Housing in Chile: From a Dream to a Constitutional Right

By Carolina Meza Prambs and Priscila Gonzalez Yañez (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – In the last few decades, there’s been an ever more consolidated perception in our country that owning your own home is a “dream”. This so-called “dream of home” reflects the fact that access to housing in Chile is seen as an unreachable consumer item and not as a fundamental social right.

The process of drafting a new Constitution for our country has opened an important opportunity to assign new meaning to the way we think about housing. For that reason, we at the Constitutional Center of the Alberto Hurtado University have proposed some new language to the Constitutional Convention for incorporation in the draft document: “The right of each person to have a decent and secure home, and the opportunity to organize their lives in an environment adequate for its enjoyment.”

The need for this change, and the overall housing problem in Chile, can be viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, there’s the economic dimension – the high price of housing that makes having a home an unreachable goal for many families. On the other, from the beginning, there’s been a failure to establish housing as a Constitutional right. That means the absence of a norm that regulates the issue and could set some parameters for developing the housing market and assigning housing. These are both the result of the subsidy-based vision that has dominated the Chilean government and generated the postponement of any housing policies in favor of a system of vouchers or subsidies.

Enshrining this right on a Constitutional level is key. Its absence has led a large part of the population finding it impossible to exercise said right. The economic accessibility of housing is a critical topic, especially for the country’s lower income families. This has only been accentuated with the current sustained increase in housing prices. The Clapes UC-Real Data Index of Real Estate Prices indicates that between January 2007 and December 2019, in the Santiago metropolitan area alone, home prices suffered a real increase of 87%, while apartment prices rose 103%. The pandemic exacerbated that situation still further.

In Chile, families spend an average of 18% of their gross disposable income to maintain housing. Certainly, that statistic is under the 20% average in the region, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, the national average hides great differences among the economic levels. Thirty-five percent of the poorest households in the country must earmark 40% of their income to housing (OECD Better Life Index 2020). In fact, 53.8% of those in the lowest fifth economically must sustain this overwhelming economic effort in order to pay the rent (the second highest of all the OECD countries), while 31% make similar efforts to pay their mortgage. (OECD 2018).

The housing solutions that the Chilean government has provided the most vulnerable sectors in the last decades have been centered on housing projects built on the cities’ periphery, where there are problems of accessibility, supplies, and the availability of services. The origin of this urban segregation lies in the fact that the city has been planned around market practices, and hence ordered according to people’s income: that is, those with lower incomes marginalized from the parts of the city where the best public goods and the best quality services are located.

Underlying each direct cause is the fact that in Chile housing isn’t viewed as a social right, but as a market commodity. As urban experts Vergara and Aguirre explain: “When housing is no longer viewed as a home but begins to be seen exclusively as a commercial product, its condition as an irreplaceable asset and its increase in value over time makes it competitive with other speculative phenomena like the stock markets, mutual funds or even the public retirement pensions themselves.”

What, exactly, do we need to establish in the new constitution?  We must establish adequate, decent and secure housing with access to basic services as a right and make the government responsible for playing a role in housing policy.

The state’s role in social rights in general, and in the right to housing in particular, should be an active and accountable one, with a series of concrete obligations that can’t be postponed indefinitely.

It’s obvious that merely enshrining housing as a right in the Constitution isn’t enough to overcome the existing problems and the deficit in housing units. Much more is needed. Housing must meet certain standards of affordability and the necessary adaptations to be decent and not just a consumer good.

Nonetheless, incorporation into the Constitution will allow the government to really act on the issue, with powers and prerogatives in the matter. That is, by having a more active role, they could intervene in the housing market and not leave everything to the rules of supply and demand.

In addition, the citizens could then make direct demands to the public authorities and before the courts with respect to this right, something that up until now is unthinkable. For that to happen, a general housing and urbanization law is required, where some limits could be established on how the private sector can operate.

In order to facilitate access to decent and adequate housing, it’s also essential that the new regulatory framework establish people’s rights to the city, so that housing for every person is tied to the urban services that support the quality of life. Recognizing this right would imply that profit must cease to be the chief ordering force for the city, and the main concern of urbanization.

In synthesis, the Constitutional process that we’re undergoing opens a great opportunity to promote a change in the way we conceive of housing. Establishing this as a right in the new Carta Magna and activating the involvement of the government in this issue will – without a doubt – contribute to having a decent home become more than a dream and a privilege but be transformed into a social right for all.

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