In this episode of Resilient Housing Across the Americas, Build Change’s Colombia Country Director Manuela Pinilla speaks with Bogota’s District Secretary of Habitat, Nadya Rangel during the 5th Forum on Housing and Habitat in Latin America. The two explore topics of policy change and programming to support the large numbers of informally-built neighborhoods in Bogota.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Manuela Pinilla Rodriguez: Good morning and welcome back to the “Resilient Housing Across the Americas” web series. We are reporting here from the fifth Housing and Habitat Forum in Latin America and the Caribbean with [Bogota’s] Secretary of Housing, Nadya Rangel. Thank you for being with us, and welcome to this space.
I would like to start with a question for our international audience and ask the Secretary to tell us a little bit about Habitat’s District Secretariat and the main housing challenges that it addresses.
Nadya Rangel: Good morning, thank you for opening this space to Bogotá and the Secretariat of Habitat. We have the pleasure of leading a very, very nice sector that is responsible for three specific things: First, for the production of and access to housing, one of the issues for which we are best known in the city and for which we are a reference throughout the country.
But apart from the production of and access to housing, we have been engaged in this specific sector to see how we can expand our capacity, which we will talk about later. We have invested a lot of public resources in improving housing in the city and in rural areas, which is an important focus of Bogotá’s housing and habitat policy.
On the other hand, there are two very important issues: environmental improvement and urban development. This is a second fundamental axis of the Secretariat and the habitat sector. So what are we dealing with? Around the planning and projection of medium and long-term investments and the development plans of the city, or rather, around the planning tools of the city and the improvement of the environment.
With the Housing Fund and the Secretariat of Habitat, we invest in informally built neighborhoods, for example in public services. They need investments to improve or build their public space; because almost always when neighborhoods are subdivided, they are left with very narrow street profiles, no parks, and no space for equipment or recreational areas. So we need to see how we can complete the conditions and qualities of each neighborhood, no two of which are alike, just as no two houses in a popular neighborhood are alike.
Everyone builds the way they can, and that goes for neighborhoods as well. We come in some form to reduce the urban uncertainty with which these neighborhoods are built. The third point is about public services. Here we have all the public service companies in the city. There is the Aqueduct Company, the Bogotá Energy Corporation, the Public Services Department of the UAES, and within the Bogota Energy Corporation, ENEL, our energy provider, and Vanti, our gas provider, and the Bogota Telecommunications Company.
So it’s a comprehensive sector that aims and is well thought out that it’s not just about housing, which is very important, but it’s about housing and the city… and as with all the support from the public services, how we plan the different instruments of urban planning, for example, we have a company that is our urban renewal company, Renovo. It is responsible for the planning, development and execution of different planning tools such as sub-plans and strategic actions within our new territorial code plan (Plan de ordenamiento territorial, POT). That’s a small sample of our universe.
MP: You have a lot of work in the Secretariat. The mayor told us yesterday morning that 30% of Bogota is built by the residents themselves, and that is one of the biggest challenges, precisely because of what you told us. These are houses and sectors that are already consolidated, that are built in such a way that there is little public space, and where the houses that are being built little by little, can be inadequate in terms of habitability, with little ventilation and lighting, and also in terms of their ability to withstand different disasters, including those of the place itself.
There are areas where there is mass removal and flooding, but also houses that are structurally deficient. How does the Secretariat of Habitat deal with this problem and what initiatives have you taken and implemented in your almost four years administration?
NR: We approached the issue through the planning tools that the mayor just mentioned yesterday. It is necessary to recognize in our territorial plan that the popular habitat exists, that it represents 30% of our land, that it is indisputable and that, on the contrary, we should face it and not turn our backs on it. It is part of our city and we must include it, integrate it, and this integration is done through public investment, which we will talk about next.
We start by identifying and prioritizing the most deficient areas of the city. Then, as the plan takes us down the route, we identify those areas. Sorry, I skipped over one thing… It’s about legalizing neighborhoods. We have to legalize the neighborhoods, that’s the first urban redevelopment that we do. Once we legalize the neighborhoods, we start the improvement processes.
