Envío Digital
 
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 84 | Junio 1988

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Nicaragua

Building a Housing Policy from the Ground Up

Envío team

A quick tour around Managua, Nicaragua's capital city of nearly a million residents, takes one through working class neighborhoods that still bear signs of the tremendous damage wrought by the 1972 earthquake, extremely poor neighborhoods that seem to have been (and indeed, were) slapped up virtually overnight, and luxurious and sedate residential neighborhoods more reminiscent of southern California than a country ready to mark nine years of revolution.
Though the city’s general effect oftentimes borders on almost overwhelming disorder, a method of sorts has been imposed since 1979 upon what was previously the Somoza regime's special brand of malignant neglect. A key social need and serious demand that the Sandinista revolution faced from the first days was for housing, not only in the capital and other urban areas, but also in the impoverished countryside. This month, envío looks at the housing programs implemented to date in revolutionary Nicaragua.

A history of neglect

Housing conditions in pre-revolutionary Nicaragua were substandard and, in fact, often miserable. This is not surprising given Somoza's nearly complete lack of attention to grassroots needs (save in isolated programs, primarily after the earthquake) in both urban and rural Nicaragua. Since few people in Managua or the country's other major cities owned their homes, the majority were victimized by a corrupt and exorbitant rental system that afforded them absolutely no housing security. Despite the high rents, houses were often without basic services such as running water and electricity. The situation in the rural areas was even more shocking, where many agricultural workers were packed into barrack-like units and subject to the whims of the boss.
Somoza's agrarian policies, which threw many people off their lands to make way for large cotton plantations worsened the rapid urbanization and resulting bleak situation in the cities, especially Managua. In addition to having a very high and increasing growth rate Nicaragua, like most of Latin America, has experienced tremendous rural-urban migration since the mid-1950s.

The 1972 earthquake destroyed 75% of Managua's housing and permanently distorted the city's development. The center of the city was almost entirely destroyed and then demolished after the National Guard was permitted to loot it. Residents were prohibited from reentering the area and salvaging what they could of their belongings, and Somoza forbade further construction there. The city developed as a hodge-podge of poor neighborhoods built far to the east of that vacant center, connected by a series of highways constructed with no thought to pedestrian traffic. Speculators, cronies of Somoza, grabbed up the land in between and later made a killing on its resale for new middle- and lower-middle class housing developments.
In most of the new poor neighborhoods, there was no safe drinking water, sewage system or electricity. Entrepreneurs rented trucks and filled them with water, which they sold at exorbitant rates. The government made no attempt to control these practices or come up with plans to provide services to the new centers.

Money poured into the country and into Somoza's pockets after the earthquake. The largest housing development, constructed directly afterward, was "Las Americas," an 11,000-unit project of temporary wooden housing with dirt floors and no indoor services built with USAID funds.

On the other hand, the housing that went up in the new lower-middle and middle-class tracts was constructed by private developers who often charged four or five times the real value of the house, putting this option out of the reach of the large majority of the population. Banks and developers played an essential role in defining the type of housing made available, and the working poor were left with few alternatives. At the same time, a significant amount of construction was done for those to whom cost was no obstacle—luxurious homes that used fine woods and other materials and sometimes encompassed an entire city block.

Prior to 1979, then, working families in Managua had to choose among several disagreeable options. They could try to obtain a lot in one of the illegal settlements on marginal lands with scarce or no services at all. They could rent a room (for an entire family) in one of the "cuarterías," miserable urban dwellings with shared services, where the renters were "subjected to the owners’ caprices and rapacity," as one early assessment of the housing situation by the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements (MINVAH) put it. Or they could participate in invasions of substandard land (for example, land along the swampy and contaminated shore of Lake Managua,) putting up houses patched together from whatever they could find.

The 1971 national census shows that 60% of the population lived in dwellings with dirt floors, 40% had no access to potable water, and nearly 50% had no sanitary facilities at all (not even latrines). A full 70% of Nicaraguan families lived in a home with only one or two rooms and 25% lived more than five to a room. Clearly, living standards such as these (particularly the lack of safe water) posed a critical threat to the population’s health. While the worst conditions were found in the rural areas, even by 1979, 60% of Managua's neighborhoods still had no electricity, running water or sewage facilities.

