BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — After months of uncertainty, the eviction order finally arrived: Vanesa, a single mother who usually worked two jobs, had 10 days to vacate her apartment.
“From having two jobs to just one, it became very difficult,” says the 44-year-old school cleaner, who also worked as a kitchen assistant until she was laid off due to the pandemic. “Between feeding my child and paying the rent, I had to choose food.”
Her predicament is driven by an unusual skyrocketing in rents across Argentina, at a time when runaway inflation has already depressed wages.
In the capital, Buenos Aires, rents in July were 64% higher than the same month last year, according to real estate portal Zonaprop. The surge went against the trend in the capitals of neighboring Uruguay and Chile, where rental prices have dropped compared to 2020.
For tenants like Vanesa, who withheld her surname for fear of reprisals, the hikes were devastating. After losing her second job last year, she was unable to pay the monthly 25,000 Argentine pesos ($250) it cost to rent her three-bedroom suburban apartment. Vanesa has been unable to find an affordable alternative, even as she looks to downsize.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Alejandro Bennazar, president of the Argentina Real Estate Chamber, blames the rental swell on a law passed in June 2020, which was designed to protect tenants.
Under the legislation, the state capped the amount by which rent can be increased each year. It also extended the minimum rental contract from two to three years, aiming to give tenants greater security. Before the law took effect, landlords and renters could negotiate their own terms, with some owners adjusting rent every few months in line with inflation.
The new rules have left renters “more vulnerable,” Bennazar says, as landlords have responded by raising rents steeply from the outset. Many landlords have also withdrawn properties from the market, he adds, preferring to sell rather than rent, as they view the changes as less profitable. “The combination of less supply and higher demand impacts the price.”
The pandemic kept rent hikes at bay for a while. In March 2020, the government issued a 12-month freeze on rent increases and evictions. But since this measure — intended to buffer tenants at a time of pandemic-induced uncertainty — ended, renters have felt the pinch.
After her eviction, Vanesa moved into her mother’s apartment, where she shares a bedroom with her 13-year-old son.
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Proyecto 7, an organization that helps people who are homeless, estimates that the number of people living on the street in Buenos Aires has grown by almost a third since 2019, when a census put the figure at over 7,000.
“Most of them are people who have never lived on the street,” says Horacio Ávila, a coordinator with the group. “They have no idea what it is like.”
Evictions have also jumped since the freeze was lifted. From April to early September, nearly 1,500 eviction court cases were registered in the city of Buenos Aires, according to government figures. By comparison, in 2019, the city registered 3,297 court cases for eviction.
Ávila puts the growth in evictions and homelessness down to pandemic layoffs coupled with the spike in rents.
In this precarious housing landscape, many young Argentines are resorting to sharing flats with friends, as is common in big cities with high rents like London or New York. Others are putting up with substandard housing, as they can’t afford to start new contracts.
In central Buenos Aires city, Daniela Azzolina and Mariana Cruz Lamas, both 29, are desperate to move out of the two-bedroom apartment they share. The friends point to the growing cracks in the walls and ceilings, which they say their landlord isn’t willing to repair. But they’ve been outpriced by the market in their search for a new place. “It’s very frustrating,” Azzolina says.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Gervasio Muñoz, president of the National Renters Federation, an organization that campaigned for the new law, thinks there should be more regulations to stop escalating rents.
“The market can still decide on whatever initial price it wants, and that’s where regulation is needed,” says Muñoz, adding that he sees “no will” from the government on this point.
Luciano Scatolini, secretary of territorial development at the Ministry of Territorial Development and Habitat, the government agency responsible for housing policies, says the state intervened in the market “for a long time,” pointing to the recent rent and eviction freeze. But the measure couldn’t go on forever, he says. “We do not have powers to influence the price of rent” beyond that.
A longer-term strategy, says the secretary, is to help renters become homeowners through low-cost loans. Casa Propia (Own House) is one effort already in place to help low- and middle-income Argentines build or refurbish houses. “We believe that this is an answer for many families who rent today,” Scatolini says.
Vanesa dreams of buying a house. But even state assistance is out of reach: The plan Scatolini refers to operates on a competitive lottery system, and applicants must own a plot of land.
“There are no policies for people in the middle,” Vanesa says, referring to those who have a job but don’t earn enough to rent or get a mortgage. “There is nothing for us.”