The first thing we have to do is water, without a doubt. So there will be investments in water and public services like aqueducts and sewers, and where there are no gas networks, because energy almost always arrives first… and where there is no gas, gas will be brought.
Then investments are made in the public space. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most difficult things to do is to provide access for vehicles and pedestrians. The problem is that after the houses are built, we are left with very narrow road profiles, but they are also never in good condition.
So the first investment we make in improving the neighborhood and the surrounding area is to create a public space where people can safely move around the neighborhood. Second, for example, all the investments in the recreation component, through the investments in different parks in the city. In addition, we can supplement that with the design of viewpoints, promenades, and beautification of the neighborhood and the surrounding area.
Ultimately, it’s about making people feel comfortable where they built not one, not two, not five, but 10 or 15 years ago, in their neighborhood, in their home. That’s our job in the environment. We also do this in collaboration with other agencies. In this government, we have invested a large part of public funds, more than 180,000 million pesos, in this neighborhood improvement component, especially in the neighborhoods of Bosa, Suba, Ciudad Bolivar, Usme, San Cristobal… A very important project that I would like to highlight at this point is our cable car in San Cristóbal, a medium-term project that is already under contract.
And secondly, now that we are rehabilitating the environment, we are identifying which housing is suitable for investment, because as the Minister has already said and we have also discussed our biggest deficit is the quality of housing.
So we need to focus our investments on improving different areas and very sensitive areas and prioritize them to allow people to live with dignity. Very sensitive areas such as the covers of the rooms, which if not disinfected or organized lead to filtration problems, cold and respiratory diseases. The floor is absolutely sensitive because every time you sweep a cemented floor that is not tiled, it causes problems due to particulate matter. The kitchens where we prepare the food and avoid many gastrointestinal diseases derived from a tiled kitchen, which somehow changes the place of food preparation. And one point that I think is one of the most sensitive things that the minister mentioned and that has been addressed in our posts in the forum in various places is the bathroom.
The dignity of a home is in the bathroom, not only in terms of privacy, but also in terms of being able to keep it hygienic and sanitary. Therefore, we usually set our investments to cover the family, ensure that the floor is in good condition, organize food preparation, and ensure that the bathroom is in good condition. We invest about 18 Colombian minimum wages per house, which at the moment is about 4,000 dollars.
And hand-in-hand with improving the housing is our innovation that the mayor told us about and that we also implemented with Build Change…Our technical assistance in ensuring what we talked about earlier, which is the structural reinforcement of the houses and the security that these houses must have to be built upwards.
Plan Terrazas is becoming our obsession, and we have made some changes within our Caja de la Vivienda Popular. We created the subsidy, we asked the national government to make regulatory changes that will allow us to move forward with the Plan Terrazas and we eliminated one thing that we talked about from the competition, which is the competition for private curators.
The private curatorship is an authority given to a private individual to issue the procedures and building permits for the houses, and we have effectively taken the private curatorship from the competition so that it enters our public orbit for the houses that we will include in Plan Terrazas and the projects that we will generate through Plan Terrazas. So that was our complete investment program for the informal city, for that 30% of our urban land.
MP: Secretary, I really admire you very much, because that comprehensive approach is what resilience is all about. For a house to be resilient, it not only has to be earthquake-resistant and insured, but it also has to be healthy, in a dignified environment, accessible to people, and culturally appropriate. I think the District Habitat Secretariat has really managed to approach housing the way it should be approached, which is in a comprehensive, human way, understanding a little bit of what its function is and what it means to people, and that’s something we are very proud of in Plan Terrazas.
It’s also about protecting the heritage of the people who built their homes, and often it’s the only heritage they have, and it’s also passed down from generation to generation. It’s a legacy for future generations, and especially if there’s an opportunity in Plan Terrazas, to build a second story, then you can increase that legacy by renting. So it’s really a wonderful innovation that we are very proud of.
And another spectacular point about Plan Terrazas’ innovation is the technical support. The public curatorship not only has the authority to recognize and license these homes, but they also provide free technical assistance to citizens and residents who are interested in recognizing a home. So it’s been really wonderful to make this journey with you. So I would like to ask one last question to conclude, because it is clear that the challenge is great and the comprehensive approach requires the efforts of many, because it is not only about addressing the problem from all these angles, but also about the scale.