In the countryside, many migrant pickers in the key export crops (bananas and coffee, for example) lived in "galerones" during the harvest season—wooden shed structures without sanitary facilities or ventilation. The workers lived literally stacked one upon another, each assigned to nothing more than a small shelf separated from the one above by 20 inches. Housing conditions for the workers on the large latifundios, or agricultural estates, were described in Jaime Wheelock's pre-1979 study, Imperialismo y Dictadura, as inflicting both physical and moral aggression upon the occupants. Conditions were difficult even for permanent workers, who escaped the misery of the galerones. Wheelock's survey of 49 latifundios shows that more than two-thirds of the permanent workers lived in houses with dirt floors and no running water or electricity. Those who did have water or electricity only had it for several hours a day. Peasants who worked for themselves ran the risk of being forced off their land—whether they had legal title to it or not —to make way for the expansion of key agro-export crops such as cotton.

Compounding the already critical situation in Managua and other areas was the damage caused by the war that toppled Somoza. Over 4,000 homes in Nicaragua's urban areas were seriously damaged or completely destroyed, many of them in bombings carried out by the National Guard in the final weeks of the insurrection against the dictatorship.

A revolution in housing

The first move in the area of housing was the creation of Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements (MINVAH) in August of 1979, one month after the revolution. MINVAH worked to formulate a new, revolutionary conception of housing. One element essential to its analysis was that housing is first and foremost a social issue, like health or education, rather than a financial one (as is traditionally the case in the capitalist world, where the emphasis is more on the mortgage and land development business than on human need). In the cities, this meant treating urban land as a social resource rather than a speculative commodity.

The revolutionary government has also insisted that specific housing projects and, more generally, the overall housing policy must respond to the country's economic and productive needs rather than be implemented in isolation from larger scale planning. The housing ministry has thus tried to effect a transition from a dehumanized, laissez-faire policy to a humane one characterized by the "logic of the majority."

Given the critical housing shortage, MINVAH’s goal has been to offer services to as many people as possible. MINVAH describes its mandate this way: "The general objectives are to respond to every family's right to adequate housing, eliminate urban land speculation, invest resources and finances so as to assist those groups that are strategically important to the country's development and systematize housing development throughout the country."

As with every social service that the revolution has tried to offer people, however, housing has been severely limited by Nicaragua's lack of economic resources, already serious in 1979 and more critical by the year as the US-sponsored war intensified. Housing projects in most of Latin America and the Third World depend heavily on US (primarily Agency for International Development) and multilateral funding, and thus the US denial of loans and credits to Nicaragua has hit particularly hard in this area. Nonetheless, some important and unique steps have been taken in Nicaragua that could well serve as a model of sorts for countries throughout the world precisely because they are not premised on large infusions of foreign assistance. Since 1979, among urban families alone, 40% have benefited one way or another from MINVAH programs.

Remedying past ills

The first initiative was to give people title to land they had previously occupied illegally, either as squatters or as tenants of illegal developers. The law dealing with illegal subdivisions by developers was one of the first decreed by the new revolutionary government, and it assigned MINVAH the responsibility of taking over and developing these barrios—some 400, with over 50,000 houses. Residents continued to make payments, but now they were mortgage payments on their own newly titled land, and the payments were made to MINVAH.

One outstanding example of this is Ciudad Sandino, formerly OPEN 3, the acronym for Permanent National Emergency Operation. This large suburb, some eight miles outside of Managua, sprang up after serious floods forced many Managua residents to leave their homes in 1969-70. Thousands more flocked to the area after the 1972 earthquake. The residents of OPEN 3 paid rent to and were subject to the whims of a large planter who owned the land. For years, the area went without the most basic of services. A US religious worker who lived in Ciudad Sandino for many years, both before and after 1979, recalled that "speculators were looking Ciudad Sandino over in the last year of the war because there was water and electricity there by then. [They] were buying up the land out there and selling it at much higher prices." Commenting on the legalization process and referring to the speculation that ran rampant in pre-1979 Nicaragua, she said, "People now have received title to their land in perpetuity—which means it belongs to their family.... What the government is trying to avoid is having poor people in need take their land and sell it to a speculator for no money at all, or very little money, so that the speculators take over the barrio again and people never get to keep their land."

