Pushed Out by Tourism [Extra Episode] | Translation
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Translated by Lingua Viva
[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello, ambulantes. I’m Daniel Alarcón. As the year comes to an end, and while we’re having a well-earned rest, we’re going to bring you three episodes from our other podcast, El Hilo, which comes out every Friday. For those who haven’t heard it yet, El hilo is news-based and covers a different subject every week, those that are being talked about all over Latin America.
We’re very proud of this podcast, and we think that you’ll like it.
So today, we’re heading to Puerto Rico.
[Laura González]: I’m searching here on the Airbnb website, and I’m going to see whether the building I used to live in shows up.
[Lisette Arévalo]: This is Laura González, a Puerto Rican lawyer, and what she’s doing is look for the building she lived in from 2015 to 2019.
[Laura]: My computer’s a bit slow, but let’s see.
[Silvia Viñas]: Lisette Arévalo, the senior producer of our sister podcast Radio Ambulante, met Laura in Puerto Rico.
[Lisette]: Along with 20 other families, she was evicted from the building that used to be their home in Puerta de Tierra.
[Laura]: Look, here it is… here’s the building: the Airbnb listing is called La Ferretería because there used to be a hardware store on the ground floor.
[Lisette]: Puerta de Tierra is a historical San Juan neighborhood, associated with the working class, that has gradually turned into a tourist attraction.
[Laura]: It says, “La Ferretería, a stylish, fully equipped apartment.” All in English, obviously, because these people don’t speak Spanish.
[Eliezer Budasoff]: And everything’s changed a lot:
[Laura]: Look, these are the bedrooms; they got them looking really cool. They painted it, changed the furniture, installed a kitchen, and so on—furnished for Airbnb. This is the front of the building. They painted it white, they replaced the windows with some others with horrible frames that I think look horrible. And then they painted the balconies blue and the building white.
[Silvia]: But these aren’t only aesthetic changes. The apartments in Laura’s building, which were home to many families, are now short-term rentals.
[Laura]: So, you see, the same apartment I lived in and paid US $300 a month for, now costs US $150 per night. That means to be able to live there I would have to pay… 150 times 30… US $4,500 a month. To live in the same place where I used to live. They really are unbelievable.
[Eliezer]: And the problem extends far beyond Puerta de Tierra.
[Lisette]: Puerta de Tierra is just one of many neighborhoods and areas throughout the island that are being affected by the problem of gentrification.
[Silvia]: Welcome to El Hilo, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios and VICE News. This is Silvia Viñas.
[Eliezer]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Today, gentrification has precipitated a housing crisis in Puerto Rico. While residents from some neighborhoods are evicted so that their homes can be rented to tourists, vulnerable communities are left with no means of solving urgent problems.
It’s September 16, 2022.
[Laura]: Everything you see here is Puerta de Tierra (“Gateway to Land”), which gets its name because it was the neighborhood on the other side of the gate heading inland from the walled city of Old San Juan.
[Silvia]: Laura and Lisette traveled around the neighborhood on foot and by car. This visit, and what they spoke about, is going to help us understand why the housing crisis in Puerto Rico is so huge.
[Lisette]: She explained lots of details, like the history of her neighborhood:
[Laura]: It was the first neighborhood of domestic service employees in Puerto Rico who worked for the people living in Old San Juan.
[Lisette]: But what’s most important to understand is where Puerta de Tierra is situated, as it is a very strategic and attractive place for what could be called the touristic development of Puerto Rico because it is located at the very heart of the islet of Old San Juan. So, the urban center is to one side and to the other are Condado and Miramar, which are major tourist areas on the island and where all of the most luxurious hotels can be found; there’s a beach and everything. If you’re in Condado, you can take a main avenue directly to Old San Juan, and along the way you pass through Puerta de Tierra, which is really close to Old San Juan, which as we know is a very popular tourist area where everyone goes to walk around and explore, and so on.
[Eliezer]: Lisette, and what has Laura’s story in the neighborhood been? I mean, how did she end up there and what relationship does she have with Puerta de Tierra?
