Venezuela, Caracas, city skyline at dusk (Image: Getty)
Two-thirds of the population in Caracas, Venezuela, lives in slums. The capital city of the bankrupt South American nation held the record for the highest inflation in the world when it clocked a rate of 65,374 percent in 2018. But there is one more dubious record that the country holds — it has the tallest slum in the world.
The slum, known as the Tower of David, has 45 floors. Unlike most slums, it was never meant to be one. Rather, it was planned to be a grand financial centre in 1990, when Venezuela had the highest standard of living in Latin America. The tower would be the third-tallest building in the country.
The building was named after its key investor, David Brillembourg. He was a wealthy man who made his fortune in the stock market, earning the nickname ‘King David’ in finance circles. But the king died in 1993. Soon after, Venezuela sank into a massive banking crisis, with several banks taken over by the government. Construction on the Tower of David stopped with only 28 of the 45 floors ready.
Spotting an opportunity
It remained that way. In 2001 the Venezuelan government tried to auction the stalled building. But no one came forward. By then the economy had worsened. A massive housing shortage arose due to the draconian policies of Hugo Chavez, the socialist President of Venezuela. The shortage was also contributed by the terrain in many parts of Caracas, which is not conducive for any housing. That’s when some homeless people spotted an opportunity in the well-located Tower of David. With the support of an ex-criminal, they took control of the half-built tower in 2007.
It wasn’t an easy life but they adapted within the 28 floors that were built. They improvised to get water supply to the top. They built several internal walls on each floor so that smaller but multiple apartments could be created. They built a gym with leftover pulleys. Lifts were not installed so motorcycles were used through the parking ramps for the first 10 floors, with people having to take the stairs after that. The area where the lifts were supposed to be going up and down saw the installation of sewage pipes. Eventually a comprehensive ecosystem got built with grocery stores, bakeries, salons etc operating from the building. The location of the tall slum was unbeatable as the building was in the heart of the city. There were almost 5,000 people living in the half-built building.
But the tower also gained a notorious reputation for crime. In 2012, an elite special police force stormed the building looking for a kidnapped Costa Rican diplomat. He was not found. The building was managed by Alexander Daza, a former criminal (showcased as El Nino in the series Homeland).
The building, however, kept getting weaker and weaker. Evacuation was needed and done to an extent in 2014.
Will Mumbai see the same?
I have often wondered whether the same phenomenon of occupying half-built buildings could play out in Mumbai, which is littered with stalled projects. Mumbai is 40 percent larger than Caracas and has seven times the population. Moreover the Indian mindset is arguably even more tailored to ‘jugaad’ and innovation to live in stalled and abandoned buildings. So, why hasn’t this already happened?
There are three reasons for that, in my view: 1) Caracas went through a phase of complete stoppage in construction due to fear of the socialist government expropriating land. That drove up the housing shortage to record levels. Everyone grabbed what they could. In Mumbai we have had a slum redevelopment policy that incentivises people to stay where they are.
2) Caracas had no more safe land to encroach upon. The next best option was to encroach on stalled buildings that had been abandoned. Mumbai is a space-starved city but it retains scope for land encroachment.
3) The biggest reason, however, was that crime rates surged from the 1990s in Venezuela, with widespread street gangs that were more powerful than the government machinery. In contrast there appears to be an unwritten consensus among Mumbai politicians to preserve the soul of real estate — undoubtedly for selfish reasons, as there is a widespread perception that in many real estate projects, a politician is a ‘silent partner.’
Does that mean a Tower of David scenario in Mumbai is impossible? Absolutely not. I suspect two trends will culminate in the medium-term that will make it happen. 1) Free land in Mumbai is completely exhausted 2) A political alternative that stresses (rightly) on affordable housing. But with no meaningful policy backing, that political alternative will incentivise and drive the occupation of stalled and abandoned buildings.
It is an idea whose time is not that far away.