(A land grab in Buenos Aires. The poles and ropes indicate that settlers are establishing the neighborhood and assigning plots. Matias Giannoni)

On an unusually cold winter morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina I waited for my local contact in Plaza Italia. We were going to the northern part of the city, also the wealthiest, to conduct research on informal settlements. Surprisingly, land tenure in private, wealthy communities in Buenos Aires is often as informal as in slums, because these gated developments tends to exist in legal and regulatory grey areas. In this case, we were going to visit a poor informal settlement abutting a wealthy informal neighborhood to conduct interviews with community leaders. 

My contact is an activist with Techo, a local Jesuit organization that works across Latin America providing emergency housing to families at risk. As part of CTEP (“Central de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular,” the “Popular Economy” Trade Union) and in partnership with the federal government, Techo conducted a census of every single informal settlement in the country. When conducting the 2016 census, CTEP had to be extremely careful about the methodology they used to characterize informal settlements. Because many of the wealthiest households lack formal land titles and often disregard official zoning and other rules for housing developments, they could have been classified the same as the poorest neighborhoods, which share these characteristics of informality.

A “simple” question: who benefits from informality?

In the developing world, informality among the poor appears mainly in two forms: informal labor and informal land tenure obtained through squatting. Though being in the informal labor market and living in informal settlements tend to coincide, the overlap is not perfect. This project began with a seemingly simple question: who benefits from informality? Most researchers focus on those who are most obviously affected by informality, oftentimes the urban poor.

The political economy of development literature consistently shows the positive effects of access to formal land titles on the lives of people living in informal settlements.[i] Some political scientists, on the other hand, demonstrate that the lack of enforcement yields electoral benefits to politicians by winning them the urban poor vote.[ii]

Last summer, with support from the MIT GOV/LAB Seed Fund, my point of departure for this project was to look into this elusive dimension of political power. In particular, by considering the reality of urban housing and labor markets as well as the history of contentious politics in Latin America, specifically because access to land has been a key determinant of violent protest movements. I posit that groups that are politically more powerful than the urban poor benefit from informality either directly or indirectly.

Informal wealth and poverty side-by-side 

To reach the informal settlement we had to cross through a high-income neighborhood with big houses on huge plots of land with private security, beautiful gardens, and swimming pools. The paved road, trash removal, and the electricity poles straight overhead were sure signs of government services at work. Private gated communities like these boomed all over Latin America starting in the late 1990s as economic crisis and insecurity increased, leading the richest families to seek private protection in neighborhoods created to meet their needs.

(Informal settlement in northern Buenos Aires, Argentina. Matias Giannoni)

Walking a kilometer brought us to the other side of the neighborhood, where we reached another gate as well as the abrupt end of the paved road and the public services. A muddy path led to the informal settlement that was in the process of densification, as families expanded and new rooms, floors, and hallways were added to the original self-made layout of the houses.

The story I heard in that neighborhood about the threat of land being overtaken by private communities repeated across all five neighborhoods I visited for fieldwork. Over the years, there had been many attempts to evict people living in informal settlements. Although developers claimed that the residents did not own the land they lived on, most people had bought their plot in good faith from an “entrepreneur”. Often, those entrepreneurs had close relationships with mayors or were even part of the mayor’s family, as was the case in one neighborhood where the mayor’s cousin was illegally selling plots he did not own. Most families paid for their plots in U.S. dollars, often in several instalments, the typical currency used for any real estate transaction in Argentina as extreme fluctuation of the Argentine peso is common. 

This mosaic of extreme contrasts in metropolitan areas is common in upper middle-income countries in Latin America that underwent industrialization in the twentieth century. Urban neighborhoods, similar to those in more developed countries, are situated right next to informal settlements that lack access to the most basic services. In these economically and politically fragmented urban areas, the poor are a minority with little electoral power. This leads to the question of why politicians engage in forbearance (or selective enforcement of laws) if it only benefits a marginal constituency. Does selective enforcement in poor neighborhoods benefit people in rich neighborhoods? And are politicians more lenient when enforcing legislation on the rich?

My research explores these questions using a mix of survey experiments, observational data and satellite imagery, to try to understand the political dynamics that condition forbearance. Specifically, I look at different actors’ perceptions of the distributional consequences of informality, with a focus on urban middle classes and state regulators.

Interviewing residents of the informal settlements, like one community leader who is also a mother in charge of a large household, illustrated the threat communities face when land is taken over by private developers. We learned that losing the land next door would remove the only safe space for her children to play, and put them at increased risk of floods when private developers re-grade the land (as they tend to do, regardless of environmental impact). Conversations like this reinforce the many reasons this research is relevant to the everyday lives of citizens in Latin America.


[i] Galiani, S., & Schargrodsky, E. (2010). Property rights for the poor: Effects of land titling. Journal of Public Economics, 94(9-10), 700-729.

[ii] Holland, A. (2017). Forbearance as Redistribution: The Politics of Informal Welfare in Latin America (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.