Quito Housing was on my mind.
I spent hours yesterday in a pickup riding the steep roads and byways of Quito Norte with our team and local barrio leaders in the area, four up front and three in the back. We traveled more than a dozen kilometers up, down and around the mountain sides, often with breathtaking views of the rest of the city or the airport or forested areas too steep still for squatting. No matter what my colleague, Marcos Gomez from ACORN Canada, and I had been told about the roughness of the area, the fear of crime that led to constant questioning of our insistent advocacy of a door-to-door (puerta a puerta) program here, within a half hour I found myself whispering an aside in English to Marcos, that this had to be the best constructed – and serviced – major low-income barrio that I might have ever seen in Latin America.
Certainly, rebar stood everywhere reaching to the sky with its usual plaintive hopes for the future of the family struggling underneath, but these were sturdy, concrete and brick houses. Some of the side streets were unpaved and we had to abandon one steep dirt road stretch even with 4-WD, but in the main, the streets were nicely cobbled with pavement bricks and even curbs. As always in the slums, the higher reaches with more recent arrivals, squatting as they built, were rougher than those below, and, interestingly, in Quito Norte these areas seemed disproportionately populated with Afro-Ecuadorians than other areas, but they were still a long way removed from cardboard and plywood castoff structures I had seen in so much of the world.
Talking more to the local leaders and later to an interesting membership based organization, Banco Comunitario Atucucho, with block leaders in 174 blocks paying $1 per month, who had reacted to a cutback in municipal funding by creating a self-sustaining revenue source that sold several crops of maize per year, it became clear that the real differences emerged when they kept mentioning that the settlements on the mountain tops were “still informal.” The City of Quito and it’s Mayor had finally concluded that the way forward in Quito Norte was to finally formalize almost all of the squatted areas, so we were in something of a construction boom and area-wide normalization led by soon-to-be home-and-landowners and a city finally not fighting, but actually moving in to accelerate the support and building of a public works infrastructure. There were areas without sewerage still, but these were at the top. Electricity was common. Potable water was either there or around the corner with water trucks delivering only at the highest ground. Government was making a difference by helping these tens of thousands of lower income and working families to become homeowners and build some citizen wealth rather than continuing in the gray area of informal and precarious status.
All of which made me read in full the Times editorial today which correctly identifies the bank toadying and inaction of the Treasury Department and other government outfit as the single largest failure of the domestic program of the Obama Administration. We now have millions of Americans who are living in an “informal” status as well. Twelve million as the Times cites, that owe $600 Billion more than their homes are worth. Three million still awaiting foreclosure. These are big numbers. They should be able, just as in Quito Norte, to finally get their government to not just help, but do its job.
So much is undone for US homeowners still mired in the housing mess, fashioned on Wall Street and Orange County, and now aided and abetted by a president who knows better and needs to finally at least work his own administration to his and the peoples’ will, that we have to demand that, finally, we see real action, rather than empty rhetoric about foreclosures and homeowners. The Times is right:
“…the foreclosure crisis, and its damage to homeowners and the economy, is still paramount. In the next term, the focus should be on debt reduction, refinancing, enforcement and true consumer protection.”