As the Dominican Republic invests in development and climate resiliency, government projects aimed at improving quality of life and guarding against climate change are having a negative effect on some of the very people they were designed to help.
Kids play basketball on the site where the government is building a road in Domingo Savio on March 3, 2023. The thousands of homes that once stood along this stretch of the Ozama River were torn down as part of an infrastructure project. (Photo by Caitlin Thompson/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Red letters painted on the wall of the concrete house indicated its fate. In this neighborhood in the capital city, marks like this are a sign that a home will soon be reduced to rubble, often within hours of its inhabitants’ eviction. That moment came for this house, and the family that lived in it, on a clear day in March.
The two-story house – yellow walls on the top floor, orange on the bottom – belonged to Ana Maria Cruz Mejia. She has lived in the house since she was 3. She is now in her 40s. The home had seen all the twists and turns of her life. She ran a business on the ground floor, selling consignment clothes, hence the mannequin propped up against the wall.
“It is my whole life, really,” she said. “All my memories are here, my children were born here, my grandchildren. My father died here — in other words a whole life. They say a person makes the place…”
Cruz Mejia didn’t want to leave. But the Dominican government plans to build a new road that will carve through this section of Domingo Savio, a sprawling network of informal settlements stretching up from the Ozama River into the heart of Santo Domingo. It’s part of a project to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the lives of people in the impoverished neighborhood by building schools, a market, recreation areas and a better system for wastewater and trash.
Cruz Mejia’s house – and many others around it – stands in the way.
As the Dominican Republic grapples with the growing pains of an expanding economy, even the most well-intentioned development projects have unintended consequences. In cases like Cruz Mejia’s and other families who have been displaced, sometimes the most vulnerable people become collateral damage.
Cruz Mejia’s family is one of several that were evicted on that same day. Over the years, thousands of families have been displaced to make room for the government’s urban revitalization project to improve infrastructure in Domingo Savio and protect residents along the river against floods.
Cruz Mejia said her family owns the land where their house stood, but the government disputes this. Many people in the informal settlement don’t have formal title to their property. At the start of the Domingo Savio project, the government bought the land and distributed the titles to the people.
Over a year ago, the government agency in charge of the project – Executing Unit for the Readjustment of Neighborhoods and Environments, or URBE – told Cruz Mejia that she needed to move. At first, they offered her about 420,000 Dominican pesos – roughly $7,400 – but Cruz Mejia said that when she refused to leave without more money, they increased it to 735,000 pesos, or about $13,000, which she accepted.
Then, on a sunny day in March, Cruz Mejia watched pensively as men in orange shirts passed her possessions one by one into the back of a moving truck parked precariously on a steep hill. Government employees dressed in white shirts roamed, clipboards in hand, overseeing the process. Three police officers stood around, relaxed. Another stood in the doorframe of a house across the street, holding a machine gun across his body. On the building next to him, a message in green paint reads “a house for a house, or fair price” — a reference to the hundreds of families like Ana who have been forced from this neighborhood. Below it another red code marked that building for destruction, too.
Just up the street, a bulldozer blocked most of the narrow road, waiting for the moving truck to fill with Ana’s things before the demolition work began on her lifelong home.
The government project in Domingo Savio – and the evictions that come with it – are a byproduct of the Dominican Republic’s rapidly developing economy and history of urbanization.
The island nation has enjoyed one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America and the Caribbean in the last decade, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This has led to a reduction in poverty. In 2020, around 5.6% of the population lived in extreme poverty, well below the regional average of 8.7%, according to the OECD.
But inequality remains stark. Around 30% of the wealth is controlled by 1% of the population. Much of the land in the capital city, including Domingo Savio, is controlled by a few wealthy families.
That inequality has led to the establishment of informal communities, said Jose Núñez Collado, a lecturer in architecture at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who has conducted extensive research in the Dominican Republic.
“Because of the inequality existing in the country and because of the inability of the government to keep up with rapid urbanization processes, these people are forced in a way to build their settlements in those unwanted areas in order to be closer to job opportunities,” he said.
These informal settlements, particularly along the Ozama River which cuts the city in two, swelled in the 1980s. At that point, 70% of the population of Santo Domingo lived in informal areas. Now 40% of the population of the national district – about half a million people – live in informal settlements, according to Núñez Collado.
