Poverty emanates from more than an empty pocket book, a bad job, poor health, and a dodgy neighborhood. Definitions these days tend to bounce around a multiplicity of issues ranging through social, economic, physical, human, and natural dimensions, taking in factors such as exclusion, disempowerment and voicelessness. Effective poverty reduction or elimination strategies must take these into consideration. Properly approaching housing and habitat issues with a focus on poverty elimination can affect such issues as: reducing the health care burden; increasing an asset base; creating stability and security; recognizing difficulties of employment creation; and increasing possibilities for successful action in housing and basic services (Anzorena et al: 1998).
The right to the city calls for five strong tenants: liberty, freedom and the benefit of the city for all; transparency, equity and efficiency in city administration; participation and respect in local democratic decision-making; recognition of diversity in economic social and cultural life; and reducing poverty, social exclusion and urban violence (Brown and Kristansen: 2009).
Calling for the right to the city focuses on changing the policies, structures, and practices that hinder the urban poor from accessing what their richer neighbours take for granted: having a say in the planning, building, maintenance, service provision, and creation of their cities.
Going a step further, the case will look to how social movements can take action to build the partnerships and power necessary to remove the obstacles hindering their livelihood strategies.
Residents of Villa Esfuerzo were forcibly evicted twice over two years by private companies. In July, 2009, the International Alliance of Inhabitants (IAI) announced multilateral funding to rebuild the community in collaboration with the national housing institute (INVI), the private owners, local community groups and civil society organizations, and the residents of Villa Esfuerzo (IAI: 2009). This paper will analyze how this social movement was able to leverage enough power to remove the obstacles of reducing poverty, social and physical exclusion, increase participation, and to win the right to the city.
The Poverty Context of Villa Esfuerzo
The Dominican Republic covers two thirds of the island of Santo Domingo on which it shares a 388-kilometres long border with Haiti. It has a population of over 8.5 million; over 60% reside in cities and the rest in the National District and the Province of Santo Domingo. The statistics are grim: 32% of the population lives below the poverty line; 35% of the population has inadequate access to drinking water, 22% has no access to sanitation, and the infant mortality rate is higher than the regional average (AGFE: 2005).
Of the housing in the country, 75% is self-built, and 50% of citizens have no title to the land which they occupy. This fact, coupled with tenure and land insecurity have facilitated the high number of forced evictions not only in the capital city, but also throughout the country.
Villa Esfuerzo is in the East Santo Domingo Municipality and occupies land owned by the Porcella family, which was rented to the State Council of Sugar in 1958. As public companies were privatized, the land was returned to the owners with no tenure security for the residents despite state issued deeds (AGFE: 2005; IAI: 2009).
I first visited Villa Esfuerzo in January, 2007, at which point residents had been violently and forcibly evicted twice. On March 9, 2005, the second eviction took place while the UN-Habitat’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) was in the country on a special mission. The incident took place just, after a meeting with the State Attorney (AGFE: 2005). Of the 600 families originally evicted, 60 remained on the site. They lived in temporary self-built shacks, water was piped in by the city and electricity came in from nearby towers.
After the second eviction, the AGFE mission in collaboration with the People’s Network received a promise from the Governor of the Santo Domingo Province to repair damages to the homes of those residents holding deeds to their properties, giving rise to the Reconstruccion de Villa Esfuerzo campaign. This would later lead to a commitment made in 2007 to fund reconstruction of the community in 2009 (IAI: 2009).
Building Partnerships and Power to Gain the Right to the City
On the nights of the evictions, when the private company arrived with clubs and petrol and lit the shacks on fire to chase out the residents in order to bulldoze the neighborhoods, the residents of Villa Esfuerzo felt vulnerable and stripped of all rights. But the community was not devoid of social or political assets. Many neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic will elect a Junta de Vecinos (Neighborhood Committee) which will have different levels of communication with the local government.
The Junta de Vecinos was already affiliated with Red de Coordinación Urbano Popular por la Defensa del Territorio (Popular Urban Coordination Network in the Defense of Territory) an association of over 60 organisations, communitybased and within civil society, working together to build a stronger voice in defense of land, housing and habitat security. By 2005, the network was already in communication with AGFE, and the municipality of Boca Chica had sent an invitation to help with the increasing threat of forced evictions (AGFE: 2005).
By 2007, Villa Esfuerzo had heard enough promises, and had even seen an architectural model for the reconstruction of their community. However, no action had been taken. To build pressure on state agencies, Villa Esfuerzo joined the People’s Network in affiliation with the IAI Zero Evictions Campaign, which they subsequently launched in 2007 by marching to the National Palace (IAI: 2009).
In March, 2007, the residents of Villa Esfuerzo held a protest outside of the INVI offices and with support of the former Governor of Santo Domingo won a meeting with the Director of INVI renewing talks of reconstruction. With the increased pressure from the community, the AGFE, the People’s Network, Coop Habitat, and the IAI were able to negotiate a tentative agreement between the landowner, INVI, Coop Habitat, and Villa Esfuerzo.
The Porcella family would donate the land to Co-op Habitat, only if INVI would agree to build something esthetically pleasing. INVI agreed to build for 77 families, but only on a rent-to-own scheme organised through Coop Habitat; all that was needed was the money. Through much lobbying and networking, Villa Esfuerzo’s allies were able to leverage multi-lateral funding not only for Villa Esfuerzo, but also two other communities in August, 2009 (IAI: 2009).
At the time of writing, the residents of Villa Esfuerzo had yet to witness reconstruction. But what has occurred in this case study is far more powerful. A small neighborhood of low income families was able to move local, national and international authorities and organisations to fight for their rights.
Villa Esfuerzo also serves as a pilot project setting a precedent where new partnerships were formed where there had never been dialogue before. Thanks to the right kind of international support, the community was able to lobby for and win an innovative solution to their housing problems.
As a result of the reconstruction initiative, Villa Esfuerzo gained an international voice through the Zero Evictions campaign, won meetings and negotiations with INVI and the local governor. Subsequently, the programme won multi-party support on the presidential level. Through the building of partnerships, the community has won increased land security and housing rights, access to government and international institutions, a stronger voice and access to decision-making in the planning of their neighborhood and their families’ future.
By protesting their treatment, the residents of Villa Esfuerzo made significant gains in rights. They were able to fight for and win access to government institutions capable of deciding their future. In turn, they have set a precedent for other projects in similar situations, transforming institutional structures and processes, which formerly hindered the betterment of livelihoods and the security and quality of housing and habitat.
Without organising at the community level and then, through the People’s Network, at the regional and international level, the international community may not have noticed. Further, through protest, proposals, networking, meeting, and negotiating, these actors were able to get to the table with politicians, the housing ministry, and federal bodies. They reduced poverty, social exclusion, and increased participation and respect in local democratic decision-making. The result is significant and it took significant power to get there. But this is how social movements can win the right to the city.
Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE), UN-HABITAT 2005, Forced Evictions – Towards Solutions?: First Report of the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions to the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT. www.unhabitat.org/campaigns/tenurfe/taskforce.asp
Anzorena, Bolnick, Boonyabancha, Cabannes, Hardoy, Hasan, Levy, Mitlin, Murphy, Patel, Saborido, Satterhwaite, and Stein 1998, Reducing Urban Poverty; some lessons from experience, Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 10, No. 1, April 1998.