Updated: Sunday, 16 March 2014 00:44 | By Agence France-Presse

Pope Francis inspires Argentine shanty builders

On a vacant lot in Buenos Aires, a new shantytown is rising up, with the 3,000 hopeful residents-to-be taking inspiration from Pope Francis.


Pope Francis inspires Argentine shanty builders

A man sits inside a tent erected on the grounds occupied by homeless families demanding land to build permanent homes on March 7, 2014 in Buenos Aires - by Daniel Garcia

Argentine-born Francis -- the first pontiff born in the Americas -- has made living simply and fighting for the poor his signatures in his first year since being elected.

And the message struck a chord for the people in this poor neighborhood, who have already named their new community after him.

"The pope represents hope," explained Emanuel Rio, 26, a spokesman for the squatters. "We identify with him. He understands our needs."

This week -- despite a looming threat of eviction from the city authorities -- a priest from the neighboring shantytown, Vila 20, gave his blessing to the new outcrop of makeshift homes.

While the World Bank has recently praised Argentina's progress in its fight against poverty and unemployment, the housing deficit remains alarming.

More than 163,000 of Buenos Aires's three million residents live in these shantytowns, dubbed "villas," according to a 2010 census. That's a 52 percent increase over the figure in 2001, just before the country was hit by a massive economic crisis.

Juan Martinez, his wife, and four children are among them.

The family of six had been crowded into a single room studio in a shantytown -- a privelege for which they paid 1,500 pesos ($190) a month.

"We could not stay where we were. Every time it rained, everything flooded and we had water up to our knees," Martinez, 44, a taxi driver, complained.

Sitting on a folding chair, he held in his arms his 11-month-old son, whose smiling face is covered with mosquito bites.

Born in Paraguay, Martinez has lived in Argentina for 20 years. 

He has great hopes for the new Barrio Papa Francisco, where square lots four to five meters (13 to 16 feet) on each side have been mapped out with sticks and rope.

"I want to stay here to build my house," said Martinez, who took Tuesday off so he could go to the eviction court to help fight the city to recognize their neighborhood.

- Dual income, no home -

Argentina's economic situation has improved in recent years, said sociologist Mercedes Di Virgilio.

"The situation has gotten gotten better in the job market, and unemployment has gone down," she said.

But the housing situation remains dire, with legal rentals out of reach for many residents.

"Wage levels don't allow people to enter into the formal real estate market," she said.

Some 60 percent of migrants from neighboring countries move to shantytowns when they first arrive, added Di Virgilio, who works at the University of Buenos Aires.

Like Martinez, most of the squatters have jobs.

His wife works at a nearby lottery agency.

Their neighbors include a baker married to a maid, who, along with their four children, were recently evicted by the landlord of the tiny 20 square meter (215 square foot) apartment they rented.

But their toehold in Barrio Papa Franscisco might not be any more secure. 

Earlier this week, police recently tried to clear the residents out.

For now they weren't successful -- they were held off by women, who, with children in their arms, stood in their way.

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