Social scientists and urban planners have long argued that social movements for housing, especially in metropolises of the so-called Global South, have been determinant in the politicization of the urban poor. Since the mid-twentieth century, the demand for rights to physical presence in the city has resulted in large-scale right-to-housing mobilizations in which lower-income dwellers seek to become homeowners by taking over peripheral empty plots and building themselves their homes and neighborhoods (e.g. Mangin 1967; Turner 1968; Castells 1983; Holston 1991; 2008; Garcés 2002; Fawaz 2009; Das 2011; Caldeira 2015a; Murphy 2015). Scholars have thus suggested that the urban poor, on account of their involvement in widespread practices of city making carried out mostly in the urban peripheries, have become citizens capable of addressing a language of rights to the state.
This dissertation engages in these debates by posing some critical questions: What are the mechanisms through which the urban poor constitute themselves as legitimate rights-bearers when they are no longer the actual builders of their residential spaces? What kind of political subjectivity is formed when their demand for urban rights is performed less through mass land seizures and “autoconstruction” processes (Holston 1991; 2008; Caldeira 2000; 2015a) than through their participation in state-regulated housing assemblies? This dissertation examines the rise and development of housing movements in Santiago, Chile based on archival analysis of past urban mobilizations and ethnographic observation of contemporary housing assemblies. This study scrutinizes thus the ways in which working-class dwellers articulate a rights-based political language and produce new political subjectivities while enrolled in housing programs through which they apply for state subsidies.
Since the 1950s, housing struggles in Chile have been grounded in a kind of social agency known as pobladores (urban poor). In the 1960s and early 1970s, pobladores made use of two interrelated performances of city making to become homeowners: illegal land occupations and autoconstruction. This gave rise to mass social protests known as “pobladores movement” (Castells 1973; 1983; Pastrana and Threlfall 1974; Espinoza 1988; Garcés 2002; Cortés 2014). However, the arrival of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973–1990) drastically repressed these mobilizations. Likewise, it implemented a neoliberal, subsidy-based housing policy, which changed significantly the way pobladores obtain and envisage social housing. Accordingly, since the late 1970s state policies conceive housing less as the result of collective practices of city making than as a commodity that the poor can obtain through both state subsidies and private savings (Bruey 2012; Özler 2012). Over the past twenty-five years, post-dictatorial governments have tried to avoid the reappearance of urban movements by pre-emptively building subsidized housing projects. During the 1990s, the state endeavored to construct at least 90,000 subsidized housing units per year (Arriagada and Moreno 2006). This eventually helped reduce the housing shortage from 918,756 units in 1990 to 743,450 in 2000, which represents a decrease from 53% to 37% in the number of households in need of housing. This reduction of the housing deficit persisted in the following decades reaching 459,347 units in 2013 (Ministerio de Desarrollo Social 2014a).
In that context, by 2000 large-scale land occupations almost totally disappeared, calling into question the very existence of pobladores as subjects endowed with a capacity to intervene in the political sphere. However, while the government has massively delivered housing, these subsidized homes are often located in peripheral areas lacking infrastructure and services. This fact has triggered an emerging process of remobilization in the last ten years in which the new generations of pobladores are increasingly claiming the right to “dignified housing” (vivienda digna) and a “dignified life” (vida digna). Interestingly, the tactics of these new protests consist less of land occupations than of pobladores’ enrollment in housing programs through which they expect to obtain subsidized housing.
My dissertation, in this regard, discusses the mechanisms through which contemporary pobladores recreate their political agencies when they no longer organize their protests as squatters nor autoconstructors, but rather as “formal” dwellers enrolled in subsidy-based programs. I conclude that the Chilean urban poor, by identifying themselves as pobladores, form themselves as political agents capable of dealing with the state on the basis of a rights-based language. To do so, they bring the performative power of the word poblador into the present by executing a territorially situated political practices through which they evoke the pobladores movement of the mid-twentieth century. This work examines thus how the past informs the mobilizations of the present and how lower-income residents becomes pobladores even when the performances of city making that characterized past urban movements are recalled rather than actually performed. Likewise, this dissertation discusses to what extent such a subject-formation process makes possible the emergence of new kinds of citizenship in which pobladores, by conceiving of themselves as city-makers, legitimize their claims to have dignified housing and a dignified life.