[Lisette]: Laura arrived in Puerta de Tierra in 2015. She told me that she had always wanted to live there because she already had friends in the neighborhood. It’s also a convenient area to walk to work from, and there are shops nearby.
[Laura]: When I moved into the neighborhood, some parts of it were still very run-down; it’s not like it was uninhabited, but it’s a neighborhood that was institutionally abandoned by the government over time.
[Lisette]: So the Méndez building, where she came to live in 2015, was old and had historical value, and despite being fairly dilapidated due to government neglect, it was livable.
[Laura]: I didn’t see the building’s exterior as something negative; it might not have been nicely painted, but inside it was cool. I made my apartment really nice: I painted it inside, changed it to my liking; my apartment was amazing.
[Lisette]: Laura told me that what she liked most about living there was precisely the relationship with her neighbors, because they created a community.
[Laura]: It’s incredible. The memories I have of that apartment, because I went through Hurricane Maria there.
[News Anchor]: Hurricane Maria has crossed Puerto Rico from coast to coast, devastating the island.
[News Anchor]: …an unprecedented event that has left the island without power, communication networks, and transport, and in many areas–70% of the island–with no drinking water.
[Eliezer]: That was in 2017. More than 4,500 people died in the disaster, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, and the island was left with serious infrastructure and energy problems.
[Laura]: That might be the reason why I still have a special fondness for that space; it was where we recovered from Hurricane Maria.
[Lisette]: Everyone came together to clean up the building, because the government didn’t show up to clear away the rubble or anything of the sort.
[Laura]: I spent months there without electricity after the hurricane passed through. There, we were a community. We were helping each other all the time.
[Lisette]: It ranged from fitting a gas tank to moving furniture.
[Laura]: If something happened to me, I would call my friend and he’d come over… it was nearly always because a lizard had got into my apartment and he had to come round.
[Lisette]: She also told me that in the afternoons or at night they gathered together to chat, on the stairs or at the bottom of the building.
[Laura]: It was a community of very humble people. When I say humble, I don’t mean it pejoratively. I say it in the positive sense of the word. Hard-working people, most of them of modest financial means, but people who are really affectionate, really loving, really human.
[Silvia]: Lisette, so you were telling us that Laura and many of her neighbors had to move out. What happened exactly? Why did she leave the neighborhood?
[Lisette]: Well, Laura was in her apartment just like any other day, when the owner of the apartment she rented knocked on her door out of the blue and informed her that he had sold the whole building, and that she and her neighbors were going to have to leave.
[Eliezer]: That was in 2019. Laura says that they were given 30 days to move out.
[Laura]: I honestly wasn’t expecting it. Right? Because I used to say, “Here is where I’m staying.”
[Lisette]: And at that moment Laura was left in total shock.
[Laura]: Well, all that uncertainty—where will I move, and where will I put all my stuff? And the apartment, which I made really nice. It’s like a feeling that… you know, I don’t have a house, I don’t have a place to live, even though that might not correspond to reality, but it’s what you feel.
It was also like anger. Not anger at my situation, primarily, but because of the people around me, who I knew had nowhere to go, and no money to rent an apartment, so it made me really angry.
For example, there was a neighbor of mine who didn’t have anywhere to go. A friend let him use a small room where he put all the things from his apartment, and he slept there. We were all trying to find a place we could move an elderly couple to, because they are people who had been there for years and years; they had nowhere to go.
It truly was horrible, and even more so under those circumstances when you’re not moving because you want to, but because you have to.
[Silvia]: Laura was very disturbed, but after the initial shock had passed, she started to search for answers. Remember that she’s a lawyer, so she knew where to look.
[Lisette]: Laura discovered that what was going on in her building, and what was happening to her and her neighbors wasn’t something unusual or a simple anecdote.
[Silvia]: In the last few years, investors have bought at least 30 buildings in Puerta de Tierra to convert them into short-term rentals. The same investor who purchased the building where Laura lived ended up buying most of the buildings on that block.
