In Peru, restoring houses prevents disasters and preserves landmarks

23 Dec 2009

An antique villa courtyard in Rimac converted into poor urban settlement for the poor.
(Photo: Lorry Salcedo)

In Peru about half a million people dwell in slums enclosed within historical architectural gems. In downtown Lima, UNESCO heritage site and once Spain’s lavish Viceroyalty, the neighborhood of Rimac, has suffered from centuries of precarious housing conditions. Although it is one of the cities’ architectural landmarks, it is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in Peru’s capital.

Seeking to improve the community’s housing situation and diminish disaster risks, UNDP has been working with the Peruvian government since 2004 in a programme to revitalize landmarks and poor urban communities. The programme “Rimac Renace”, in English “Rimac Reborn”, aims to grant dignified living conditions to nearly 200,000 people. The programme has produced an assessment of the risks incurred by the population and, in 2010, it will begin registering property titles and working with Rimac’s Municipality to restore the historical landmarks.

“This is the first programme, both in scope and magnitude, tackling the dangerous problems that low income urban families face,” Jorge Chediek, UNDP Resident Representative, said. “For the first time in history, the precarious conditions in which people live are being addressed.”

Reducing risks

The coast of Peru, where its capital Lima lies, experiences frequent seismic activities. Living in collapsing historical landmarks leaves the poor community even more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Founded in 1532, Lima was almost fully rebuilt after a massive earthquake in1746. To respond to the mid 18th Century natural disasters, masonry construction (with bricks and stones bound by mortar) was forbidden and replaced by native techniques that used mud and straw. The mud houses, though resistant to earthquakes, decay easily if not properly renovated. Rimac is almost entirely built with such rapidly degenerating materials.

During the 20th century, Lima’s downtown was progressively abandoned by affluent landlords. Houses were left to poor migrants paying very low rent, but receiving no infrastructure maintenance nor formal contract. Sanitation facilities and pipes are rotten beyond repair, and water access is limited. To further exacerbate the situation, despite rapid urbanization, Rimac lacked a development plan.

Rimac’s historic colonial architecture is still a well-kept secret for tourists.
(Photo: Lorry Salcedo)

Upon the request of the Municipality of Rimac, at the initial intervention phase, in 2005, UNDP implemented a property assessment, which declared 96% of the households at risk of collapse. The assessment also showed a vicious cycle. Tenants lack financial means to invest in properties, that in some cases have been with the families for several generations, but to which they were not entitled to.

As a consequence of the Rimac Renace programme, in October 2009 the Peruvian Congress passed a new law enabling property rights claims. Now, Rimac tenants will be legally entitled to their properties – and some may even receive bank loans to buy the houses. This is crucial because legal ownership will be an incentive for tenants to maintain and restore historical houses.

In the third phase of the project, UNDP will support the Municipality of Rimac in implementing a registration mechanism. Starting in 2010, about 15,000 people will register their property titles, requesting financial assistance and restoring the places they have inhabited for generations.

As a result of this long-term initiative, Rimac will be revamped, but keeping its cultural identity. The neighborhood is known to have the oldest bullfight arena in the Americas and some colonial architecture jewels. Enrooted religious traditions and emblematic stories of colonial time scandals also feed this eclectic neighborhood’s fables. The “Reborn Rimac” will be an added attraction to Lima’s growing downtown touristic circuit.