Another precarious legal situation, involving unrestrained rent gouging, was also resolved in poor barrios throughout Nicaragua, when MINVAH intervened on behalf of the residents. Acting through the Sandinista Neighborhood Committees (CDS), residents in a number of barrios petitioned MINVAH to reduce the rents, which was done. In January of 1980, a Tenants' Law reduced almost 90% of rents in Managua by half and a maximum rent, pegged to the assessed value of the house, was imposed. One study characterizes the law as a type of national rent control in which the tenants' rights are protected, but private ownership is safeguarded as well. (In recent years, the inflationary spiral created by the worsening economic situation has made owners wary of renting in córdobas. The situation is complicated by the large number of foreigners who are willing and able to pay rents that are astronomically high for the average Nicaraguan. Thus houses for rent or sale, even in working or lower middle class neighborhoods, are out of reach for many Nicaraguans.)

Housing projects limited

In the first years of the revolution, MINVAH constructed a number of housing projects. One of the most sizeable ones in Managua is Batahola, a 2,200 unit project built in 1980 on the site of a 1979 massacre by the National Guard. The project houses working class families who work in the productive sector (many in the area near where the project was built) and who were living in substandard housing before it went up. The Batahola houses are the so-called "mini-skirt" style—cement walls reaching about four feet high, with the rest of the structure built of wood. The roofs are simple zinc, and the standard house has no drop ceiling. Although the neighborhood has dirt roads, the houses are well maintained and boast amenities that, since they are hard to come by today, no longer adorn MINVAH houses—glass windows, decorative and protective iron grillwork and so forth. As with all housing projects, people add on to and improve their houses, bit by bit, as their money allows.

As happened with other revolutionary programs in the early years, the expense of what seemed to be ideal solutions to pressing problems was simply too much. Outgoing Housing Minister Miguel Ernesto Vigil comments that the Batahola project cost about the same as the Literacy Crusade, undertaken about the same time—an expense Nicaragua cannot afford. Thus, it is essential to address the demand for housing within the country's specific economic and social reality. As Vigil says, the construction of housing units cannot be an engine pulling production behind it. It must rather be a caboose going to areas where other production is already established and vibrant, or is planned to be.

Some of MINVAH's early housing projects, while they succeeded in providing immediate, if partial, solutions, met with problems, either in design or in optimistic cost calculations. One project undertaken in the early days was designed to improve an existing squatter settlement. An old Managua barrio was demolished and 463 new houses were constructed with financial assistance from the Venezuelan government and neighborhood participation in the actual construction. The new houses were constructed in an open pattern, with a common area in the rear. But after construction, many of the residents did not care for the open pattern and built fences to separate themselves from their neighbors and protect their property and gardens.

In another instance, MINVAH originally planned to build 550 low-rise apartment units in Managua's former center. The houses were to serve for the resettlement of low-income families. During the first three years, only one complex of 64 apartments was completed. The expense of construction far outstripped the original estimates, and thus the apartments went to middle-level government workers. A low-rise project in León, while less expensive, was greeted with suspicion by some potential residents who were not enthusiastic about the concept of multi-story residential buildings given Nicaragua’s earthquake potential. Again, MINVAH had to face the problem of overly idealistic expectations of what could be done. In the latter case, a failure to consult with people before the project was underway helped create the problem.

Filling in the city

Another problem MINVAH has tried to address is the tremendous population growth in the cities in recent years. The population in the capital, for example, has nearly doubled since 1979, the result of both a phenomenally high growth rate and rural-urban migration. By the early 1980s, Managua's capacity to absorb the inflow of people, and the capacity of existing housing to absorb family growth, had already reached its limits.

Thus, MINVAH also tried to respond to the demands of the poor in overcrowded or substandard housing by relocating them into minimal housing plans, known as "progressive urbanizations," which the new owners would improve over time. Referred to also as "site and services" programs, they gave residents title to land and assured them basic services. These programs became the heart of MINVAH's work in the cities, particularly the capital, for the next three years.

The program got started in 1981, but really took off in 1982 after disastrous floods washed out significant portions of a number of neighborhoods located near or along Lake Managua. Government representatives arrived on the scene and offered residents land and services in large vacant areas of the city.