[Eliezer]: This practice has become so common that residents from the neighborhood created an organization called Puerta de Tierra No Se Vende (Puerta de Tierra is Not for Sale). Laura is one of its spokespeople:
[Lisette]: There are various people, leaders, and building board presidents who were evicted, or who are under threat of being removed from the neighborhood.
[Protest by Puerta de Tierra No Se Vende]: “From inside and from outside, we’re gonna set them on fire.”
[Lisette]: Their primary mission is to mobilize the political apparatus in order to protect communities at risk of being displaced across Puerto Rico, not just in Puerta de Tierra.
[Protest by Puerta de Tierra No Se Vende]: “And if the government wants fire, fire is what they’ll get.”
[Silvia]: After the break, an expert will explain how Puerto Rico got into this housing crisis, and how a domino effect has reached even the most neglected communities. We’ll be right back.
[Silvia]: You’re back with El Hilo.
[Eliezer]: What do we need to understand in order to gauge what is happening in these communities? And what lies behind the housing crisis in Puerto Rico?
[Lisette]: To understand all this, which is quite complex, I spoke to Deepak Lamba Nieves. He’s the research director at the Center for a New Economy.
[Deepak Lamba Nieves]: I’m also a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Planning.
[Lisette]: And Deepak described to me how, for decades, between the 1940s and the 1990s, Puerto Rico centered its economic development strategy on granting tax incentives to attract foreign investors. This was happening with the endorsement of the U.S. Congress, but in the 1990s, Congress itself passed laws to eliminate those benefits. Deepak says that Puerto Rico was then cut adrift economically, largely because successive governments lacked the imagination to come up with a different economic model.
[Deepak]: We can’t lose sight of the fact that one major reason why the island’s problems—including the housing problems—have become evident is because we’re a colony of the United States.
[Eliezer]: Formally, Puerto Rico is a free associated state of the United States, and is reliant on that country. That’s why it’s commonly referred to as a modern colony, as Deepak is saying.
[Deepak]: As many of us know, colonies aren’t places that prosper and flourish, but are places from which things are taken, and in that regard Puerto Rico has been no exception. What we’ve seen in Puerto Rico over the years, then, has been a series of social and economic policies that are mainly geared towards the extraction of the country’s wealth to benefit a number of very specific commercial interests.
[Eliezer]: With this in mind, we can see how the current housing crisis came to be.
[Deepak]: Puerto Rico has been going through an economic crisis since 2005, more or less since between 2005 and 2006.
[Silvia]: That crisis began to grow over the years. The island started to accumulate more and more debt. And in the midst of all that, in 2012 the government returned in some way to using the strategy that had been abandoned in the 1990s: giving tax benefits to foreigners.
[Deepak]: The Puerto Rican government approved Laws 20 and 22…
[Eliezer]: It’s important for you to remember the names of those laws, Law 20 and Law 22.
[Deepak]: …which both repeated a well-known pattern. They roll out the red carpet to millionaires, foreigners, and export firms by strategically using tax incentives.
[Lisette]: Through these laws, the Puerto Rican government allowed people with huge amounts of money from abroad or from el continente—which is how people from the island refer to people who live in the U.S. mainland—to come to the island to invest their money.
[Deepak]: Starting out from the fact that we residents of Puerto Rico don’t pay federal taxes, the government tells foreign millionaires: if you live on the island for at least 183 days per year, you won’t pay any capital gains tax.
[Silvia]: That is, they don’t have to pay any taxes on the money they make when they sell something for a higher price than they bought it for. But for them to opt in for this and other benefits, they have to buy a house on the island.
[Deepak]: And they will receive favorable tax rates in other areas. Many millionaires who reside in the United States, around 4,000 of these individuals, have answered this call over the years.
[Silvia]: It’s important to keep these laws in mind in order to understand the current housing crisis in Puerto Rico. In the years that followed, the economic crisis continued to deepen. So much so that at the start of 2016, Puerto Rico started to default on payments on the debt it had been accumulating for a decade.
