BUENOS AIRES — A shortage of affordable rentals in the Argentine capital has become manna for determined squatters who use “tricks of the trade" to move into once-cherished homes. Not just a homeowner’s nightmare, these situations are becoming bureaucratic ones for many as well.
At the top of the list of this new breed of squatter are "recently emptied houses in good condition." They are "good houses, ample, well located, recently lived in, often by elderly people with nobody to help them with their complaints," said Walter López, a public prosecutor from Buenos Aires.
Usually, he says, there was prior "intelligence work" or a watchman involved.
"Generally a group of people — often men — force open the door or break the locks, enter and immediately change the lock or install some obstacle. The men then go, leaving behind women and children," the prosecutor said. To get them out the owner must file a complaint, unless they are caught in flagrante, that is, if police actually see them when they are breaking in. "If nobody demands restitution, there is no way of resolving the issue," he added.
The next step, he said, is to identify the squatters. "A prosecutor instructs the police to identify the occupants. But they give false names and the process becomes complicated. There is generally some sort of rental contract, but forged of course," says López, and the squatters will not leave of their own accord. "Their aim is to extend their stay, they bet on taking advantage of some possible glitch in the legal process."
And in the end? If dislodged, says López, they hope to obtain housing benefits. “Sometimes owners pay them to leave. If the place is big and the process drags on, it can end up becoming a regular rental."
Neighbors banding together
Or, a mob of half-crazed neighbors could kick them out if you're lucky to have such obliging neighbors — as happened with two artists who recently found squatters in their studio in the Agronomía neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Artist Adrián Burman said that when he returned after a two-month holiday in late February to the "workshop-home" he kept with his son, he found a Peruvian couple living there. Worse, he found no trace of the 500 paintings kept there, belonging to himself and other local artists including Élida Bonet, Jesús Marcos, Héctor Medici and Marino Santa María. One website showed some of the works it said had "disappeared off the face of the earth," while another website speculated they might have been thrown out as trash.
"I rang the bell and a Peruvian couple in their 40s or 50s came downstairs. I asked them what they were doing in my home and they showed me a contract. I asked about my paintings and they said there was nothing," Adrián said, adding that he went straight home to get his property deeds and thence to the courts to file legal action.
News of the squatting circulated around the neighborhood, says Adrián, and 100 neighbors met on March 5 to discuss it. Two groups formed, he said, "One peaceful and the other more violent, saying the only way to get the house back was by force. I got scared. I didn't know what would happen if there were armed people." Eventually "the most violent" neighbors "kicked the door down" and two people came out, going straight into the police car waiting for them.
The next day the squatters returned the keys, though days later they tried to prosecute the Burmans for assault. They withdrew their action in return for recovering their personal effects, which included "rental" documents indicating that the studio was rented to them for three years for the equivalent of about $10,000, and a little dog.
Adrián has created a Facebook register of missing works, hoping friends or dealers could locate them around the capital. However, one painting, entitled Geo Grafía, remained in his empty studio — he found it blocking a leak.