We are talking about 30% of the area of a city like Bogota, which is the size of the major capitals of the world. So, what other actors are needed to create alliances or associations that support the work of the Secretariat and help ensure that all Bogota habitants live in a resilient home and environment?
NR: Thank you very much for completing this vision and the commitment that we had for the Plan Terrazas, and I would like to add something before I answer, and that is the security of the family heritage. But it’s also a great opportunity to reduce overcrowding because we are creating this new housing unit. Normally, these families that live in these neighborhoods never live with one household per house, almost never. There are almost always two households living there, but sometimes we find up to three or four households per house, so we find very high overcrowding. That means that we inevitably have to create another unit to reduce overcrowding.
And secondly, it also becomes an opportunity, if the overcrowding is not so great, to generate an income and a future income expectation and, as the mayor often calls it, the pension of these people who have invested for many years and gradually built their house. So I wanted to complete this vision and give you an answer… Here we need many hands, it’s a question of scale. And I think we have great opportunities to work here.
The national development plan has given us space and a mandate, and that is to work with social and community organizations and of course community organizations. Now, the task is: How can we create a network of citizen work and control before there is a panic that public money is being lost or wasted? How can we create citizen networks for joint work that will make it possible to promote housing improvement and make it scalable? Argentina is a champion… Buenos Aires is capable of doubling and quintupling the scale of housing improvement, because there is a principle of trust that we have lost and that we need to regain, which is trust in the family, trust in the organization… So, without so much bureaucracy and without so much legal jargon, how can we have the possibility to generate a greater amount of public investment? That is what the national government is trying to do, and it is a very worthy effort that we in Bogota, using the resources of the national government, can also replicate. But also our vision of scale, both in the improvement of housing and in Plan Terrazas, must be such that…
Because the challenge is huge, the challenge is 30% of our city, but in addition, the challenge of making it as cheap as possible so that families can benefit more is very big. We have seen it in Plan Terrazas, the great effort we are making in public investment, which means that we are building a model that is not easy, and it has to be done… To be innovative, you have to invest, you have to make an initial bet, and then we will see where we have to cut back. These are the lessons that we have to leave to the next government.
But this is one of the tasks we have to do…How can we work with social and community organizations, with the citizens who will benefit from the materials or subsidies under our materials bank, with neighbors who want to participate in improving the housing situation of families, like the one we visited on Saturday with some of your colleagues from Build Change, where the neighbors were willing, because they knew it was an elderly woman and her husband could not work, to build a community soup or a community pot to help build what was lacking in their home in terms of progressive development.
So I think there are many ways to do this in the community, but undoubtedly this is also a call to the private sector, within this projection of what has changed from social responsibility to shared value, to also set its goals so that people can live better. [Mayor] Claudia [Lopez] said at the end of the panel discussion this morning, if people live better and have a better environment, as the Mayor said yesterday, if we can take care of people with better access to services, we can start to take care of the planet and have different conversations. It’s different to talk about hunger, to talk about precarity, to talk about having at least the minimum to live with dignity and being able to have conversations about reducing violence, conversations where conflict actually decreases and where we have more opportunity, without a doubt, to move forward as a society.
So I think everybody has a very important role to play, and the role of both subnational governments and national governments is to work together and not impose, but to work harmoniously with the territories. And that’s important because Bogota is not the same as Choco, Medellin is not the same as Quibdo, they have so many specificities that it’s absolutely necessary to recognize the differences between the territories within the cities and within the countries in order to avoid homogenizing public housing policies.
Even within Bogota itself…Bogota is made up of three “Bogota’s”: our rural Bogotá, which is 75% of our city, and our urban Bogotá, which is 30% built, as people have been able to and have achieved, and 70% planned, which has also developed informally in certain areas. So we have great challenges to understand the cities in their heterogeneity and to understand the areas with their richness that contribute to the self-built city, which is essential to take into account when we set priorities and invest our public resources.
MP: Secretary, thank you very much for joining us. We wish you the best for the remaining five months of your term and thank you for participating in our web series. Thank you.