have mentioned, however, the historical significance of the land seizures and the legacies of housing activism. Yet the post-dictatorship governments have supported subsidized housing in explicit efforts to fulfill the expectations of citizens and to maintain harmonious sociopolitical relations.  A few seizures in the late 1990s, moreover, helped to spur both an increase in spending on subsidized housing and a highly publicized effort by the Lagos administration to rid the country of shantytowns. 

But there are limits to what housing rights have offered the urban poor. Citizens have had to demonstrate that they are worthy and that they have the right kind of need, meaning that they live in circumstances understood as being particularly troubling or in crisis.  Moreover, once they live in neighborhoods with legally sanctioned housing and urban services, they are less able to mobilize collectively, since they no longer appear as a problem.

To make matters worse, the dictatorship’s repression severed many of the forms of solidarity that low-income residents developed. In its slum-removal policies, the dictatorship heightened segregation in the city, greatly exacerbating the inequitable distribution of state services.  Such inequality has been a touchstone for discontent and unrest, particularly during the student protests.

Neoliberal, free-market policies have also taken a heavy toll. Pobladores today face a flexible and insecure labor market, in which they tend to carry heavy debt burdens. Their neighborhoods have higher overall indices of crime and often suffer poor and abusive relations with police.  All of these phenomena mean that pobladores have not achieved the kinds of housing and lives of “dignity” that once provided a rallying cry.  The few housing organizations that remain active stress this point.

If the right to housing won by pobladores is not a panacea for the problems of urban marginality, it nonetheless is an important buffer in an insecure urban world.  Pobladores today live in relatively cohesive communities, without such problems as mass property abandonment and a real estate market tied to volatile and potentially dangerous derivative capitalist investments. The long struggle for housing rights has made the housing stock more accessible and secure in Chile.  It has also challenged dominant understandings of property and changed the place of the urban poor in both the polity and the city.

Edward Murphy is an associate professor of history and global urban studies at Michigan State University. He is the author of For a Proper Home: Housing Rights in the Margins of Urban Chile (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).

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