Advancing Cooperation, Preventing Corruption in Cartagena: In conversation with Mayor William Dau

Welcome to the second episode in our web series, Resilient Housing Across the Americas, a set of 1:1 conversations with leaders across countries and sectors discussing challenges and the future of housing.

This week we are joined by Mayor William Dau of Cartagena, Colombia discussing overcoming poverty through housing, the challenges of corruption, and the role of international cooperation. In case you missed it, make sure to catch the first episode in our series with Mayor Mitch Roth of Hawaii County.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Hausler: So we’re here at the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado, my hometown. We have the pleasure of interviewing Mayor William Dau from Cartagena, Colombia. 

We’re already talking about the importance of disaster-resilient, healthy housing, especially with having a toilet, having a kitchen that functions, having a building that withstands an earthquake and other disasters, safety, security, and all those sorts of things. 

So, Mayor Dau, can you provide an overview of the key climate disasters, other disasters, challenges that your community faces in terms of housing? 

Mayor William Dau: Yes…There’s so many factors that come into this. We have very little  land available to build more housing. Yeah. And we have a huge deficit in both the number of houses and the quality of house improvements. Yeah. Cartagena is considered one of the top 40 cities most prone to suffer from climate change because we’re located right on the Caribbean. 

Like, for example, City Hall is practically across the street from the ocean. So we’re working on a lot of that. And also because there’s so much poverty and we also have so many migrants coming in, especially from Venezuela, we have approximately 80,000 Venezuelans living in the city of Cartagena. 

When they come here, there is no housing. So what they will do then is go in and start cutting down mangroves and filling in lakes, lagoons, canals and whatnot. So it causes a big environmental problem. And some of these houses also go up where there’s a non-mitigable risk, you know, like landslides or something. 

So no matter what we do, we cannot help those people. We just have to find someplace else to move them. So it is pretty serious.

EH: And it’s quite a diversity of challenges that you’re facing. So tell us a little bit more about the  housing initiatives that you’re prioritizing, like what you were saying before about kitchens and toilets and that sort of thing. Tell us a bit more about those initiatives. 

WD: Yes, something we’re really getting into is improving the quality of life for people in the poorest neighborhoods, for the most impoverished people. There are many thousands of houses, if you can call them houses, that don’t have a bathroom and don’t have a kitchen. 

And that definitely makes a huge difference in the quality of life for these people. So we’re working on this program. We’re doing it with city funds, but we’re also bringing international cooperation to build the kitchens and bathrooms in these houses that have been previously identified. The cost is approximately $2,500. 

And it used to be that I’d go into the houses that have not had this done. And as I was telling you a moment ago, all is going to be dirt floors and whatnot. And I say, okay, show me your bathroom and show me your kitchen and they show you a very maybe, you know, ten by ten feet. And they’ll say, okay, two big buckets of water. That’s my bathroom, two big buckets of water here, that’s my kitchen. And that’s just not right. So we’re working on this to solve it. We’re bringing international cooperation also. This is in the most impoverished neighborhoods, there are so many problems. But I think this is a  big one for quality of life. 

And the other problem, the other thing  we’re working on is also as far as new housing we’ve completed, I forget, I think it’s close to 2,000 apartments that were started in previous administrations. We’re going to just follow through on that. But because Cartagena is, well, we’re not a construction company, all this housing came out extremely expensive. And also  because of corruption, which is something that we’re talking about, lots of the money is squandered. 

So we’re now changing the approach because the national government gives certain subsidies for, you know, low income people to acquire houses. So we’re putting up, also, from the city budget and some additional subsidy so that these people can go out and they can buy their own place instead of us building the homes for them. Kind of similar to what you were saying, that you get the money, to the, directly to the homeowners. This is also it, we’re going to finance the person who’s going to buy the house. 

EH: What is the condition? How is it conditional? 

WD: You have to have income, below a certain level. 

EH: Okay. So you have to qualify for it. 

