The piece, published in ForeignPolicy.com, is devastating. It paints a society in utter freefall – literally, until the squatters put brick railings to protect themselves.
The money quote:
They may have cable, but basic services, such as elevators, are lacking. Neighbors say the building houses drug dealers and prostitutes. Thugs take shelter there after committing crimes, and the police refuse to follow them. Security is provided by the residents themselves, who man the doors. I entered the building but was immediately asked to leave by one guard.
“You just can’t walk in here like that. This is private property,” he said, ignoring the irony in his statement.
Obviously, these people can’t live in an abandoned office tower forever … right? I mean, as a society, we need to find a proper place for them to live in. But … how?
How do you get them to leave their high-rise? Do you make life intolerable for them until they just leave? Do you offer them money? Do you force them out? If you do, where will they go? And if you give them money, doesn’t that send the signal that invading a high-profile landmark is your ticket to a home?
Perhaps they easiest solution is simply … to let them be.
Update: Setty provides some interesting context in the comments:
“Wilson’s article gets one thing exactly right: Property rights and housing investment are all messed up in Venezuela, and those two issues are closely related. But Torre David does not show what he says it shows.
The story quotes neighbors talking of drug dealers and prostitutes. But the building residents say that while there used to be a crime problem, today, it is the safest place around. In my three times there, a few hours each, I did encounter one guy who was drugged out, but nobody who seemed like a dealer. To the contrary, I met a lot of people who were aggressively evangelical about Christianity and who were pushing everyone they met to eliminate vices from their lives — even alcohol and extramarital sex. The presence of the guard is exactly what gives the lie to the neighbors’ claim that thugs take refuge there. In fact, before the building was squatted, it was a crackhouse where thugs came and went freely — and that predated Chavez. Today, it is better controlled, and probably has stricter rules for residents than a lot of other buildings in La Candelaria. There are probably thieves living there along with the bank manager, priest, chef and soccer coach I met; but by that definition, thugs “take refuge” in their homes all over Caracas. So rather than showing how Chavismo has caused this horrible blight, the article could talk about how Chavismo has allowed people to convert a horrible blight into a bearable campsite while they get their lives together.
What the article failed to get at, because Peter didn’t talk to enough residents and the founders, is that Torre David is a symptom of the handout society. Many of the people who live there are just trying to pressure the government into giving them free homes. Most don’t want to be there for long. I met one couple there who had moved from an apartment in Chacao just after the birth of their son. They moved to Torre David because the rent was cheaper (100 bolivars a month, down from a few thousand) and they said they figured if they stayed a while, the government might give them a home. It’s a very strange way of cutting the line to social housing. I don’t mean to discount the plight of the many people who must either live there or live in the faroff suburbs of Antimano and Petare and spend hours getting to and from work. But Torre David is not the hellhole it’s made out to be. It has churches, a child care center, great views, and convenience stores on almost every floor. The people who live there are doing something very similar to those who shut down a highway to try and get a sewer line to their barrio, or who block the border to get more access to cheap smuggle-able petrol. So many people are trying to get a handout, and this is largely another way to get one.
As far as what is to be done? First of all, a massive construction effort in Caracas, as soon as property rights are stabilized. The heart of the issue, as Wilson says, is the lack of proper housing. He says that Caracas has little space for more housing, but that is just silly. There are great expanses of both stupid open space (think La Carlota, the above-ground freeways, the big parking areas around UCV or CCCT, and countless strip malls, even in high-value areas like Los Palos Grandes) and low-density slum housing that could quickly be converted into good urbanism — 5-story buildings at 100 units an acre, housing thousands of people while providing dignified streets, space for stores and jobs, and full public services (like a normal city).
And what is to be done with Torre David? It is probably damaged beyond repair, but who knows — it was salvagable when Fogade almost sold it in 2005, and it would take a good engineering team to see whether it could be salvaged now. Getting the current residents into casas dignas shouldn’t be so hard. Then, it’s just a technical issue to fix or demolish the tower.”