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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Building New Neighborhoods for Displaced People in Colombia’s Smaller Cities: Lessons from Granada

In 2012, the government of Colombia launched a national program to provide 100,000 free housing units to the country’s poorest residents, including some of the more than six million people displaced by over 50 years of civil conflict. The unprecedented program led to housing construction in over 200 of the country’s 678 cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, including many small cities where large influxes of displaced families generated significant and unmet demands for housing.

In “Public Housing, Public Aid, and Collective Reparations: Neighborhood Formation in Makatoa and Sabana,” a new Center working paper, I analyze the implementation of this program in two new neighborhoods in Granada, a small city where about one fourth of the 80,000 residents are displaced people. Established in 2015, both neighborhoods feature compact rows of 72-square-meter housing units that are home, respectively, to 180 and 196 vulnerable families. 

Drawing on a year of fieldwork, I find that while the program has provided much-needed housing, the initiative and other efforts to aid displaced people also created burdens for their beneficiaries. I also find that implementing these programs posed unique challenges in small cities, where residents and officials were more likely to know each other and where local governments often do not have the resources or infrastructure to effectively manage aid provisions. I further argue that it is important to acknowledge these challenges because small cities, which are under-studied by scholars of forced migration, received about 40 percent of the total reported cases of forced displacement in Colombia.

In these cities, there is often a common narrative of who “deserves” a free unit, which is often at odds with the nationally-produced lists of those who are eligible for housing. This disjuncture creates tensions that can negatively impact aid recipients in several ways and at several levels. At the city level, these tensions have justified a reconceptualization of public housing from a form of reparations to a sort of stigmatized welfare dependency. At the neighborhood level, internal differences generated by the unequal distribution of other types of aid not only reinforces the narrative of welfare dependency but often leads to disputes and divisions among neighbors who regularly assess who “deserves” aid.

In addition to local-national tensions, I find that the extensive regulations governing the use of housing and other aid have created an environment of control among the aid recipients. In addition to undergoing regular monitoring from public authorities, residents routinely check on their neighbors to see if rules and regulations are being enforced, either by the largely absent national government or by overwhelmed local authorities. While the lack of enforcement gives residents the flexibility to ignore regulations that do not comport with their basic needs, it also puts them in a difficult and ambiguous position when social tensions emerge in their new neighborhoods. Instead of consolidating horizontal forms of organization to address social tensions with neighbors, residents have adopted expectations of vertical authority that are not met. Therefore, many social tensions are neither addressed by the community nor by public authorities.

These outcomes do not mean that providing public housing is futile. The provision of public housing is necessary, especially in small cities where the population has grown rapidly and there is increasing, unmet housing demand. But my research suggests that policymakers should acknowledge there are unique challenges to providing housing in small cities where public authorities tend to have less institutional capacity and where people are more likely to know each other and form a local narrative of who is, and who is not, “deserving” of public aid.