San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flattened Slums May Rise Again

Rafael Arias stood with his arms crossed, watching bulldozers claw down tin homes and smoothing over the mud that was left behind.

He – along with dozens of police officers and work crews – hoped to make it through 11 neighborhoods in Pavas, on the western fringes of San José, on Thursday, plowing through nearly 400 makeshift homes.

“This is what the communities want,” said Arias, an aide to San José Mayor Johnny Araya. “They want their parks back. They want peace.”

The homes – nothing more than cloth tents, boarded stalls and slanted sheet metal – were built illegally atop steep ravines, at the foot of alleyways and within common spaces.

“It’s better this way,” said Yadira Lamas, looking out over the open space from the front step of the house she has called home for more than 20 years. “Now that it is clean, the kids will have a place to play.”

But as 27-year-old Margo Vargas watched her home scooped up and dropped into a dump truck, she shook her head.

“This is unnecessary,” she said, “Everyone will come back tonight. There’s no where else for them to go.”

Holding up her fingers as if she was shaking a fan of bills, she said, “Think of all the money the government is spending on this.”

Vargas has been living with 80 people, packed onto a sloping public park space no bigger than half a football field in size. She has a job, but it doesn’t pay her enough to afford a house or an apartment.

“The government hasn’t offered us an alternative,” she said. “Some have families to return to, but others are homeless.”

Arias shook his head when asked about another option.

“No, there is no organized alternative for housing,” he said. Headded quickly, “But no one has asked. If they request help, our emergency services can find them a place to stay.”

The bulldozers arrived in select neighborhoods in Pavas, at 6:30 on Thursday morning. Like an unwelcome alarm clock, the beeping of the construction vehicles drew Vargas and her neighbors out of their makeshift homes, following a long night of heavy rains caused by tropical storm Ida.

This is not the first time the government has flattened squatters’ homes, but similar events might be making headlines more often.

Under a new program introduced Oct. 1, new taxes on “luxury homes” will be used to improve shanty towns. This, according to legislators, means finding housing for people like Vargas.

Homeowners with a property valued at $172,000 or more will see their taxes go up this year. New taxes on such homes vary between 0.25 percent and 0.5 percent, depending on value.

But, until that money is available to fund alternative housing, money spent on evicting the squatters is money that’s falling through the government’s fingers, Vargas said.

“It’s a waste,” she said, nodding to the trucks. “We’ll be back tonight.”


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