[Eliezer]: That was when Barack Obama signed the PROMESA law, which, among other things, established the Fiscal Control Board. The board’s mission is to ensure that the island has sustainable economic growth.
[Deepak]: They impose on us a board with unelected members who make vital decisions regarding our social and economic future.
[Eliezer]: This board has the power, for example, to approve the budget for the island, bypassing the local government.
[Silvia]: And it began to push through austerity measures, saying that they were the only way to pay off the enormous debt that Puerto Rico had been burdened with since the start of the economic crisis. But Deepak says that these measures…
[Deepak]: …have undermined the state’s capacity to tackle key issues, such as the housing problem.
[Silvia]: Because a little over a year after the Fiscal Control Board was created, Hurricane Maria lashed the island.
[Eliezer]: This and other natural disasters that have affected Puerto Rico in recent years come on top of the factors that have fueled the current housing crisis.
[Deepak]: Hurricane Maria was a key tipping point in Puerto Rico’s housing crisis.
[Silvia]: More than 400,000 homes suffered damage, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. That is slightly over a third of all the homes that there were in Puerto Rico when the hurricane hit.
[Deepak]: That meant that, for a short period of time in 2017 and 2018, we saw a drop in prices. In other words, nobody wanted to buy and house prices in Puerto Rico went down significantly in the months immediately after the hurricane. That was perceived as an invitation to a range of investors who were very interested in doing business in Puerto Rico, and who then saw in the island an opportunity to start purchasing a series of properties in the local market.
[Eliezer]: A more attractive opportunity thanks to Laws 20 and 22, which we mentioned a short while ago and which hand out a range of tax benefits to foreigners for buying a house and living on the island for at least 183 days per year.
[Deepak]: Add to that the fact that federal aid has not reached everyone who needs it, and what we have then seen over the last five years is the lack of an effective response to housing needs that were particularly worsened by the hurricane. The federal government has allocated a huge amount of money to Puerto Rico for its post-disaster reconstruction. But all of us here in Puerto Rico have seen that the reconstruction has been extremely slow. As we say in Puerto Rico, pisa y no arranca (all talk, no action).
[Silvia]: On top of the island’s reconstruction problems, a couple of years after Hurricane Maria, in 2019, the government redrafted the tax incentives for foreigners, combining them into a single law.
[Deepak]: So, a series of transformations has occurred that, instead of trying to oversee and understand whether this genuinely works for Puerto Ricans, what they’ve tried to do is multiply the number of investors coming to the island, thinking erroneously that their arrival will mean more and better economic opportunities for the majority of the population.
[Silvia]: But who are these investors, and how have they taken advantage of these “opportunities”?
[Lisette]: Well, these investors don’t have a specific profile…
[Deepak]: …because there’s very little transparency regarding real estate transactions in Puerto Rico.
[Lisette]: So it’s not easy to determine who bought what and for how much. For all the properties that are being purchased on the island.
[Deepak]:: These data aren’t easy to access. Several press articles in the last few months have suggested that not only individuals, but also limited liability companies, LLCs, are starting to buy properties. That is to say, we’re witnessing a phenomenon that has been seen across the United States, which is large investment groups buying properties on the island.
[Youtuber]: “Why is Puerto Rico the best place for you to buy real estate in 2022?”
[Youtuber]: Puerto Rico is an absolute goldmine for real estate investing…
[Host]: “…an island full of real estate opportunities…”
[Deepak]: And we’ve also seen a large number of private individuals, and other Puerto Ricans too, who after seeing the economic boom being generated by this real estate market, have also got involved in it. What this means is that there is a varied backdrop with various actors, including corporations, investment groups, and local and foreign individuals.
[Eliezer]: We’d like to understand a little about what Deepak told you regarding the profile of these investors and how it relates to what Laura discovered when she looked into who had bought the building where she lived.
[Lisette]: The clearest relationship is that these investors buy properties to turn them into short-term rentals via various platforms…
[Silvia]: …like Airbnb and Vrbo. And Lisette says that this happens all over the island.
