Chapter 3: The field study

This chapter presents the outcome of the main field research of this work. Examining some of its main characteristics, the first part gives a general background of the city. It also provides an insight on the rental market drawing on existing literature. The second part introduces the outcome of the study, analyzing housing and socio-economic variables in three low-income barrios in Resistencia.


3.1. Background

Resistencia is the capital of the province of Chaco in Northeast Argentina. Four municipalities constitutes the Greater Resistencia: Resistencia, Barranqueras, Puerto Vilelas and Fontana. In 1993, the metropolitan area had a population of 300,766 inhabitants (see Endnotes 6) distributed in an area of 55 km2.

Since its founding in 1878, the city has experienced rapid growth. Boosted by migration from the interior of the province, in the last decade the expansion was about 10,000 inhabitants per year (see Endnotes 7) . One of the causes, apart from natural growth, was the decline of agriculture based economic model that boosted the provincial economy during the '50s. The productive capacity of the city, however, has proven inadequate to integrate successfully the newcomers. As a result, the city has developed into a fragmented urban tissue accommodating new migrants mostly in squatter settlements and informal subdivisions.

3.1.1. Socioeconomic profile

Resistencia concentrates most economic activities in the service sector. With a very poor industrial base, majority of the population works either in the public administration (both municipal and provincial), or in commercial intermediate activities. In 1993, 17.69 % of the work force was unemployed or sub-employed (see Endnotes 8), and the economic active population accounted for 34 %, from which 80% was male and 20% female (DEC 1993, 1). From that time on, the situation is likely to have worsened according to the general social and economic situation of the country. In this context the most affected is the low income population. According to a study on poverty, 30% of the population has unsatisfied basic needs, which means that almost one third of the population lives below the poverty line (Norte 1993,18).

3.1.2. Floods, a distinctive feature

Nineteen-eighty-three was a year that marked profoundly the collective consciousness of the city. Particularly the poorest segments, that suffered 'in the flesh' the consequences of the peak flood of the Paraná river. The water level rose three meters above normal displacing more than 50,000 low-income households from their homes (Doso 1984, 23). The rest of the city, protected by provisional dikes, hardly managed to avoid the water (see Endnotes 9) . The provincial government responded relocating the inundados in temporary shelters, and attempted to resettle them in safe locations.

However, the government never achieved its objective of clearing low-laying areas. Most resettlement programs failed even before starting, either for lack of resources, or simply because families preferred to return to the old houses. Five years later, many 'temporary' lodgings, namely warehouses and sheds, were still full of inundados waiting for the promised solution. The conditions in the sheds were even worst than living in the marshy villas, with the constant menace of flooding.

After the water withdrew, two were the immediate results in the housing market. On one hand, the land prices of the affected areas decreased markedly. On the other hand, prices of safe heavens rose disproportionately. On the long run the government started the so-called 'Definitive Plan Against Flood.' In 1994, with World Bank financing, almost 50% of the new dikes were completed. Once this project is finished the land market is likely to be affected once more. How the change in status of former flood-prone lands will affect low income settlements? No one can predict, but for sure land prices will rise and ownership through illegal subdivisions or squatting will be even more difficult to achieve for the urban poor. In this scenario rental and shared submarkets in low income settlements are likely to grow (see Endnotes 10).

The flooding brought also a significant change from the social point of view in low income settlements. The so called comisiones vecinales were organized to cope with the emergency. After the flood, these neighborhood commissions became the motor for consolidation and development in some settlements. Unfortunately, most of them also became mere instruments of clientelistic trade between neighborhood leaders and politicians.

3.1.3. Housing delivery

Three basic ways to deliver low-income housing in Resistencia are: the public housing delivery, the formal private sector, and the informal or uncontrolled delivery system. The first two constitutes the formal or controlled market. The provision of low-income housing within the formal or controlled market, mainly relies on the public housing system. The private formal sector practically makes little or no contribution to the supply of low-income housing. The informal housing system provides the majority of low income housing in the city, either in the form of squatter settlements, or illegal subdivisions.

