San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San José Shantytown on

After living for decades in metal-slab shelters atop rivers of sewage, families in a San José shantytown may get concrete homes with working septic tanks.
The Foundation for Housing Promotion, in alliance with the government, launched a $3 million project this week to revitalize Finca San Juan, in the western San José district of Pavas.
But Monday’s inaugural event was largely ceremonial, despite the presence of tractors and hardhats. The foundation has yet to clear the bureaucratic hurdles required for a construction permit from the municipal government. It will apply for a fourth time next week.
President Oscar Arias’ administration is partnering with private groups throughout the country to help the 250,000 families nationwide who live in substandard housing. Some 18 other housing projects are underway in the metropolitan area, the northwest province of Guanacaste, and the southern province of Puntarenas.
Six of them are in limbo while project managers collect the required permits, a process that can take a year.
Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado toured Finca San Juan on Monday, skirting mounds of trash and squinting in the gunkfilled air.Women tugged on his sleeve, asking when the houses would be ready and what they would look like.
“I’ve lived in a metal shelter for 18 years. My floor is breaking, my roof is useless. It rains on me,” said Cecilio Calvo, 62-year-old resident of Finca San Juan.
The foundation plans to hire construction company Terroccia to build sidewalks, boulevards, green areas, and pipes for wastewater.
Some 130 houses will be demolished and rebuilt, while 63 will get a makeover.
The National Institute For Housing and Urban Development (INVU), the state body that owns Finca San Juan, assigned lots there to families in the 1980s, and conditions have largely degenerated since, said Vitza Cole de León at the foundation.
The foundation signed an agreement with the housing institute last May to develop the neighborhood. To get a municipal permit, the foundation had to clear the project with a laundry list of state institutions and private groups, which must vouch that it passes architectural, engineering, health and environmental standards.
Jorge Mora, the Housing Ministry official in charge of Finca San Juan, said the process has taken months because institutions are wrongly treating the initiative like a new construction project.
“There has been a lot of red tape,” said Eloísa Ulibarri, the foundation’s executive director. “It’s been…very tiresome.Very tiresome.”
The foundation sought funding for the project from the National Housing Mortgage Bank (BAHNVI), the Housing Ministry’s financial arm, but the application process was slow, Ulibarri said. Anxious to start, the foundation decided to invest an initial $1.28 million in infrastructure projects and seek reimbursement later from the bank.
A housing project in a neighboring shantytown, La Franja, is further along. This project, run by a construction company with a government contract, will renovate the neighborhood and spruce up houses for 57 families.
Zumbado cut a white ribbon in front of the first house’s new cement walls Monday.
Residents greeted him with Costa Rican flags and signs reading, “Long live Zumbado” and “The government does make good on its promises.”
There are some mixed feelings, however. Twenty-two families from La Franja will have to move permanently to the Caribbean town of Guácimo because they live on land that will become roads or parks. The ministry will provide housing, but they must find their own jobs, most likely on pineapple and banana plantations.
Ana María Villegas, 23, is worried about the move. She said Guácimo is pretty, but she has grown accustomed to living in La Franja.
She also worries that her husband won’t find new work, and if he stays at his current job at a glass factory in San José, the commute will cost $2 and last two hours.
Some 138 families in Finca San Juan will have to move, too, and the HousingMinistry is exploring where to put them. In the meantime, they will shuffle their metal huts around within the neighborhood to accommodate the construction projects. Families peppered foundation officials this week with worried questions about logistics.
Meanwhile, the foundation is collecting the families’ personal information to apply for government grants. A low-income family can receive up to $8,500 from BAHNVI to renovate or build a house. The bank also has $40 million budgeted for this year for largescale infrastructure projects.
Once the infrastructure is finished, the foundation will bring instructors from the state’s National Training Institute (INA) to teach residents to rebuild their own homes with BAHNVI funding, Ulibarri said.
Marlene Canales, 47, said her house could use a makeover. With paintings and weavings covering its pink concrete walls, the house is nicer than most in the neighborhood. But there are cockroaches in the beds, and Canales has to scrunch her shoulders to enter the narrow doors.
The neighborhood could use even more work, she said. Besides the unpaved roads covered in human waste, she said, robberies are frequent and drug use among kids is common.
“Maybe urbanization would end all that.”

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