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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.86 Santiago abr. 2014 


Housing, A Problem of Access to Land


María José Castillo*(1), Rossana Forray**(2)

* Professor, Universidad Andrés Bello, Santiago, Chile.
** Professor, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


Fifty years of continuous development of land squatting seem to indicate the need for new instruments to face the housing deficit. Segregation and urban sprawl are evidences of the importance of land management policies for low-income housing.

Keywords: Urbanism – Chile, social housing, housing policies, territorial planning, periphery, self-advocacy.


Ground Struggle

Is it relevant to keep talking about social housing? At the moment the cost of a home for a poor family exceeds the maximum price established by social housing. These prices, higher than ever in the history of home financing, exceed the value of the home for lower middle class sectors. Moreover, in the last few years the amount of the state subsidy has doubled and while it provides supplemental financing for localization, it is not enough to cover the costs of housing projects with better location in the city that require additional resources.

In practice, the subsidy increase has financed the historical increase in land value and certain construction materials yet does not translate to improvements in construction or design quality nor in larger floor area or better location. In reality, the majority of funds go directly to the development and construction industry.

Thus, a Chilean financial policy that encourages private home ownership based on subsidies is not viable long term. First, because in cities there is no longer land available for the amount the state is willing to contribute. In fact, it has been found that in Santiago land value increases proportionally much more in districts where social housing is built (Brain y Sabatini, 2006). Second, although no one openly denounces this, the prices of social housing are now the same as for middle-income sectors: the social housing product traditionally accepted as a low-standard dwelling for its low cost is no longer valid. Third, because as the price of housing increases and the family's contribution diminishes, as well as working to cove the rise in land value and construction costs, the subsidy has been allocated to financing the amount that before covered the mortgage given to the families.

Then, under current conditions, homeownership as the only alternative is unsustainable. For these reasons, it is unacceptable to continue to expel the poor from the city. One cannot justify financing low-standard housing prototypes that cost the same as those from other socio-economic sectors, and, lastly, the state is no longer in conditions to continue increasing the subsidy with funds that go directly to benefit the landowners and real estate developers and increase speculation.

It is essential to seek new solutions that allow for people to live in socially integrated neighborhoods, well serviced and safe: long-term leases with buying options, rent-subsidies, cooperatives that ensure housing access to families without other options. For all of these alternatives, it is essential for the state, central or local, to manage sites and reserve them for low-income housing. In addition, to consolidate socially sustainable neighborhoods it is necessary to ensure that people can remain close to the areas they grew up or lived in as relatives or tenants, in which there is already a strong and supportive social network in place. This requirement is relevant when considering that the urbanized peripheries with social housing have become degraded areas in which residents do not want to stay.

Today, the challenge is to create integrated housing for the diverse socio-economic sectors of the city. The first we must resolve is how we face the problem of urban land access, a fundamental element for truly dealing with the problem of integrated housing. To reverse the process of segregation and expulsion to the periphery, we must face the problem of urban land speculation, that is, the profit associated with land use modifications.

One of the main focuses of the debate on policy pertaining to land and property tax in Latin America is the recovery of added value, a new theme in the region(1). In fact, in Chile, in the first decades of the 20th century, the Radical party tried to introduce this idea on various occasions, and in the '30s, President Pedro Aguirre Cerda proposed a law to create a national tax on capital gains on land that, as we all know, did not take hold (Smolka y Mullahy, 2007). On the other flank, during the '70s mechanisms were established to reserve land for social purposes; together with the creation of the Housing and Urbanism Ministry –MINVU– in 1965, the institutionalism was fixed to allow the Urban Improvement Corporation cormu to buy or expropriate land.