3.1.4. Low-income settlements

The spatial consequence of the socioeconomic context described above is the establishment of the 'hidden' city placed wherever there is a piece of remaining land (CIET 1989). Lacking essential services and basic urban amenities, the network of settlements sprawls all over the urban area. Part of the explanation of this phenomenon is undoubtedly the persisting socioeconomic deterioration of the city, according to the situation in province, and in the country as a whole. Another important factor is the particular constitution of the city yielded upon a system of rivers and lagoons that provided the urban poor cheap land access through squatting or informal sub-divisions (Coccato 1990).

Access to land

The most common form of access to land is through occupation of vacant state land. Fifty percent occurs on municipal land, 15 percent on provincial, and the remaining 35 percent on national or private land. Majority of settlements takes place on river and lagoon banks, and along unused railway tracks. Squatting on private land is infrequent, although, "in last months, it has increased significantly" (MR 1994, 45). The causes of most invasions according to municipal sources are: natural population growth; migration from the interior of the province and from neighboring countries; legal evictions; evacuation from vulnerable lands; and evictions to open roads and lay infrastructure (ibid., 46).

Whether on public or private land, there are two possibilities of land access for the urban poor: occupation with allowance from the owner, or simple invasion or squatting. In the last decade, however, a third option has appeared: the purchase of plots in informal subdivisions or former squatter settlement in process of legalization. A frequent practice in the informal land market involves the selling or acquisition of unfinished structures that can even be found widely advertised in local newspapers (see Endnotes 11) .

Social organization and stage of consolidation

According to CIET (1989, 28) in a study of 64 low-income settlements, 22% are in extremely precarious stage of evolution, 51% in stage of consolidation, and 26 % in a phase of integration to the urban fabric. This study found a direct correlation between degree of social organization and stage of consolidation. Barrios with high levels of organization have achieved the most basic services and are in process of consolidation. The most common types of social groups promoting the provision of services and improvements in the neighborhoods are: comisiones vecinales, pro-comisiones, religious entities, and political parties (ibid., 37).

3.1.5. Rental housing in Resistencia

The draft of the municipal 'Strategic Plan' considers that the share of the rental sector in Resistencia is 11 % (MR 1994, 30). This figure is not at all impressive if one compares it with rates of rental housing in other Latin American cities. For instance, in Colombia Bucaramanga has 44.0 percent, and Manizales has 51.5 percent (Edwards 1982,130). In Mexico, Guadalajara has 48.0 and Puebla has 52.0 percent (Gilbert 1995, 92). Although the Municipal study does not explain the criteria followed in data collection, clearly the rental sub-market it identifies, include mainly formal options. The rates of rental housing show a direct correlation with the degree of 'urbanization' of the neighborhoods. In the Central district, the percentage rises up to 34%, while in peripheral informal settlements it sticks to 0 %. The majority of low income areas in this study appear to have percentages around 0%. Notwithstanding, some informal settlements have significant rental rates. For example Villa Alta a settlement that is 20 years old, has 19% of rental housing. Others such as Villa Ercilia, and Villa Dónovan, have 15% and 13% respectively (Ibid., 34).

Figure 3-1 : Rental housing and irregular land tenure by neighborhoods (source: MR 1994)

This thesis argues that the rental market in Resistencia is more important than what Municipal studies imply, if one looks at the informal sub- markets. Squatter settlements and informal subdivisions have traditionally been considered as the first lodging for new rural migrants settling in an urban center (Urquidi 1988, 347). In a context of great uncertainty and insecurity, rental and shared options are the most frequent alternatives (Sudra 1981,1982). Since this angle, it appears strange that in the Municipal study some squatter areas have 0 % of rental housing. This research assumes that an important portion of the 'other situations' sector include several non-ownership options that should be considered at the time of measuring the incidence of rental housing in the city.


3.2. Case studies

So far, stated the background of Resistencia and its housing situation, let us introduce the field work of this research. Done in three weeks in June 1995, it studied three barrios of informal origin: La Isla, Villa Itatí, and Villa Ercilia. Despite their obvious differences in structure and location, all three barrios started as informal developments about 30 years ago.

