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


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

Thanks to KABF.


The Census and Contracts-for-Deed

Little Rock       One somewhat nagging problem the ACORN Home Savers Campaign has confronted over the last several years, especially when we looked at the frequency of “contracts-for-deed” was the lack of definitive data.  Sure, we knew in Detroit that more contracts-for-deed were being registered under real estate transfers in recent years than were any form of traditional mortgages, but such information was local, not uniform, and decidedly not national.  For some inexplicable reason during the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, the Census Bureau under President Obama dropped the question from the 2010 census creating a black hole on a gnawing problem.  We can guess why, but we don’t know definitively.

My comrade and friend, the filmmaker Charles Koppelman, joined ACORN’s “volunteer army” when we were hitting the doors in Pittsburgh in the spring of 2017 trying to get to the heart of these issues with the Home Savers Campaign.  He had his camera rolling when a local Pittsburgh ANEW member and I were visiting with a woman, as she lay on her couch recovering from back surgery, in her home.  At first, she said she didn’t have a contract-for-deed, but the more we talked the clearer in became that she had a 30-year contract with a subsidiary of Harbour Portfolio, that was absolutely a contract-for-deed.  The interest rate was 12%.  The terms were onerous.  The contract was precarious.  If she missed a payment, they could take back the house, and she would lose everything.  Harbour, a Dallas-based hedge fund, had flaunted the fact that it was using such contracts to flip thousands of properties it had acquired at foreclosed property auctions conducted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  She was ready to organize with the campaign once she got back on her feet.  Charles learned more in talking to us about the situation so knew the information gap created by the Census that was preventing a full understanding of how widespread the return of such contracts might be.

Charles lives in the Bay Area of California.  He sent me a screen shot of something very interesting yesterday.  He had received a Census form to fill out in the mail, and darned if it didn’t have a question – once again – asking whether the household was under a contract-for-deed.  Voila!   Some bureaucrat deep in the bowels of the Census Bureau must have seen the smoke signals about the fact that this often-predatory product is back, and slipped the question back into the queue.

It will help, but it’s no panacea of course.  The visit in Pittsburgh 18 months ago provides that answer.  Too often given the desperation that pushes many families into these kinds of agreements as they search for affordable housing in almost any condition also leaves them uncertain of the details, including what to call the agreements they have signed.  The brokers are often very loose lipped in the way they encourage people to see such agreements as mortgages.  Others agreements that are only different in degree, like Lease-Purchase-Options, Rent-to-Own, Lease-to-Own, etc, etc, aren’t contracts-for-deed that are now actually monitored by Dodd-Frank but should earn a “check” in that Census box as well.

The data won’t be perfect by a long shot, but magically we are somehow back to where we were in 2000 when the numbers were last counted, so on the 2020 Census the inclusion of the contracts-for-deed question is at least something to put in the good news column.