In this plan, MINVAH gives residents title to a lot in a selected area where it has done a territorial study (of fault lines, flood probability and the like). As suggested above, giving a family title to its land is a significant step, particularly in the third world where access to land is an ongoing and increasing problem. MINVAH also does all the technical work connected with the site and services, including minimal construction of simple drainage facilities and graded dirt roads. Finally, collective water spigots (one per 20 lots) are installed and each lot is provided with a latrine.

A total of 16,000 lots have been distributed since the early 1980s. The program has thus been able to respond to the needs of thousands of families, as well as help "fill in" the large empty areas of Managua left by the post-earthquake land development schemes.

While MINVAH takes responsibility for the technical work, the equally essential political work is done by the CDS. To begin with, it was often through the initiative of these block associations that the site and services projects went up. Local CDSs have also been pivotal in trying to develop a community and make sure people’s immediate needs are met.

A US woman who worked as part of a "mini-brigade" in one of the Managua barrios created after the 1982 floods remembers the community's involvement, through its CDS, in carrying out the work of digging latrines and water lines. Early each morning a meeting was held to discuss the work agenda for the day—the large majority of the barrio's residents without fulltime work took part in the physical labor. The water lines were given first priority and then latrines for the families with the least number of people able to help with the work. Perhaps due to the presence of the US group, the hard physical work was broken up by political discussions and sharing of songs—both political and pop. The community also cleared a large area and laid the foundation for a small community center. Participation of this sort, however, is only assured when an active, dynamic CDS is functioning—and in recent years, CDS participation has dropped off quite dramatically, primarily because it's a time commitment that many people no longer feel they can afford.

As of 1984, MINVAH had installed community services and infrastructure benefiting some 250,000 people in Nicaragua's cities but assisted in the construction of only 2,000 houses. Technically, people in the new urban barrios created by the progressive urbanization program have access to a materials bank maintained by MINVAH.

Since then, the economic crisis that has cut into all government social programs has meant an increasing scarcity of resources, permitting MINVAH to meet an even smaller portion of the actual demand for materials. For all practical purposes, houses are now built, expanded or repaired with scavenged materials or at the owners' own considerable expense.

The site and services program was not welcomed by many of Nicaragua's professional architects and designers, who were used to working on comfortable homes that could make lavish use of the best materials. They've accused MINVAH of making the cities "ugly." But if the question is between serving 15 families "well and esthetically," or serving 60 with the barest of bones, MINVAH has continually opted for serving more people, albeit less attractively.

The darker side of the urbanization trend is the so-called "spontaneous settlements" that began to spring up again, particularly after 1985-86. By that time, the site and services program was already being cut way back because of the war. In addition, the government had begun to emphasize economic development and corresponding social services in the countryside rather than in the cities, in an attempt to redress the historic neglect suffered by the Nicaraguan countryside and ensure continued production in the country's essential agrarian sector. Yet the "people flow" into the cities was not stanched.

Although the growing migration into the cities was partly due to the war, it also responded to expectations of more access to social services—education, health and the like—than was available in the countryside. That was a reasonable expectation in the first two or three years after 1979, as we have seen. However, as the war intensified, the demands for basic services such as water and electricity that accompany each new squatter settlement became far beyond what the city could possibly provide. As more and more people competed for services intended for a fraction of the population they must now serve, the standard of living for the urban poor became increasingly endangered.

While such land takeovers and resulting squatter settlements are subject to repressive police actions in many parts of the third world, that’s not an option that the Nicaraguan government wants or is even willing to take. Although the government has an explicit policy of not providing any services to the spontaneous settlements, made up essentially of nonproductive populations, it also doesn’t harass them. Its position is that while these people are acting outside of the law, they are pressured by necessities that the state simply cannot realistically respond to at this moment.

These burgeoning squalid settlements thus present a difficult problem. One "solution" is to keep people producing in the countryside, something that can't be done without heavy-handed central legislation. Another partial and more long-term solution is to bring the birth rate more in line with the country's actual infrastructural capacity. While the government is trying to make the countryside seem more attractive (a long and still unresolved debate continues to rage among agrarian policymakers about the specifics of how that should be done), it hasn't been able to slow rural-urban migration significantly, nor has the alarmingly high birth rate been directly addressed.