3.2.2. Methodology

The selection of neighborhoods followed two main criteria: presence of rental housing according to a municipal study, and evidence of rental housing in walk-around assessments. Other reasons for selection included: adequate size for a team of three persons, location, and availability of plans and aerial photographs. The object of the survey was to detect non-ownership alternatives in informal settlements, however, the sample included all the spectrum of tenure forms. The main premise for sample selection was to check those houses that had 2 or more doors giving to the street. Some cases were also selected at random, and others by word of mouth (reference given by neighbors).

The final outline of the research included 51 cases: 16 in La Isla, 18 in Villa Itatí and 17 in Villa Ercilia. The methodology relied on a qualitative approach that documented firsthand household interviews and dwelling surveys. Interviews consisted of open-ended questionnaires that lasted about 30 minutes. In some cases, in-depth interviews lasting between 60 and 90 minutes were carried out recording household histories. Plots and dwellings were registered through sketches and photographs.

3.2.3. The three barrios

La Isla

Located in the north quadrant of the city, three kilometers from the central square, La Isla is a spontaneous barrio originated by occupation of municipal land. Spread out in an area of 23 hectares, in 1991 it had a population of 1198 inhabitants, 81 percent of which had not completed the primary school (MR 1994, 54). With a very low density, 52.08 inhabitants per hectare, La Isla still has a semi-rural character. Great parts of the island are low-laying marshy lands prone to flooding of the Rio Negro. Although connected to the city by a dike that is part of the defense against food works, La Isla is outside the protected area. The main connection road to the city center, Sabin Avenue, concentrates the bulk of commercial activities and provides the nearest bus lines.

The structure of the settlement is irregular, conforming a maze of footpaths and earth roads that contrasts with the regular gridiron pattern of the city. Low density and a humid environment allow most residents of the island to have small plantations and fruit trees. Despite its high pollution, some even adventure fishing in the river to complement their very basic diet. Electricity is available all over the settlement, mostly through irregular connections. Water is provided with communal stand pipes, and there is no sewerage system. Most houses have either pit latrines or open trenches, which creates risky health situations. Comparing aerial photographs of 1979 to the situation today, it is evident a slow, but steady densification process.

Villa Itatí

This neighborhood started in the early '60s when a group of families settled in the area erecting their mud and straw ranchos. The initial pattern was spontaneous and dense: "a labyrinth of houses and lanes," as some settlers describe it. Between 1965 and 1968 the municipality made an intervention regularizing plot sizes, opening streets and lanes, and providing some basic services. The plan also included the selling of the plots to their occupants, but almost 30 years later most of the land still remains as municipal property. Villa Itatí covers an area of 12 hectares and has an estimated population of 1750 inhabitants. With 145.83 inhabitants per hectare, it is the most dense of the three barrios.

Boundaries of the neighborhood are well defined. To the North the limit is the General Belgrano railway, to the Northwest, the University, and to the Southeast the Shooting Polygon. The main connection roads are Chaco Av. to the northeast, and Castelli Av. to the southwest. Both avenues have heavy traffic and concentrate most commerce in the area. The pattern after the municipal intervention resembles the square grid of the city, although blocks are rectangular and there is a differentiated network of vehicular and pedestrian streets. The barrio has a square in the middle that is the only recreational space in the surroundings, and a school that serves 137 students (MR 1990, 7).

There is regular water service, but no sewerage system. Majority of houses have pit latrines, yet the study found an increasing number with septic tanks. After almost 30 years of the initial improvements, more than 66 % of the land remains municipal. However this does not mean that people have been reluctant to invest in housing. A preliminary walk-around assessment showed a great number of two-story dwellings. Three or four rooming houses were also detected.

Villa Ercilia/Araza

Situated in the south quadrant, this barrio is the closest to the city core. One of the oldest squatter areas in the city, it was originated on the banks of what used to be the Araza stream (see Endnotes 12). As the area was occupied, gradually the low lands were filled obstructing the water flow. According to municipal estimations, the neighborhood has a population of 2240 inhabitants, fifty percent of which have not completed the primary school. Covering an area of 18 hectares, the barrio has a density of 124.44 inhabitants per hectare (MR 1994, 49).