WD: Yes. Right. Yeah. And the builders also have to sell they have to…the housing they sell has to be, you know, “Vivienda de interés social”, social interest  housing, like low income housing. 

EH: So how have people reacted, especially women – how have women reacted to those interventions, both the upgrades of the existing housing as well as the availability of new? 

WD: Well, I think women are the ones who are most favorably impacted because, you know, these macho societies, the woman is the one who stays home and takes care of the kids, cooks, cleans without getting paid, and nobody appreciates what she does. And she goes  through hell with all this. So the fact is, the fact that she can have a stove, that she can have, you know, that she can have a thing to wash the dishes, and the fact that she can go to the toilet you know, all of the things her and her kids, that’s that’s amazing. And it’s the satisfaction for the woman. It saves her work. It dignifies her living, her house and her entire family 

EH: Yeah. Amazing. Amazing. So tell me more about the anti-corruption  work, particularly in either of these programs, in the upgrading of the existing housing and the new housing. How are your efforts reducing corruption? 

WD: Okay. I’ll give you an example of how corruption came into one of these. We started with our ladies. We’ve done this project several times on building the kitchens and bathrooms. Once the project is completed and fulfilled, we’ll come up with funds and do it again and do it again. 

So on this latest one, members of the City Council wanted to know which are the companies that are going to build these bathrooms and kitchens, so that they can go out and extort – you know, it and say, okay, you know, we’re going to we’re going to give political opposition to this contract being signed if you don’t give me X amount of money. 

This is pretty much standard for any kind of project. They would have to go through the city council. 

EH: So there’s an advantage to like we’re  talking about before putting the money in the hands of the homeowner and enabling them to make a  decision about which contractor they choose. 

WD: Yes. And the other thing, for example, the same members of the city council, they want to know who the beneficiaries are going to be, you know, the families so that they can also go there and say, ‘Hey, I’m getting this for you, you have to vote for me’ and stuff.

EH: Yeah, housing subsidies are so  important, except when they’re used to buy votes. So what other – in addition to your tireless efforts to fight corruption – what other stakeholders or actions are needed: policy change, financing, technology? What else is needed to make resilient housing available for everyone?

WD: Money and international cooperation. Right now, we have a very serious problem with housing deficit, with schooling, with health due to migrants, because for Colombia these are our neighboring countries, Venezuela, which is going through a very dire situation. 

For example, yesterday I ran into somebody that I had spoken with in New York two trips ago from something called the Mayors Migration Council because of the Venezuelans. And they said, you know, Mayor, we have good news for you. We received your proposal and we have some good news, we will we get in touch with you soon to provide some money for these Venezuelans. And part of it may go into housing, also to health, also to education, to, you know, for whatever to have them settled in.

This morning we were in another session on how cities can receive all these people and which are the priorities – first  there is immediate assistance. But other than that, I think the biggest part of assistance going to migrants is for housing, because that’s a long term thing. 

EH: And I wonder if…in Bogota we have a partnership with Plan Terrazas, which is a city led initiative that is adding second storeys to single storey buildings. And to me, I think this is brilliant in so many ways. It’s also strengthening the ground floor. So the building is stronger for earthquakes because it’s preventing urban sprawl. It’s adding more housing units in popular places. There are some places that can be safely expanded. It can generate rental income from the owner. It can generate a rental property for someone who is living there as a migrant, and… 

WD: It cuts back on needed land space for building if there’s not enough land. 

EH: Yeah. Do you have any initiatives going on like that in Cartagena or is that something that maybe you could consider later? 

WD: Yeah, that’s something that could be considered later. I had no idea. Yesterday, I heard Mayor Claudia Lopez from Bogota mentioned this program and I thought it’s brilliant, but our problems go deeper as far as poverty. 

In our Cienaga de la Virgen basin, You see houses where the walls are made of black plastic garbage bags. So first, we have to get at least some cement on there. Get some bricks before we can start, you know, putting a second floor.

EH: That is a different starting point. 