In 1986, a spontaneous settlement of about 20 houses sprang up right on the edge of one of Managua's wealthier neighborhoods. During the second day of construction, a woman clad in expensive sportswear came out of her house (a small fortress) and confronted the group building houses out of scavenged wood, zinc and other materials. "You can't build here," she scolded them, "this is private property, and besides, it looks awful." She went on for a bit in this tone. The people listened quietly and then resumed their work without a word. The next day, MINVAH representatives arrived to talk to the group. "The problem is," they said, "that we can't provide services to you here, and this kind of building just can't go on." The basic question the people had was simple: "Well then, where are we supposed to go?" For the next two days, open-air meetings were held between MINVAH, CDS representatives from the adjacent urbanization project and the squatter group. Finally, the decision was made to relocate them to the Pan-American Highway just north of the city, where they were given land in the hopes that they could farm it and become largely self-sufficient. A large flat-bed truck came, the houses were carefully taken apart and all the materials taken to the new site.

Construction in the countryside

One of the key housing programs implemented since 1979 has been the asentamientos," or resettlements, in the rural areas of Nicaragua. The Ministry of Housing has built about 300 of these resettlements, with a rough total of 18,000 units. Some were government-organized relocations of peasants from the heart of the war zones, particularly on the Atlantic Coast and in Nicaragua's Region V, site of particularly fierce contra activity since 1985.

The asentamiento program is also closely linked to the overall agrarian reform program, the heart of the revolution in the countryside, and thus both MINVAH and MIDINRA, the Ministry of Agriculture, have built asentamientos over the last several years. The Nicaraguan peasantry has traditionally lived in very marginal and dispersed conditions, without access to the land they worked. Particularly with the cotton boom, peasants were pushed off their traditional lands and eastward, straining at the borders of the agricultural frontier.

The population in these resettlements comes from three major groups: 1) people displaced by the war; 2) people who lived in the general region and have come because of the services offered (including the security of a larger community); and 3) people who have left agriculturally poor areas (for example, the vast deforested, arid zones in Regions I and V). Some 250,000 people have been displaced by the war, some leaving their homes on their own and others moved by the government.

Almost all these resettlements have been built in the war zones, albeit more protected parts, primarily Regions I (Las Segovias), VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega) and, in recent years, V (Boaco-Chontales). The first MINVAH resettlements were in the Jalapa valley in Region I, the strategic mountainous triangle of land in northern Nicaragua surrounded on three sides by Honduras that was the site of the first intense and concerted contra activity, in 1982-83.

The large landholdings in the Jalapa region passed to state hands after 1979. State-owned property in the area was about 25,000 acres in the first years; it is now down to 12,000 as a result of emphasizing the establishment of cooperatives and small landholdings. When the contra attacks in the region began, a number of people first fled to the city of Jalapa. An estimated 1,300 families were displaced initially by counterrevolutionary activity in that area alone. Since the city did not offer people the economic means by which to support themselves, the decision was made to build asentamientos on state land outside of town, and form self-defense cooperatives that would be able to ensure both their own security and a level of production necessary to the region's economic vitality. The region now has 53 cooperatives (nearly 47,000 acres) with 2,158 members.

The first resettlements built in Jalapa were El Escambray, La Estancia and Santa Cruz, all oriented toward the valley's tobacco production. Today they have the aura of well-established and maintained communities, while in other, newer settlements, people must live under far harsher conditions, given the greatly reduced resources the government has to work with.

Another MINVAH project in the area provided housing for an existing community, most of whose members worked at a tobacco factory near El Centro Básico La Mia, about six miles south of Jalapa. Just over 100 prefab houses went up in 1983; the families helped with the assembly. A school and childcare center were also built and a potable water system installed.

While MINVAH is not directly involved in increasing production, the decisions about where to build are inextricably linked to the question of agrarian production. Housing is seen as one of the key services that must be provided to those in the countryside if the population there, and thus production, is to be maintained.

