a woman in buenos aires stands in front of her informal home

Mariana Cecilia Machaca has rented for 15 years in Villa 20, an irregular settlement in the city of Buenos Aires. These settlements can be very unsafe, despite rents equal to properties in more secure areas. In 2010, about 28 percent of the people in Villa 20 were renting, according to the latest available data.


Lucila Pellettieri/GPJ Argentina

Mariana Cecilia Machaca is a deft navigator through the Villa 20 informal settlement. As she walks, she chooses the safest streets and discreetly points out some houses under construction.

“There was an old house here. They tore it down and are constructing this building for rent. The number of people who rent in the slum is impressive,” she says. “I rent by the room; some people rent an entire house.”

Though there are some intriguing sights here — a man exhibiting parrots in a cage, a woman selling ceviche — the settlement is mostly filled with multi-story houses with irregular facades, tangled cables hanging overhead and flooded alleys underfoot.

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Machaca has lived in Villa 20 for 15 years. With her two children, she rents a room there with a shared bathroom and kitchen. She has wanted to move out of the settlement to a safer place but finds herself stuck.

“I found a place to rent for the same price, but I never managed to save enough to get in,” she explains. “They ask you for many months down, and I couldn’t manage to get together 40,000 pesos ($969) at once for rent.”

Due to the difficulty and cost of getting a typical rental in the city, the number of people who rent in informal settlements is rising. Those who rent in such neighborhoods have restricted access to public services and live in unsafe conditions, despite paying, in many cases, the same rent they’d pay in more secure, comfortable homes.

In order to rent a standard property in the city of Buenos Aires, the tenant may be required to pay a refundable deposit of one month’s rent for each year of the rental contract, as well as one month’s rent in advance. A two-year contract, for example, could require three months’ rent up front.

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A tenant must also supply other collateral, such as a relative’s or friend’s property, a paycheck or insurance, for the future possibility that the tenant couldn’t pay the rent.

In the informal settlements, Machaca says, a renter doesn’t need to provide collateral or any money in advance, but, to get in, the renter must have a friend who knows the owner.

Close to 300,000 people, or eight percent of the city’s population, live in informal settlements in the city of Buenos Aires, according to estimates by the Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, an independent institution that acts as a watchdog for the rights of the city’s citizens.

People who live in the informal settlements are frequently discriminated against for living there, Alejandro Amor, head of the Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, says.

“There is a lot of stigma around people who live the slum. Many still believe that they live for free in the slums, and it’s not like that,” Amor says. “Often, the rents in the slums are equally as expensive as in other neighborhoods.”

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Monthly rents in the settlements range from 4,000 ($96) to 10,000 ($242) pesos. Rent for a studio in a typical neighborhood in the city is about 6,100 pesos ($147), according to a report by the Defensoría.

Machaca pays 4,000 pesos ($96) a month to rent a room with a shared bathroom and kitchen. If she were to also rent the neighboring room, which measures 6 square meters (64 square feet), she would have to pay 7,500 ($181) pesos per month. For that same price, she’s seen apartments with a private bathroom and kitchen, she says.

Close to 300,000 people, or eight percent of the city’s population, live in informal settlements in the city of Buenos Aires, according to estimates by the Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires.

In the informal settlements, moreover, more than 87 percent do not have access to the gas network, and 18 percent do not have sewers.

Sebastián Pilo, one of the directors of the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, an NGO that works for rights in the city, says that in some cases, rent in the informal settlements is actually more expensive.

“If you take the price of rent by square meter, it ends up more expensive to rent in a slum than a formal rental in the city,” Pilo says.

In 2010, 28 percent of residents of Villa 20 were renters, according to a 2017 report. Many people live there illegally and build or buy homes.

The number of renters in the informal settlements is increasing, Pilo and Amor say. Pilo says the trend has grown in the last two years.

“More and more people rent in the slums because they can’t access the social network or the capital necessary to rent,” Pilo says.

With that in mind, the Cámara Inmobiliaria Argentina, the country’s real estate chamber, began in June to implement an insured rental system that replaces some of the up-front rental costs with a monthly insurance payment.

“With this system, the tenant gets in with the month’s rent and an insurance fee between 1,200 ($29) and 1,800 pesos ($43). The idea is to make it more accessible for the tenant and safer for the owner,” Alejandro Bennazar, president of the Cámara, says.

However, this system will require tenants to show that they have the necessary income to handle the rent, Bennazar says, which can be difficult for those, like Machaca, who have informal jobs that don’t always document income.

For now, tenants in the informal settlements still struggle with insecurity both personal and financial.

“My son was robbed the other day. They beat him to get his cell phone, and he said, ‘Mom, I do not want to live here anymore — we go somewhere else,’” Machaca says. “I explained that, for the amount of rental income, we cannot rent outside. It breaks my heart, but it is our reality for now.”

Rishi Khalsa of GPJ translated this article from Spanish.

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