This week was a very exiting week for me because I got real world practice in both of my areas of study. In working as the assistant to the political advocate for Habitat for Humanity Argentina, I had the opportunity to do some case work with the families the organization works with, as well as meet with government agencies and work toward policy solutions. Being able to do both of these activities is helping me to articulate where I want my work to go, and helping me to see what I can contribute to the organization.
On Saturday, I went to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, La Boca, to get to know the families living in Habitat for Humanity Argentina’s housing project, and go out to meet other families within our goal group. In an effort to infuse life in the neighborhood, in the early 2000’s, the city invested in the development of a tourist destination in order to better the neighborhood and the lives of the people living there. Instead of bettering the whole neighborhood, one stretch of street, “el caminito” draws attention to hordes of tourists every day, while two blocks away, the people of the neighborhood live in shacks made in empty, run-down buildings, called conventillos. With the help of donors, HPHA was able to buy one of those houses and turn it in to an apartment building. A variety of barriers prevent low income people from renting formally, and keep these families in poor living conditions. In order to rent formally, porteños (the informal name given to those hailing from Buenos Aires) must prove they own property in order to ensure that if they don’t pay rent, the owner of the apartment can get paid in some way. They must also pay three months of rent in advance as a form of deposit and pay a large commission to the real estate office. All of these factors prevent many families from renting formally, which forces them to rent in poor conditions like the conventillos, often paying double the market rate for a very small space. HPHA in the renovated building offers market rate housing without the need to prove ownership of property, the deposit or a commission. Before going on the home visits, I read the histories of the families and saw their previous hosing situations. Many were living in conventillos, sharing a bathroom with many other families, several had between three and four people sharing one room. Often the rooms were cramped and the walls which made up the room made from metal scraps and other left-over materials. The home visits where simply to check up on the families and seeing how they were doing. It was a very positive experience.
In the afternoon, we went to go to speak to families living in precarious situations like conventillos or hotels to offer pamphlets regarding how to make a living space more safe and healthy, as well as workshops regarding renter’s rights. Seeing for myself and not just in photos the shacks within the empty buildings was eye opening. Open pipes gushed sewer water to the common area of the building, where residents hung their clothes to dry. Speaking to the residents of the buildings provided a variety of narratives, from hard working single mothers to drug addled young men. Regardless of their life path, all agreed their living conditions were poor, yet necessary due to their lack of land ownership. As a majority of their monthly income goes to rent, and it is almost impossible to save enough to pay the deposit and the commission. Many of them were interested in the workshops, and valued the technical information.
This week I also attended a meeting with a government agency with my supervisor. During my internship at the New York State Assembly I often took meetings with advocate groups with my assembly member and listened to policy suggestions. It was interesting to be on the other side of the table, and it felt better than I thought it would! The representatives were responsive to our thoughts and plans for improving the standards of living for low income families living in Buenos Aires. The representatives outlined their own goals in response, and we discussed how we can combine our goals. Being able to meet with a government office and representatives in a foreign government was a wonderful experience. I am looking forward to more meetings with both this government and the families I met in La Boca.