When the first resettlements were constructed, people could move into essentially finished houses. The houses first went up in phases, and later a switch was made to prefab construction that could be completed quickly and somewhat more inexpensively. But as the demand for housing grew, MINVAH was forced to adopt a "plan techo" model: essentially constructing the shell of the house—a roof and basic posts—and leaving the rest to the owners (in some cases, a simple cement floor is included). The decision was made for economic reasons, and to assure that more people would at least have a roof over their heads. Ecumenical and nongovernmental organizations have assisted in finishing the such houses constructed in the more recent resettlements throughout the country.

Many of the cooperatives formed on resettlements go about their daily business armed and construction of the settlements themselves was undertaken at some risk. MINVAH has a gallery of heroes and martyrs in its national office—people killed by the contras merely for trying to carry out construction work in the regions. Many technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Construction have met the same fate as they worked on building the resettlements. Although an attack on a resettlement of 40 or 60 families may rate one line (if that) in the international media, the damage that is done is tremendous and means months and months of rebuilding in both human and material terms. One resettlement, La Posolera, just west of Waslala in Region VI, went up in 1984 after peasants were forced from their homes further east. The peasants formed a cooperative and slowly rebuilt their lives, going out to the fields each day armed with AK-47s. In April 1986, La Posolera was attacked again and seven people were killed, including the president of the cooperative.

No chicken prisons

One problem when working with the peasant population has been their level of expectations and their needs and concerns. A US-based group of Architects and Planners, APSNICA, has been building houses (85 to date) for cooperatives in the Nicaraguan countryside around the Matiguás area since 1985. The organization is financed by contributions in the United States, and estimates that its houses are somewhat less than double the price of the standard MINVAH house. APSNICA planners have worked closely with both the Ministry of Housing and the regional government in Region VI and also with the communities themselves in the Sandinista Agricultural Cooperatives (production cooperatives) where all their work to date has been done.

They talked about the different design questions that have come up, beginning with the whole conceptualization process: their first meetings with the cooperative members involved explaining a house plan drawn on a blackboard (based on MIDINRA-designed houses, which are slightly larger than the standard MINVAH model). The second year, people were given several models to choose from. But it became clear that people didn't really have any sense of the relationship between the plans they had seen and the houses they eventually would live in. Last year, a scale model was brought {strapped to a planner's back as he crossed a river) to give people a better, more dimensional idea. As an APSNICA representative in Nicaragua said, reflecting on this process revolving around design and community participation, "Showing people things on paper is nice, but meaningless."

When APSNICA first experimented with cluster housing, showing people the plans, and actually walking them around the site as planners explained where each house would be, it appealed to the peasants because a community built this way would be easier to defend. As the houses started going up, though, people became unhappy, although initially timid about letting the foreigners know. One woman complained, "My chickens are going to feel like they're in prison." Adjustments were made on the spot.

An even worse problem in Region V, however, left one housing project uninhabited. The resettlement, north of Juigalpa, was built, urban-style, with rows of houses too close for the peasants' custom and comfort. People responded by scavenging materials and building inferior houses nearby.

Ministry of Agriculture technicians have pointed to other, similar concerns that have arisen over the years, particularly in the credit and service cooperatives (CCS), where the peasants still maintain private plots. There, one of the more delicate issues is how closely houses are grouped, and whether people's land is right next to their house or farther away. Most people wanted to have their houses adjacent to their land or at least to have enough space directly around the house to keep their barnyard animals on it. In some of the newer resettlements, particularly in the Nueva Guinea region, the houses are somewhat spread out. This, however, poses problems for the eventual installation of electricity, potable water, etc., as it implies a wider initial infrastructural base to serve the community.

Other design issues are security and privacy needs (in terms of each individual house), kitchens (or more precisely, the type of stove used, if the kitchen is part of the house) and so forth. Clearly, one of the key issues is cost, and the impossibility of meeting a number of design needs, important though they may be, on a shoestring budget.

Nicaragua has received a fair amount of international assistance in the area of housing, some of it jokingly referred to as "clandestine" projects that spring up, unbeknownst to MINVAH, after a solidarity group visits a city. Assistance has also come from the United Nations and other groups, including from the Dutch government for a number of housing units in Region V. Ecumenical and nongovernmental organizations, both inside and outside of Nicaragua, have also assisted in the construction of small-scale housing developments, as have solidarity brigades of construction workers from a number of countries. The international aid is primarily in the form of small, but essential, private contributions that arrive as money, materials and/or technical and labor assistance. In the case of APSNICA, which has a long-term vision, it has also come in the form of machinery such as sawmills, which allows them to make more efficient use of local materials.