Scattered with semi-filled lagoons and squatter pockets, the neighborhood looks chaotic. The main road network continues the street pattern of the city over imposing the square grid to the sinuous course of the Araza. Paved roads, avenues Hernandarias and Alvear, and Padre Cerqueira street concentrate the most stable dwellings and have the bulk of commercial activities in the area. In recent years, the municipality opened some streets and improved drainage, although the situation in the squatter pockets has not changed much in more than 25 years. Quality of the dwellings is worse the more one penetrates the squatter enclaves. Electricity is available throughout the barrio; water provision, on the contrary, is normal only in consolidated areas. The poorest enclaves have communal water taps. Following what was observed in barrio La Isla and Villa Itatí, rooming houses were detected near or directly on the main connection roads.

3.2.4. Some variables compared

The informal nature of the processes and the astounding diversity of housing conditions in each neighborhood makes any attempt of comparison difficult. However, despite its limited coverage, the data gathered in the field study provides a common ground to trace cross-section comparisons of some variables.

Perception of the Neighborhood

When asked about the main problems, people invariably detected the most serious problems in the neighborhood. In La Isla, 50 percent of respondents mentioned flooding (from the river and due to the lack of drainage) as the main problem. Almost one third alluded to lack of essential services such as water or electricity. Again in Villa Itatí drainage is a serious problem. Thirty-seven percent of household stated that the main problem is flooding due to lack of drainage; 22.4 percent mentioned lack of space, and 14.2 lack of income. In Villa Ercilia, drainage was not considered a problem. Instead people mentioned more frequently low income (28.5) and lack of space (21.4). The reason for this type of responses may be the high number of tenants among the interviewees.

It is remarkable that people, contrary to what one may suppose taking account of the informal character of the settlements, seems not to perceive lack of tenure as a serious problem. Only 14.2 percent of respondents mentioned it in Villa La Isla, 7.1 percent in Villa Ercilia, and none in Villa Itatí.


Five types of tenancy appeared in the sample: owners, owner-landlords, owner-sharers, renters and sharers. Plain ownership-oriented options prevailed in La Isla and Villa Itatí. In La Isla five of the interviewees were owners, three owner-landlords, three owner-sharers, three sharers and one tenant. In Villa Itatí there were five owners, four owner sharers, four sharers, three renters and two owner-landlords. Conversely, owner-landlords and tenants prevailed in Villa Ercilia. There were five owner-landlords, four renters, three owner-sharers, three sharers and one owner.

Plot acquisition

Three methods of plot acquisition predominate in the three barrios: occupation of vacant land, mejoras and informal subdivisions. Fifteen owners acquired their plots through a mejora, 13 through simple occupation of vacant land, and four through informal subdivisions. Whereas in La Isla and Villa Itatí mejoras and occupations were predominant, in Villa Ercilia the three options were balanced with a significant increase of informal subdivisions. From a total of 33 owners interviewed, only 11 had the legal title of the plot. The extreme was in La Isla where less than 20 percent of owners claims to have title. In Villa Ercilia the percentage rose to 30, and, contradicting municipal sources, in Villa Itatí 60 percent of owners said to have the title (see Endnotes 13) .

Employment and income Most households interviewed have low paying jobs, or no job at all. Sixty percent of households have monthly incomes below $ 400 (see Endnotes 14) (73.3 percent in La Isla, 50 percent in Villa Itatí and 56.3 percent in Villa Ercilia). In the other extreme, a small percentage of interviewees earning more than $ 800, appears in the three neighborhoods (6,1%). La Isla the most frequent occupations are changas, occasional small jobs paid by hour in cash or in kind. Other frequent jobs are as maids or brick-layers. In Villa Itatí the percentage of maids increases, and appears a considerable percentage of retired persons. It also surges landlords as full-time occupation. In Villa Ercilia it is evident the polarization landlord-tenants, the former with an increase in the number of full-time landlords, and the later with the rise in the percentages of maid and changas.


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