In August, I spent three weeks in Ecuador with the Cultural Caravan for Peace & Solidarity Through Latin America, a Latino arts group based in Queens. We stayed in Playas, a fishing and working/lower-middle-class resort town of about 30,000 people, where we worked with a local cultural group on three projects: a women’s health project, a mural painted by local teenagers, and a play performed by local children (in which a manatee organizes the animals on a Vieques-like island to chase away the warships shelling their home). We also visited Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, which has about 2.3 million people.
Playas and Guayaquil both have some incredibly poor housing. Their outskirts are filled with invasiones, squatter settlements of dirt streets and houses with canestalk walls, dirt floors, and corrugated-metal roofs. The slightly better off have cinderblock houses.
This is not surprising. Ecuador’s gross domestic product per capita, adjusted for relative purchasing power, is $7,500 a year. That’s less than one-sixth of the U.S.’s, slightly below Thailand’s, and just above El Salvador’s. About 35 percent of the people live in poverty, but this is down from 51 percent in 2000, according to U.S. State Department estimates.
As tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans moved from rural areas to the cities in the 1980s and 1990s, much of the housing was built by squatters—first wood-frame homes with walls of cane stalks and cardboard, later cinderblocks and concrete. Many of these settlements had limited access to running water and plumbing, and their electricity was often pirated.
In 1990, the World Bank estimated that more than half the country’s housing was “unauthorized.” More than 440,000 “informal housing units” were constructed in the ‘90s, according to a 2004 report by the International Union for Housing Finance, a Belgian-based nonprofit trade group. “The formal units constructed almost never reach the lowest income quintile,” the report said.
The biggest contrast between wealth and poverty I saw in Playas was about a block from the beach. There was one house of weather-battered gray wood, one step above a lean-to, with a rusty corrugated-metal roof, inhabited by what looked like two women and around eight kids. They cooked outside and did laundry in an open-air shed. Across the street was a house with a nine-foot concrete wall topped with a full-size chain-link fence and four strands of barbed wire. (Middle-class people in Playas usually have walls around their houses, as the local thieves will even steal laundry off a line, but this was seriously excessive.) It also had a motorized gate so the owner didn’t have to get out of his SUV to drive in.
On the other hand, I saw only three apparently homeless people in the 50-odd blocks we walked in downtown Guayaquil. Most of the 10 people in our group were under 35 and immigrated to the U.S. as children, so they were shocked when I explained that homelessness was rare in New York before 1980—that it was largely confined to hardcore Bowery winos and teenage runaways, but it exploded almost the minute Ronald Reagan came in.
In October 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to make decent housing a constitutional right, when it voted by more than 2-1 to approve a new constitution promoted by “21st-century socialist” President Rafael Correa.
In a section titled “Rights to a good life” (“Derechos de buen vivir” in Spanish, based on a concept called “sumak kawsay” in Quechua, Ecuador’s main indigenous language), the document explicitly guarantees housing rights. Article 30 declares that “the people have the right to a secure and healthy habitat, and adequate and dignified housing, independent of their social and economic situation.” And Article 42 says that “All arbitrary displacement is prohibited.” If people are displaced, it adds, they “shall have the right to receive urgent humanitarian protection and assistance from the authorities,” including food, shelter, housing, and medical and sanitary services,” with priority given to children, the elderly, the disabled, and mothers of young children.
According to relatives I visited in Guayaquil, when the city recently renovated the Las Peñas historic district, it relocated the people displaced and gave them better housing.
In 2008, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions gave the Constitutional Assembly of Ecuador its Housing Rights Protector Award, for “its role in making Ecuador the first country in the world to explicitly recognize in its Constitution a range of key housing and habitat-related rights.”