Decentralizing the housing problem

The case of MINVAH provides us one close-up look at the so-called "compaction process" (the Nicaraguan government's recent decision to pare down its unwieldy bureaucracy, which includes merging several individual ministries into one "super" ministry.) The Ministry of Housing as such was phased out as a result of the decision, and its primary tasks will be taken up by the regional governments. The outgoing housing minister said he thought that the compaction process represents an advance in the housing field in Nicaragua and characterized it as part of a logical decentralizing process begun some years ago.

Historically, Nicaragua has suffered from excessive centralization. In 1982, a regionalization process was put in place to ensure better attention to the interests of each region. Because it seemed important to set up some sort of regional structure where none had existed before, the process was undertaken before any long-term studies that would have significantly delayed implementation were done. Essentially, the regional delegates for each different ministry just went and started working, in some of the regions under virtual conditions of war. The regional governments have been an important element encouraging grassroots participation in decision-making and ensuring that Managua concerns are not the only ones that make the national agenda.

Among other responsibilities, regions now will have power over housing investments. MINVAH is in the process of transferring its personnel and budgets to the regional governments, although the bulk of MINVAH officials (600 out of 800) were already working in the regions. This should strengthen the regional governments.

Obviously, some tasks must remain in the hands of the national government. At a national level, some of MINVAH's former tasks will go to the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies and others will be assumed by the Presidency’s Secretariat of Planning and Budget. Most of the problems MINVAH (and the other ministries, for that matter) have faced to date are complex and not easily pigeon-holed into one sector. Hopefully, the compaction process will mean more sophisticated coordination between ministries and institutions, from the planning stages to the actual implementation of projects.

Infrastructure in infancy

The most pressing problems affecting any future housing programs in Nicaragua are the economic situation and the country's burgeoning population, particularly in the urban centers. As long as the war (not just the US military aggression but also its economic sanctions) continues, it is unrealistic to assume that the government can undertake any significant housing programs, particularly in the cities, or even keep pace with demand for the most minimal of services.

Meanwhile the burgeoning urban population is straining already weak infrastructural services and contributing little, if anything, to production. Even in the countryside, many communities are struggling to provide basic services to their existing populations and the regional capitals are facing scaled-down versions of the crisis affecting Managua.

While it's true that Nicaragua has a very low national population density, its infrastructure is so weak and overburdened that the continued birth rate has rightly caused alarm among many sectors. The question of family planning has been the object of virtually no direct debate, yet it is one that the country will have to tackle head on if it hopes to successfully carry out any of the key social programs necessary to improve people's quality of life.

Housing, or more precisely, the lack of housing, has become an increasingly serious issue worldwide. The United Nations designated 1987 as the Year of Housing with Dignity for Homeless Persons. Nicaragua, even in a context of tremendous and growing economic problems, has been able to offer solutions that, in their volume, have no precedent in the history of Nicaragua. Moreover, they are destined for the most economically disadvantaged, a priority unique in the region. Nicaragua, the one country in Central America that has virtually no access to US or multilateral funds, is ahead of the rest of the region in creating solutions for the poorest sectors of the population. While some of MINVAH's programs are makeshift solutions at best, they represent a real break with the dictatorship's lack of interest in assisting the country's poor. The fact that many people who once had to worry about constant payment of rents or possible evictions have been given title to their land, and now have access to basic services, is an enormous step forward.

Possibly the most important lesson of revolutionary Nicaragua's experiences with housing policy to date is to have shown that it’s possible to significantly improve the living standards of the majority of the population with relatively low initial investments. If a country like Nicaragua can take what are admittedly tentative steps towards doing just that, neighboring countries that enjoy massive annual infusions of US aid should be able to do much more. For example, while some 20% of Managua's population today still has no access to potable water, it is down from over 50% in 1979. Given that the city's population has nearly doubled since then, and that all social service programs have been operating with the most skeletal of budgets in the context of a war economy, this is a measure of the government's will to improve the population's standard of living. It's more than a drop in the bucket.

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