El Elefante Blanco. (La Nación)

El Elefante Blanco, the building abandoned in the 1950s and since occupied by hundreds of families in the Villa Lugano neighborhood, is slated for demolition. But not if the city’s public defenders can help it. The Secretariat for Habitat & Inclusion has offered each family a sum of money in exchange for their imminent eviction. It has not secured alternative housing. Until it does, Public Defender Ramiro Dos Santos Freire has petitioned Judge Elena Liberatori to stop the eviction.

Dos Santos Freire represents the current occupants of El Elefante Blanco, 75 families known legally as “neighbors of the block 27 of Barrio Villa 15.” They live among rodents on the edge of Villa 15, one of the largest and poorest areas in Buenos Aires. The neighborhood’s emergency settlements have earned it the nickname Ciudad Oculta. Looming over hundreds of shacks is El Elefante Blanco, a fifteen-story concrete skeleton. “The place is not habitable,” said Municipal Judicial Advisor Norma Sas to Página 12. “It is unjust for people to live there.”

The structure dates to the 1950s, when former President Juan Perón ordered the construction of a hospital for patients suffering from tuberculosis. He claimed it would be the biggest of its kind in Latin America. After the 1955 military coup halted construction, the building fell into disrepair. El Elefante Blanco has taken on a multitude of meanings in its abandon. It disposes of modernization. It stains the cosmopolitan future that porteños seek. For residents of the barrio, however, the building is a formidable marker of identity.

For nearly four years, city officials and inhabitants of El Elefante Blanco have tried – and failed — to negotiate a housing solution. Dos Santos Freire has repeatedly demanded that prior to any relocation measure, the Ministry of Human Development and Habitat ensure residents the due protection of their rights. The families suffer a “very serious situation of social vulnerability and lack of resources,” said the defenders. “This prevents them from sustaining basic rights (health, food, decent housing). They need state assistance and recognition.” Bronchiolitis, diarrhea and dermatological problems plague the community. Unemployment hovers above 40 percent.

Two days ago, Judge Liberatori ordered the city to “refrain from carrying out any individual or collective eviction measures on the property.” Dos Santos Freire considers this a temporary success. Steps to follow are up in the air. “A judicial resolution ordering the cleaning of the building is in place and health and hygiene measures have been guaranteed,” Human Development representatives told La Nación.

Will the Ministry fight for every last member of the community? According to Dos Santos Freire, 75 families still occupy El Elefante Blanco. According to Human Development, only 30 remain. “We will continue to work with the few families, family to family, to account for their realities,” said Human Development representatives. Though they purport to “bring a long period of inaction and apathy to an end,” the moratorium on eviction is precarious. Over the next couple weeks, the Ministry will evaluate the human price of progress as it determines when and how to proceed with relocation.