Santo Domingo is also one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to climate change. The city is sliced by two rivers – the Isabela and Ozama – and bordered by the Caribbean Sea, making it particularly at risk of flooding during the cyclone season. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, Santo Domingo will be in the top five cities most impacted by sea level rise. Around 17 million people live in urban areas along the coast, making them vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes and rising waters, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration.
Domingo Savio, the informal settlement along the Ozama River, is especially vulnerable. In 2018, the government declared the stretch of land along the river to be uninhabitable due to the risk of flooding and announced a plan to move people living there.
In recent years, the government has recognized the urgent need to invest in projects that would tackle both the unsafe conditions in the sprawling informal settlements and shore up protection against the impacts of climate change on riverside communities. It is in this context that URBE was created to respond to some of these problems.
The community of La Barquita sat along the curve in the Ozama River in northern Santo Domingo. The low-lying area was highly vulnerable to flooding when it rained or when the river swelled during the wet season.
La Barquita was the site of URBE’s first major project. It was motivated by the goal to mitigate the impacts of climate change for the roughly 1,800 families living in the neighborhood.
It was a bold and novel idea: move everyone into newly built housing in a less flood prone area. The government built high-rise apartments with a childcare center, a water treatment plant and space for businesses. Then they moved everyone – about 7,000 people – from La Barquita to the new community called La Nueva Barquita – The New Barquita.
The project took three years to complete and wrapped up by the 2016 election. URBE is directed by the president’s office, and the results in La Nueva Barquita were politically eye-catching.
“It was the biggest nationally known project for that term,” said Rocio Vidal, a director general at URBE. “It was very successful.”
By giving relocated people a new home, La Nueva Barquita was seen as a blueprint for revitalizing struggling communities and protecting them from flooding and other impacts of climate change.
“(The president) wanted to create a model community,” Vidal said. La Barquita “was a project of relocation and of proving that in the Dominican Republic we can have a community and an urbanism and a construction method that’s viable.”
As the agency made a name for itself, URBE started taking on other development projects that went beyond climate change, like gondolas to connect sectors of Santo Domingo without uprooting communities to build a metro line.
With Domingo Savio the agency has taken on its most ambitious project to date.
Narrow streets, some unpaved and uneven, snake through Domingo Savio. Small houses – built from concrete or sheets of metal – are nearly built on top of each other. Around 43,000 people live in this small pocket of Santo Domingo. The population is so dense that a car can’t drive through much of the area.
“There is no way of getting even an ambulance in there,” said Vidal, who is managing the project at URBE.
People live without electricity, drinkable running water or proper waste disposal. Around half of the population lives in poverty, according to statistics from the Social Benefits System, or SIUBEN, the government body that conducts population surveys.
Since 2017, the Dominican government has invested in infrastructure and access to basic services in the area with a project known as Nuevo Domingo Savio. The initial phase of work is expected to be completed this year.
But working in this context is challenging.
“It’s one of the densest communities in the city in the National District. It’s one of the most dangerous,” Vidal said. “It’s just a reality that you can’t erase.”
Similar to La Barquita, the Domingo Savio project was, in part, an effort to prepare for the effects of climate change. Hundreds of families lived right on the river’s edge. They are often flooded.
In 2018, URBE released reports that showed 67% of Domingo Savio – 270,000 square meters – was uninhabitable due to the risk of flooding and seismic activity. The area was home to roughly 1,400 families, all of which had to be moved.
Based on estimates of the river’s rising levels, URBE moved homes to create a 3-kilometer buffer along the edge of the water. Around 2,000 to 3,000 families were displaced in the process, according to Vidal. The land they once lived on became a park.
In the rest of Domingo Savio the issues are far more complex. Compared to the immediate needs for better infrastructure and basic services, the impending crisis of climate change – even if it’s just a few years away – is not as pressing.
“These communities are so, so impoverished,” Vidal said. “Climate change is an element, but there’s so many things that correlate that are also impacted.”
According to Vidal, the project in Domingo Savio is about revitalizing an entire area, providing basic services and connecting a marginalized community to the rest of the city in the hopes of improving economic opportunities and living conditions.
“Our focus is trying to improve the quality of life of 45,000 people that right now live in conditions that are not safe,” she said.