WD: Yeah, and those are just one of the cases. There are thousands of people who live like that in dirt poor conditions. 

EH: There’s so many great things, great momentum in Cartagena, but so much more to do, right? 

WD: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. Cartagena may possibly have the highest or the second highest income per capita in all of Colombia. But the disparity between the haves and have nots is so great that 10% of the population lives well, but the other 90% are very miserable. Approximately 50% of the population does not eat three meals a day. 

EH: So are  you able to use…We were talking earlier with the Mayor of Hawaii County in Hawaii, who is using some of the tax revenue on the more expensive population and properties to use that to direct it more toward affordable housing. So are you able to access that kind of a mechanism? 

WD: Well, I mean, I don’t know how much of it may go into housing or not, but we we have started with, last year we implemented the study as far as land value and assessing doing a survey, a census of all the houses, the buildings, all the construction in the city, which had not been done in approximately 15 years. 

So we did this and we have true information on all the properties that are out there and the new appraised values. So now our taxes, our property taxes, our income from property taxes has skyrocketed. So now we can afford to put some more into helping the poor people, you know, meet their basic needs, unsatisfied needs. 

EH: So that investment in just understanding the data and getting the data on the property or properties that exist in their values has led to a huge increase. So did you face any  opposition when you did that? 

WD: Oh yeah. Nobody  wants to pay taxes. But look at, of all the  properties in the city, all we have a problem. of all the properties in the city, only half, approximately 50% appear in our database. And of that 50%, only 50% paid, so only 25% of Cartageneans were paying. 

But now that everybody’s in on it, people who didn’t pay before didn’t like it, and those who were paying, but they were paying just like for an empty lot of it. And now there’s a building on there, of course, they pay more. So they’re not happy either, but people get used to it. 

EH: So hopefully that’s it. People get used to it. It becomes just a standard part of life.

WD: In the first year, the first two years…but then after that. 

EH: That’s great. That’s such a great example for other cities, other nations who are embarking on that path of, you know, endeavoring to collect more property tax to benefit the whole community. I love that. I think that’s great. So what are you hoping to achieve here in Denver at the Cities Summit of the Americas? Okay.

WD: Not just the housing, but in general.

EH: In general. Yeah. 

WD: I really enjoy going to these international conferences because of all the networking you do. And sooner or later, not all of them, but, you know, a few of these pan out. And as I mentioned a while ago with the Mayors Migration Council, they’re going to put several hundred thousand dollars maybe into Cartagena. 

And it’s been like that with other entities, with the Bloomberg Foundation in New York. I’m going to be tomorrow speaking at a panel on corruption. And I’m sure we’re going to be doing a lot more networking there. And this morning,  it was on migrants. So we did a lot of networking and finding out what’s out there in the world. 

You see, cities think that the problems we have are just exclusive to our city. But it turns out, it’s the same problem everywhere. Everywhere. And last year, I was at an event in Amsterdam invited by the Bloomberg Philanthropies for Mayors from around the world. And I thought I had a big problem in Cartagena because the city floods every time it rains so I said, ‘Oh my God, why is this?’ But then they asked, ‘Okay, mayors, who has problems that your city floods every time it rains?’ Half of the mayors raised their hands. The other half are either from North America or Europe. 

EH: And they’re probably unaware of their flood hazard. Right? They probably do have a flood hazard.

WD: So we build networks and we belong, we form part of lots of national networks on different, you know, for climate, for housing, for corruption, for everything. And so I think that’s a big benefit from these events. 

EH: So inspired. Thank you so much for spending time with us and sharing all the great work you’re doing in Cartagena and hope we can stay in touch about everyone’s journey to resilient housing. 

WD: Thank you for the invitation. Wonderful being here. Thanks again. 

Learn more about how Cartagena has strengthened habitability improvements for low-income populations, and explore how Build Change has advanced resilient housing throughout in Colombia’s capital, Bogota.

Want to strengthen your country's housing stock?

Read the Build Change Guide to Resilient Housing or email us at to begin your journey.