“Communities do not have to be socially divided” – Interview with José Morales, former National Director of Housing and Human Settlements, Ecuador
What is the current housing situation like in Ecuador?
Housing is a big problem, and it is the same pretty much all over Latin America. The big issue right now is that medium-sized cities are growing really fast, and informal settlements are growing with them. The bigger cities have ways of dealing with informal settlements, but medium-sized cities do not always have that. This suggests that the national policy is still too basic since it only focusses on building houses and not communities.
Does the national housing policy go hand in hand with infrastructure development?
We do provide transportation and have a transportation policy. But infrastructure such as sewage systems, water systems and so on is definitely lacking. This is common in all of Latin America. We tend to build many houses but we forget to try and build communities. What is happening at the moment is that we have started to build national social housing. However, social housing is moving more and more towards segregated communities, something that the upper class values a lot. We do not think that this is the solution: If municipalities build social housing in ‘gated’ communities, they begin to separate the poor people from even more disadvantaged population groups.
And what specifically is the challenge for a city like Quito?
Quito is the city in Ecuador that faces the least problems. For example, if you go to the informal settlements in Quito, it is sometimes hard to understand in what way they are informal since they do not look as bad compared to other cities like Guayaquil.
In Quito, even the poor communities do not have very low living standards. Therefore, we have a different kind of challenge and we need a different kind of approach. In Quito, the national policies for social housing do not apply This is due to the fact that people, who would be eligible for social housing, already have higher living standards, that the national social housing policies could not meet. So we do not have a lot of national social housing policies that apply to Quito. I think the biggest issue is to find a solution for a problem that already exists for a long time, but that has changed tremendously over time.
The New Urban Agenda asked for an urban paradigm shift, also in terms of housing. How is Ecuador trying to implement that and where do you see Ecuador in the next five years?
One of the good things of having hosted Habitat III is that Ecuador was a country that did not talk about urban issues. Before Habitat III, it was as if everyone forgot about urban issues but with the conference having happened here, everybody is talking about urbanisation and its challenges now. Before, people thought that the problems of the cities were the municipalities’ problems only. However, more than 70 per cent of the people in Ecuador live in cities which means that we can no longer ignore national urban policies. Habitat III has been a really good opportunity for Ecuador, as now even the President is talking about urban issues.
What could a national housing agenda for Ecuador look like?
For the last 10 years, local governments have been trying to implement their own housing policies. Some local governments even created their own housing companies. But most of these housing companies were not very successful. One of the most important aspects local governments should introduce in their policies is looking at informal settlements beyond questions of legality. Informal settlements are not only about legality and questions of land, but also about empowering people and fully recognising them as citizens. By that I mean not only citizens with rights but citizens that have a co-responsibility, a responsibility together with the local authorities for building better communities. This is something that has not happened yet.
Do you know why the inclusion of all citizens has failed in the past or why it is not happening yet?
It is always a question of money. There has been a lack of effort in partnering up with banks, especially private banks. But this is always hard to do because banks usually see the people that are living in informal settlements as a high risk, so they do not want to be part of financing their projects.
How can the challenge of addressing the need for social housing and at the same time not leaving out the private sector economy be solved?
We should try to learn from other countries in this regard. When we were drafting the national urban law one issue was the question of how to include social housing in national legislation. Usually social housing is built on the outskirts of the cities, far away from the centre. With the national urban law social housing projects have gained access to good land. This is still a hard thing to do in Latin America because of the class issues we have. People from a higher class do not want to live with lower-class people. I do not like to use the word “class” but I think in this case it helps to clarify. So when private investors think about social housing they do not see it as a good business, they think it is going to hurt their business. We are still working on that, and we are trying to learn from the experiences for example in Chile or in Brazil.
Which experiences have Chile and Brazil made?
They try to force the private sector to include more affordable housing in their developments. This is something we are trying to test. We even included it in the law – not on the front page, you really have to look for it, but it is there and we want to see what happens with it. We want to show people that communities do not have to be so socially divided. This is hard to realise in Latin America, because ever since the colonial times we have had a society that is extremely divided. What we need is a change in mentality, a different way of thinking.
And have there been any reactions from the people to that law yet?
No not yet, since the law is really recent. We only adopted it in July 2016, so we still need to see what is going to happen. We will probably only find out at some point this year what the reactions are, especially from the private sector. Municipalities are really happy with the law, because now they have some new tools to develop their cities, and more firm legal ground to support their initiatives. But the private sector always tends to be more scared of this kind of change.
Actually, Columbia is an interesting example in this context. They have a similar law and part of the private sector is really happy with it, but there is another part of the private sector that has been trying to bring that law down since 1997. However, they still have not managed to do bring it down.
During the Territorial Forum in April last year you said the larger the urban population in large cities, the larger the risk of losing a cultural zone due to urbanisation. Is that an issue for Ecuador?
Yes, it is a big issue. Everybody here still thinks that urban growth is the same thing as urban development. Especially smaller municipalities still factor in high growth rates in planning processes even though most of the times they will not actually expand so far. The plans estimate the municipality’s growth for the next five years, and those projections are usually twice the size of the actual city. The planned expansion is bigger than the actual amount of people moving to the city. That is really unrealistic planning.
It is also unsustainable. It is an issue we have all over Latin America. We really adapted the model they had in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s: if you want to have a good quality of life, you have to expand far. The government there was basically saying “It is okay to live in the suburbs, far away from the city centre, because you have three or four cars per family”. Now it is really stuck in people’s minds that if you want a good life you have to live far away from the city centre and possess many cars. This way of thinking is very different in Europe.
What do you think will have changed by Habitat IV?
It is hard to say, but I think that we should try and not lose the momentum we gained in Habitat III. In Ecuador, everybody is talking about cities now, but soon they will forget about it. We have to build on the momentum and keep on working on urban solutions. I think the New Urban Agenda is just the first step towards a different model. The big difference between Habitat I, Habitat II and now Habitat III is that Habitat I and Habitat II did not really specifically talk about a different model for cities. Something that was really interesting for me was that up until the Zero Draft of the NUA there was a lot of thinking in technical terms that then had to be defended in the political part of the document. So there was a technical consensus about what the new model should be.
But I think the next step has to be to convince political authorities that the NUA is the way to go forward. As for Ecuador, it is really important that this conference has happened here and not somewhere far away like New York or Paris where you send some delegates and that is it. Hopefully, the conference was a first step towards some kind of urban awakening for the people in Ecuador, and that they realised that there is a lot more to discuss about cities than they thought.