Monday, October 15, 2018
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John McPhaul
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A pilot project in a poor neig

A grassroots project to improve the lives of residents in the Puerto Rican community of Cantera has become the model for an ambitious island-wide, billion-dollar anti-poverty program. Over the last 12 years, leaders in the San Juan neighborhood have spearheaded a drive to build new housing units, a health clinic and a library in Cantera, as well as a community center that serves as a focal point for community education and a meeting place for the area’s 20,000 residents.

The program’s effectiveness prompted Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderón to launch the "Special Communities" program in an effort to duplicate Cantera’s success in 667 poor neighborhoods around the island. The US$1 billion, half of which will come from the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico and half from the government’s general fund, will go to infrastructure; sewer, electricity and road improvements; as well as new housing units, community meeting centers, recreational facilities and education of local leaders.

Education has been the key to Cantera’s success. Local leaders learned the skills needed to involve themselves in every aspect of the project’s planning and execution, said José "Chago" Santiago, a former history teacher at Cantera’s Albert Einstein high school, who has been a driving force behind the program.

"The project is much more than just building houses. It’s about educating to enable people to work together as a community," Santiago said. "You can’t empower people without education."

Cantera, one of San Juan’s poorest communities, dates back to the early 1940’s, when Puerto Rico’s industrialization drive drew thousands of people from rural cane fields to the city. Throngs of new arrivals squatted in the mangroves along Martín Peña Canal, which was once a broad waterway connecting San Juan Bay to the San José Lagoon.

Building shanties packed so densely that no car — much less a garbage truck — could pass, the squatters dumped trash into the canal, creating dry space for even more shacks. Over the years, the canal became a narrow channel, just a meter wide in some places, where putrid water now stagnates.

"We created the problem; now we’re going to be part of the solution," Santiago said.

Of the 600 newly built housing units, 450 are going to residents of the shacks on the banks of the fetid canal. The rest will go to families who move to make way for infrastructure improvements. The houses along the canal will be destroyed and the channel dredged and widened by the US Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $100 million.

Luis Felipe López remembers the raw sewage that flowed past the front door of his old house, which also flooded during the rainy season. "Things are much better now," said the 58-year-old retired textile worker, whose family was among the first to move into a new house in a higher area. "We used to have to roll up our pants just to go outside."

Minerva Jordan’s four children say her new two-story house is "a palace" compared with her former home. "We’re much more comfortable, much more secure here," Jordan said, comparing her spacious new environs to the cramped conditions in her old ramshackle neighborhood.

Three of the new housing projects were funded by federal, commonwealth and city governments. One 13-unit project is funded by the non-governmental Habitat for Humanity. In some cases, residents swapped their old homes for new houses. In others, they received low-interest loans. In a neighborhood where unemployment runs at 45 percent, local residents are providing about 80 percent of the manual labor for the construction.

Besides poverty, Cantera suffers from a burgeoning drug trade. Turf wars among the bosses of the 10 drug-selling "points" regularly result in the murder of youthful victims. The drug gang leaders were once Santiago’s students at Albert Einstein High School.

"We made a deal whereby they would leave us alone and we would leave them alone," Santiago said. "We also convinced them to stay away from children."

Last year, burglars broke into the community library and stole six computers. Santiago approached the gang leaders and impressed upon them the value of the computers to neighborhood youngsters. "The next day the computers were left on the library’s doorstep," he said.

Community leaders hope that better living conditions, more jobs and education will reduce drug use in the community. Ten dropouts recently obtained high school equivalency certificates after taking classes at the community center. They now participate in the federal AmeriCorps program in which, among other things, they help with the community’s garbage recycling program.

Linda Colón, Special Communities executive director, said that residents across the island are enthusiastic about the program. Her office has provided training in leadership and decision making to 200 community residents, and another class of 200 is set to begin.

"We provide the training and the resources, but they are the ones who set priorities and make the decisions," Colón said. "People in Cantera have received a great deal of training over the last 12 years."

On an island where unemployment runs at 13 percent and the high school dropout rate is 50 percent, the anti-poverty program goes against the grain of "privatized" strategies that limit government involvement.

"We’re swimming against the tide during a time when elsewhere the scheme of the welfare state is being broken," she said. "Here the government is assuming its responsibility, but responsibility is also being placed in the hands of the community."

The private sector is also involved, however. Corporations provide funding for educational programs and local contractors work closely with community leaders on construction planning. Government and private studies have found that the $1-billion expenditure, to be placed in a trust to provide ongoing funding for anti-poverty efforts, will have little impact on state finances, Colón said.

The spending will generate work for private contractors and create 10,000 jobs, with priority given to workers from the communities. Improvement in productivity as a result of a healthier, better-educated work force will be harder to measure, she said.

The government is expected to spend $1.5 billion on the special communities over the next five years. Last year, the government spent $122.4 million, including $11.7 million on housing. The project compensates for the inability of local communities to qualify for US government "community empowerment" funds.

"There are very stringent requirements for the empowerment funds, which go only to NGOs with the technical sophistication to qualify for them," Colón said. "It will take about five years of training for any of the communities here to be able negotiate the process." 


"Chago" Santiago: "The project
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