To accomplish this, URBE is removing thousands of people from homes they have lived in for decades to make room for the roads and parks that the government wants to build. It puts the agency at odds with both members of the community and with housing rights advocates.
In La Nueva Barquita, URBE built new housing for everyone who was displaced. That’s not the case in Domingo Savio. Here, the government is giving money for new housing to anyone who is forced to move.
People like Altagracia Jaqueline Paulino.
The sun set over Paulino’s shoulder as she sat around the corner from where her home used to stand under the bridge in Domingo Savio. She has worked hard to buy her house.
“I was at peace because I knew nobody would come knock on my door and say, ‘You owe,’ Because it was mine,” she said. “Even if I could just buy one banana to share with my children, it was our banana. We did not have the torment of having to pay for the house.”
Her eyes slowly filled with tears as she described how she raised her four kids and built a community with her neighbors around their shared courtyard. It was more than a house.
She was devastated when she learned she was being evicted. “My heart sank,” she said. “I began to cry. And still I think, ‘How am I going to go forward?’ because I don’t have strength. They don’t give me any work. And I don’t see a way to get help. And I ask the Lord to help me.”
Paulino, who is 66 years old, had spent over half of her life in the now-destroyed home. Earlier this year, URBE tore it down because the house was under the bridge where the agency plans to build a road. The government gave her 350,000 Dominican pesos – about $6,150 – to move.
But that money was not enough for Paulino to find another place to live. She had to move in with her son.
The amount of compensation that people receive depends on the type of house. A concrete house like Paulino’s will fetch more than a structure built with metal zinc plates. If the person runs a business from their home, they get additional pesos. URBE also adds money for each family member.
But housing rights advocates and community members say it’s not enough money to buy a new home that is safe to live in. Houses that are available in that price range are far away from this neighborhood. People are forced to move across the city from their jobs and their loved ones or double up with family.
Alicia Antonia de la Nuez has lived in Domingo Savio since she was 18. It’s where she raised her daughter and her son. She paid 1,000 pesos a month – about $18 – to rent a house under the bridge.
“That was difficult, to pay the 1,000 pesos. And I lived there – in a little place – and that was fine because I could not pay very much money, because I am sick and I am poor,” she said. “Then, they evicted us.”
When she was forced to move, the government gave her 500,000 pesos – about $8,800 – for her home and the hair salon she ran from her house.
URBE’s policy is to give most of the money to the renter so they can find a new place to live, but the owner of the structure also receives some compensation.
De la Nuez, now in her 60s, used the money to buy a new home, but it was in unsafe condition. She had to leave and move in with her brother and her mother.
The root of the problem is a lack of affordable housing, said Vidal, the project manager at URBE. She acknowledged that giving people money isn’t a long-term fix.
“There’s no perfect solution,” Vidal said. “So sometimes in these types of projects, you just have to go for what is better for the most people than for exclusive cases.”
URBE’s work has received a mixed response in the community.
José Luis Gómez grew up in Domingo Savio. Now he is a pastor and runs several churches across the neighborhood. He thinks the government’s project could improve people’s quality of life. He wants to see the schools materialize. He described it as “beautiful.”
But he takes issue with the way the government is evicting people.
“The government is in violation of the law and the rights of the people,” he said. “The public law – Article 59 – says that every Dominican has the right to a place to live. And not just a place to live, but adequate services, including health, education, streets, sidewalks, water, light – this is established. But the government does not respect the law. It is abusive.”
Gómez wants the government to follow the model of the La Nueva Barquita project. If URBE were to pursue his vision, the government would build high-rise apartment buildings to house all the people who have been displaced by the development projects.
But La Nueva Barquita isn’t replicable in Domingo Savio, according to Vidal at URBE.
There are almost 45,000 people living in Domingo Savio – about six times the size of La Barquita. That limits what the government can feasibly do. In a place this densely populated, building new housing for everyone who was forced out of other parts of the neighborhood would invariably displace even more.
La Nueva Barquita was also too expensive. The whole project cost over 4 billion pesos, or about $70.3 million at the current exchange rate.
“You have to pick and choose and prioritize,” Vidal said. “Scalability, feasibility, all these things play a lot into account.”
The disagreement about how to create safe, affordable housing for people living in poverty illustrates the tensions between the ideal outcome and reality.
While it’s not perfect, compensating people who are forced to move is the most feasible course of action, Vidal said.
