Housing has been a central feature of Latin America’s dramatic transformation into the most urbanized region of the world. Between 1940 and 1970, the portion of people who lived in urban areas rose from 33 percent to 64 percent; a seismic shift that caused severe housing deficits, overcrowding, and sprawl in Latin America’s major cities. After the Second World War, these urban slums became a symbol of underdevelopment and a target for state-led modernization projects. At a time when Cold War tensions were escalating throughout the world, the region’s housing problems also became more politicized through a network of foreign aid agencies. These overlapping factors illustrate how the history of local housing programs were bound up with broader hemispheric debates over economic development and the role of the nation-state in social affairs.
The history of urban housing in 20th-century Latin America can be divided into three distinct periods. The first encompasses the beginning of the 20th century, when issues of housing in the central-city districts were primarily viewed through the lens of public health. Leading scientists, city planners, psychiatrists, and political figures drew strong connections between the sanitary conditions of private domiciles and the social behavior of their residents in public spaces. After the Second World War, urban housing became a proving ground for popular ideas in the social sciences that stressed industrialization and technological modernization as the way forward for the developing world. In this second period, mass housing was defined by a central tension: the promotion of modernist housing complexes versus self-help housing—a process in which residents build their own homes with limited assistance from the state. By the 1970s, the balance had shifted from modernist projects to self-help housing, a development powerfully demonstrated by the 1976 United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I). This seminal UN forum marked a transitional moment when the concepts of self-help community development were formally adopted by emergent, neo-liberal economists and international aid agencies.