How Santiago tackled its housing crisis with ‘Operation Chalk’

How santiago tackled its housing crisis with 'operation chalk'
Families seeking new homes gather on the outskirts of Santiago in 1967; Operación Sitio was the government’s attempt to stop informal building around the city / ©Bettmann/Corbis

In 1965, Chile launched a bold new policy which became infamous for officials’ use of white chalk to mark out plots of land for Santiago’s poorest families. Half a century on, did it really help those in need – or simply deepen social divisions?

Castor Castro was 14 years old when his family moved to La Faena, a residential project in east Santiago, in 1967. “There was nothing here, just bare earth,” Castro recalls, sitting in the house his parents built back then. “Each family was given a plot, and they had to get on with it and build. There was no electricity supply and no plumbing – just land.”

Despite this rudimentary introduction to La Faena, Castor and his family were, in many ways, lucky. They were beneficiaries of “Operación Sitio” (Operation Site), a bold housing policy rolled out by the Chilean state in the late 1960s.

Up until then, Chilean governments had tackled the country’s housing shortfall through conventional methods; they built low-rise, concrete residential blocks for scores of families. But this wasn’t enough to meet the demand, and Chile’s poorest simply could not afford them.

So the government switched tack. Instead of building houses, it would sell land. With Operation Site, it offered small plots on the outskirts of Santiago at knockdown prices to poor families, who paid for them in monthly instalments – after which the families, for the most part, had to fend for themselves. This marked a turning point in the urban development of the Chilean capital. […]