Redevelopment, Resettlement, and the Right to the City

Banco Alimentos

Asuncion     There are more than 500,000 people living in the Asuncion, the capital and largest city in Paraguay, with 30% of the country’s population located in the metro area.  In meetings with Habitat Paraguay, Banco Alimentos, and Oxfam Paraguay we heard a lot about the challenges faced by lower income families trying to meet their basic need for jobs, food, and housing, all of which are being met by these groups in different ways.

The Organizers’ Forum delegation spent a lot of time trying to understand one of the largest, and most contentious, of Asuncion’s current development issues involving the estimated 100,000 people living sometimes in precarious situations because of flooding, mudslides, and inadequate housing along the lowlands running the whole length of the city along the Rio Paraguay.  The city has embarked on massive resettlement plans as well as potential redevelopment of its waterfront in many areas, including near the Capitol buildings and the central area where there is talk of a “new” city center.

In December 2017, the resettlement of 1000 families in Barrio San Francisco in the northern part of the city was officially completed.  The city had constructed the houses and public facilities and services, and the families had voluntarily relocated.  In a special project, Habitat had contracted with the public utility to facilitate the resettlement as an intermediary there and in another redevelopment program being undertaken in Chacarite Alto, a neighborhood on higher ground where housing needs to be secured against mudslides. Barrio San Francisco is seven kilometers from where the families had lived on the floodplain, so Habitat acknowledged that there were transportation issues and more time in travel for families who had walked to work, but were now spending time and money moving from the outskirts of the city to the central district.

Habitat Ex Direct

Oxfam Paraguay was working with a coalition of community-based groups in the same areas.  They told us of families that were moving back to the waterfront neighborhoods from Barrio San Francisco because of the work-travel issues and higher costs of living there.  Water and electricity had been essentially free through illegal connections along the river, but was legal with minimum payments required in the new development.  The city is also developing another 4000 units of housing in the southern part of the city for additional resettlements at a somewhat shorter distance.  Many are joining a “right to the city” movement arguing that they have lived in these areas for generations and want the redevelopment plans to reflect their interests.

These contentious issues of urban renewal, environmental hazards, precarious housing and informal communities, are certainly not new and are common in cities all over the world, but are especially fraught for lower income families.  Banco Alimentos, the food bank, serviced centers throughout these same areas.  The groups were all respectful of each other’s work and when talking about the government’s plans, everyone seemed to be trying to touch the elephant with the rest of the blind, but there was little question that tens of thousands of families face displacement no matter the rationales and justifications with little power to determine their futures, all of which is a prescription for conflict and confusion.

We wished them all well, but feared the worst.

Oxfam Paraguay

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Please enjoy Woman by Cat Power, featuring Lana Del Ray.

Thanks to KABF.

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Katrina and Maria, More Disaster Anniversaries and Lessons Unlearned

Screenshot of Gwen Adams’ interview on WWLTV https://www.wwltv.com/video/news/lower-9th-ward-13-years-after-katrina/289-8234818

Greenville        In New Zealand we were asked, “How is New Orleans?”  In California, whether Santa Rosa or Sonoma, the question arose, “How is New Orleans?”  Thirteen years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the city, and the question is still important, “How is New Orleans?”  The answer:  better than it was, but not as good as it needs to be.

That’s not a whine, just a statement of fact.  Another new Mayor is now in charge, our first woman, an African-American again, and our first non-native born in a long, long time.  There’s hope mixed with thirteen years of cynicism.  Too many plans have been made without enough progress.

The big local television station reached out for ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, so that they could dig deep into the lingering impacts felt by one of their leaders, Gwen Adams.  They wanted to tell the story through a personal lens, but her organizational t-shirt cries out about how political this is.  Gwen lives within a spit of the levee in the lower 9th ward.  She was a union teacher in the New Orleans Public School System.  She was fired like thousands of others, and despite the fact that she was a former Teacher-of-the-Year in Orleans Parish, she was never offered a return to work.  She was also unwilling to go to work at lower pay, forfeited retirement and other benefits, and no job security or protection for a charter operator.  She is now a sometimes substitute teacher.  She is a great ACORN and ACV leader.  These are the facts.

The facts are also being reckoned with in Puerto Rico almost a year after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria.  The governor there actually apologized, which is a refreshing surprise.  He also announced that the death total is now estimated at near 3000 people compared to the earlier estimates that were hardly one-hundred.  In the same report, the news story mentioned that the death total from Katrina is still not known absolutely.  The governor noted that they had no disaster plan that assumed no power, no highway access, and no communication.  George Washington University in the District of Columbia has been doing a study for them, but it is hard to believe there will be any surprises.

A spokesperson for the Milken Institute argued that the lesson of Puerto Rico is “focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable.”  A survey from Kaiser Health Foundation and others in Texas in the wake of Harvey found that the same populations were still suffering there.  We all thought that was also the lesson learned from Katrina thirteen years ago.

When are we going to be willing to really act on the lessons we keep being taught after disasters?  No one seems to know – or act on – the lessons we keep being forced to learn at the price of suffering and death.

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