“This is the best possible solution. This is the most real solution to what we have right now,” she said. “To make these projects doable, executable. They have to have a proper scale.”
The project in Domingo Savio aims to solve problems that have faced people living in the informal settlement for decades, including lack of basic services and safe living conditions.
URBE wants a sustainable solution “that empowers or, in this case, gives tools for people to actually improve their quality of life, improve their day to day, improve their access, improve their education,” Vidal said.
But housing advocates don’t think this is happening.
“When I talk about Domingo Savio, I don’t talk about a project of the government for the vulnerable,” said Virginia Pastor, an architect at the housing rights group Ciudad Alternativa. “This is an easy way to start the gentrification.”
Pastor said the project isn’t fitting the community’s basic needs.
The central element is a park-lined road that stretches from one end of Domingo Savio to the other along the Ozama River. This was meant to connect people to the rest of the city. And then there’s the baseball and soccer fields and a multipurpose sports center. But what people really need, Pastor said, is housing.
URBE has been criticized for not involving the community in its planning. Leaders like Gómez have been meeting with URBE throughout the project in Domingo Savio. Ciudad Alternativa met with URBE twice a month for two years. The agency has an office in Domingo Savio and runs events for people in the neighborhood.
But that doesn’t mean the community feels heard or their perspective has been incorporated, Pastor said. Instead, she feels the relationship is more paternalistic.
Rather than listening to what people in the community want, the government is coming in and telling them what it intends to do, Pastor said.
“They treat poor people like idiots and like they don’t know what they need,” she said.
It undermines faith in the project.
“If you’re not working inside the community, you are not doing anything for the people. You are only building a road that is beautiful, that is perfect to walk. But it’s not for the people,” she said. “Who are you working for?”
For the people in Domingo Savio, the power balance is not in their favor, Pastor said. People have little agency or ability to push back against the government when they are told they need to move. Often, they don’t have a lawyer or an advocate with them for negotiations with URBE.
“They don’t have anyone to fight for them,” Pastor said.
In the past, under the previous president and before the formation of URBE, forced evictions were more aggressive, said Katherine Almánzar, also at Ciudad Alternativa. The government would come into the neighborhood to violently move people, who were not compensated. That history has made people scared to push back.
“In most of the cases, you’re going to say yes to whatever they say because it’s the government and they have all the forces in the country to do whatever they want,” Almánzar said.
The main features that have been built are the road, a linear park, sports facilities and a market for local fishermen. This first phase of the project is supposed to wrap up in the fall of 2023.
When the government announced the project, it promised to build schools, fix roads and improve sewage, drainage, water, electricity and waste management. URBE isn’t responsible for building all of these elements; other government agencies are also involved. Some of those features are being built in parts of the neighborhood but not the entire sector yet. The project’s master design includes plans to expand those services to the rest of the barrio in future phases.
For some, the progress is too slow.
“So they are only moving people or doing evictions … and they are not solving the problems that are inside the neighborhood,” Pastor said. “The question is, is this the right thing to do with vulnerable people?”
Pastor remembers when houses were torn down to make room for a new school. But the government agency in charge of building it didn’t have the money.
“I think that’s the worst part because you are moving a family for a community benefit that is not working, that is not happening,” Pastor said. “But you are not solving the housing problem of the family that is struggling that lived there. So you’re not solving any problems.”
The question of how the Dominican Republic develops in a way that doesn’t bypass or further marginalize people living in poverty won’t be resolved or perfected in one government project in one neighborhood. The project in Domingo Savio highlights the challenges with building housing infrastructure and access to basic services in a way that is inclusive and sustainable.
But the project in Domingo Savio is the best option given the circumstances, says Vidal at URBE.
“I don’t think it’s the perfect solution. I don’t think anything is perfect. Everything can be better. But I do think it’s a scalable solution. And I do think it’s going to transform at least 30,000, if not 50,000 or 40,000 people directly,” Vidal said.
But some of the people who have been evicted from Domingo Savio are more vulnerable than they were before.
Altagracia Jaqueline Paulino, the woman from Domingo Savio, is still reeling from the loss of her home where she spent most of her life, raised a family and built a community.
“I was so happy in my house, even though it was under the bridge. I was happy,” she said. “And so I have faith that God will help me. Because I am not asking for a mansion, I am just asking for a place for me and my daughter.”