[Lisette]: So for example, there are many coastal areas where they’re buying apartments to rent to tourists or to go and live there, such as Dorado. It’s an extremely expensive place on the coast where the vast majority of residents are foreign investors.
[Deepak]: Against this background, what we’re seeing is that a lot of local and foreign investors aren’t necessarily buying properties in Puerto Rico to live in them or to put them on the traditional rental market, but rather to get as many rentals as possible from them in a short amount of time. And that is generating a number of ripple effects in some neighborhoods in Puerto Rico that are increasing housing costs significantly in the island.
[Eliezer]: And all of this is going on while over 40% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line.
[Silvia]: To Laura, it’s incredible that this is legal.
[Laura]: So, what’s the deal? Anyone can show up, like the person who bought the building I lived in, and turn a building of 21 apartments for long-term rent to families into a building with 21 Airbnbs, with 21 short-term rentals. There is no adequate regulation or oversight by the state. And, therefore, they create the same problems they’re creating here, which are real estate bubbles that drastically increase housing costs, both of renting and buying. I don’t know, that’s really worrying. That’s really worrying.
[Eliezer]: For years, the Puerto Rican government did not oversee how investors were using these benefits. But this year that began to change. Tax benefits have been canceled for at least 300 companies and people who were not meeting the minimum requirements to access the benefits. But this falls a long way short of solving the problem.
[Silvia]: The serious thing is that this doesn’t just have an impact on the private market, but it also affects people who receive government support for rent. This is how Deepak explains it:
[Deepak]: If the Puerto Rican government tells you, “Look, here’s a voucher for $400 so that you can rent a house in Puerto Rico,” and they tell you to go out and look for a house, because with these $400 you’ll be able to pay most of the rent, as most Puerto Ricans are unable to find housing in their immediate surrounding area or in places close to their jobs and children’s schools. This means that this crisis is not just a crisis affecting access to luxury housing; it’s affecting access to housing for Puerto Rican workers who want to stay in their communities, who are looking for available opportunities in the local market and in many cases they can’t, they couldn’t afford the cost. It wouldn’t make sense for them to leave their neighborhoods to search for housing miles away from their workplaces, their schools, their communities.
[Silvia]: While many people and families suffer the effects of the housing crisis and do what they can to find a place, gentrification is also depriving neglected communities of problem-solving methods that require urgent solutions. When we spoke with Lisette about reporting on this story, we came across an article by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR) and the feminist media outlet Todas.
[Lisette]: In this article, the women talk about the impact of these real estate purchases and the temporary, high-cost rentals on the lives of survivors of gender-based violence and their children on the island.
[Lisette]: One of the shelters that has reported how gentrification has affected the life of the survivors is the Julia de Burgos shelterhouse, the first shelter created in Puerto Rico for survivors of domestic violence.
[Eliezer]: This organization has two emergency shelters, which are places where survivors fleeing their abusers can come. Their location is secret.
[Silvia]: And the work done there is crucial for the victims.
[Lisette]: The shelter provides a variety of services to the survivors who arrive there. As a first action, they are given food and clothing and assisted with school supplies for their children, as well as psychological, financial, or legal support—anything they need.
[Coraly]: We also try to make it a space for self-recognition and self-exploration.
[Lisette]: I met with the executive director of the shelter, whose name is Coraly León.
[Coraly]: Where they can identify their interests, likes, and needs, and are able to create a life plan for themselves, finally free from the situation of gender-based violence.
[Lisette]: Shelters like this one fill a gap left by the state, not only in Puerto Rico but across Latin America with regard to the survivors of violence, because the vast majority of the times they are the only place survivors can escape to without being followed by their aggressors.
Coraly: Suddenly feeling that in their homes, for example, they had to remain in silence. Even the children sometimes replicate that silence, and being in a space where it’s fine to burst out laughing and there’s no problem, nobody’s going to point their finger at you, nobody’s going to tell you that you have to lower your voice because you’re laughing too loud, and where boys and girls can to run around and play. All those kinds of things are really important to us women. And we can, I think, one of the most important things is seeing that transformation.
[Lisette]: They are also provided with all the necessary tools to take back control of their lives.
[Silvia]: One of those tools is to place them in a house where they can build a new home, when they are psychologically ready to leave the shelter.
[Coraly]: Our programs are aimed at survivors of domestic violence. We don’t have a building where we can house them, but we go out and rent apartments and that’s where the challenge is at present, you know?
[Lisette]: The shelter looks for apartments for rent in strategic locations in Puerto Rico that meet the needs of each woman.
[Eliezer]: Meaning those that are near their places of work or their children’s school… or whichever public transport best suits their everyday life.
[Lisette]: The shelter is in contact with a group of apartment owners who give the women a slightly more affordable price. And the shelters cover the cost of rent until the women are financially settled in and have some kind of stability.
[Silvia]: The thing is that with the housing crisis, searching for these apartments has become much more complicated.
[Coraly]: Landlords who had been with us for years have decided to change their focus and they’ve told us, for example, “You have this many months to transfer the participant from this apartment to another location, because I’m going to turn these apartments into Airbnbs,” or “I’m going to sell up because it’s more profitable for me to sell right now,” and relocating survivors has become a real challenge. Before, we used to take a month at most, maybe a month, but actually in a few weeks we were able to relocate a survivor in an apartment, and now it takes three months or more.
[Eliezer]: Because while they do receive support from the federal housing department, it’s less than $500 for a one-person apartment, for example…and with all the real estate speculation, that support is now insufficient.
[Coraly]: We’re coming across apartments costing over $600. So it puts us in a very complex situation to provide our services to violence survivors. And even more so in a context where we know that the survivors are mired in poverty. Within domestic violence, there is economic violence, and there are aggressors who leave survivors in debt, who leave them with debt from utility bills, like water and electricity, from unpaid rent, or the car they had.
[Silvia]: So, because it’s a big challenge to find housing for the survivors, these women have to stay in the shelters for longer than expected… and that creates a bottleneck in the programs offered by organizations like Coraly’s.
[Coraly]: Because there’s no housing, there’s no housing available. We may have spaces on the program to take in survivors, and we do take them in, but there’s no housing available to place them in.
[Lisette]: So let’s say, if there are 10 spaces in the shelter, which isn’t the exact figure, but if there are 10 spaces in the shelter and five women arrive needing refuge, there is no space for them because other women haven’t been able to leave for those apartments, despite being ready to do so, and they end up turning away survivors because they can’t receive them. There simply isn’t enough space. Or there are people who get tired of waiting and waiting to be given an apartment. And there’s a risk that these women return to their aggressors.
[Coraly]: It has a domino effect; this situation puts other survivors of domestic violence at risk as well.
[Coraly]: The survivors of domestic violence are not only displaced when they flee their communities, their homes, and have to seek refuge or shelter in order to protect their lives and the lives of their children. They are also displaced for a second time, when they have stability and are stronger and ready to resume their lives, and they don’t have access to housing, there is no guaranteed access, and they come up against an additional obstacle during the process. So in Puerto Rico, survivors encounter obstacles to accessing justice, obstacles to accessing housing, even obstacles to keeping their jobs, and this definitely makes it more difficult for them to restart their lives. One of our concerns regarding this situation is the fact that our projects are focused on economic development. But if the cost of living continues to rise, if this isn’t dealt with, there won’t be a Puerto Rico for survivors.
[Daniel]: This episode was reported by Lisette Arévalo, senior producer at Radio Ambulante, and produced by Daniela Cruzat. It was edited by Silvia Viñas, Eliezer Budasoff, and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design and mixing were done by Elías González, with music composed by him, Andrés Azpiri, and Rémy Lozano.
We would like to thank Álvaro Ledgard for helping us with the preliminary research.
The rest of the El Hilo team includes Mariana Zúñiga, Inés Rénique, Denise Márquez, Samantha Proaño, Paola Alean, Laura Rojas Aponte, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Camilo Jiménez Santofimio. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios. Our theme song was composed by Pauchi Sasaki.
El Hilo is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios and Vice News.
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I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.