In the field of planning, the first Interdistrict Regulatory Plan of Santiago pris in 1960, defined three zones for land use: industrial, green areas and housing. An interesting aspect –that will not appear again– is that in the housing zones, areas are designated exclusively to self-built housing. Thus, in the peripheral districts in the south, north and west of Santiago a total area of more than 520 hectares were reserved for self-built programs executed by the residents under the supervision of the corvi. However, in the last forty years neither urban policy nor housing policy has been able to sustainably address problems of urban land access. The reservation of sites for higher density housing or subsidized housing established in the conditions of urbanization of the Metropolitan Regulatory Plan of Santiago (prms) from 1994 has not materialized.(2)

Only in 2006 was a timid effort made to introduce a mechanism into Chilean legislation that would respond to the need for urban land to build social housing. That year the MINVU promoted a bill project for integration according to which all real estate projects must designate 5% of the site area, or pay the equivalent amount to the respective municipality, with the goal of reserving sites for social housing construction. This measure, which has been used in other countries with even greater demands(3), received strong criticism from the business sector and the bill failed to enter Congress.

Facing the void of state land management, the residents have fought for decades for land access. They take sites, fight for better locations, manage the sale of sites to build projects, and demand that the state create a land bank and that regulatory plans reserve sites for those without homes. This article retells the story and current situation of the actions these people have undertaken to gain access to urban land in relation to housing policy. Using case studies, interviews and bibliographical reviews, we show that these people have the competency needed to acquire sites and that this is the first hurdle for realizing projects for these displaced people.

Squatters and the Instruments of Site Planning

During the last fifty years, those in need have used three main mechanisms to access urban land. The first is "site squatting" or tomas. Although from 1957, with La Victoria squatting (fig. 1 and 2), until 2006, with the attempt to re-occupy Peñalolén, they have frequently used this mechanism to access land or express they need of it. Also there have been long periods during which they have not done this, with the exception of some massive cases of occupation that have manifested the crisis of institutional channels to obtain housing. So considering that since 2006 there have not been site squatting, after the earthquake of 2010 many families had begun to occupy empty fiscal buildings in downtown Santiago and from 2013 there began to appear new land squatting due to the lack of response from the government to the demand for well-located land.

Fig. 1. Shantytown at the border of the Zanjón de la Aguada, gorge bank. Destruction after fires.
Source: Video frame FILMUC , 1958.

Fig. 2. Homeless moving into the La Victoria land grab, Pedro Aguirre Cerda district, Santiago. Instalation of provisional tents.
Source: Video frame FILMUC , 1958.

The second mechanism is the buying of land, a possibility that has been presented since 2001 and is implemented by the Fondo Solidario de Vivienda(4). This housing development project no longer excludes private enterprise. The managing enterprises, in which the people participated anonymously and the managing entities created by the people themselves are empowered to undertake projects and therefore to negotiate sites whose acquisition is then financed by the government. Above all, it is not the first time that these people can buy land: in the '70s the housing cooperatives were frequently used until the dictatorship shut them down.

The third mechanism is, from 2006, the discussion over laws and site planning instruments and the possibility of creating a fiscal land bank.

Fifty Years of Site Squatting and its Unique Significance Between 1957 and 2006

Over the last fifty years the underlying objective of the squatters has evolved. While at the beginning it responded to a pressing need, recently it has become a symbolic resource used to show society that in these districts sites do exist where neighborhoods could be built if they were given the chance. In this way, the people solicit these sites from the authorities, and in terms of policy demand that the state reserve this land for the poor.

In this evolution experienced by these land grabs we can distinguish various stages; the initial stage is the Take out of need. The first massive organized land grab, La Victoria in the south of Santiago in 1957, responds to a need; a reaction to the unfulfilled promises of access to land and emergency housing. Squatting achieves the objectives and the displaced settle in the place (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Mediaguas built, sites divided up and fenced in the La Victoria camp.
Source: Video frame FILMUC , 1958.

A second stage corresponds to the Take as a phenomenon of the poor. These land grabs between 1964 ad 1970 during the government of the Christian Democratic Party are explained by the explosive demand for land in the cities that Operación Sitio was unable to satisfy. In this period land was taking as well for non-sponsored social housing.

Thirdly, there is the Assisted squat as an instrument of collaborative urbanization between the poor and the government. Between 1970 and 1973 during the government of the Unidad Popular, the land grabs are the principal resource of the poor to access urban land, are transformed into an assisted practice. The shantytowns are developed and transformed in neighborhoods within the framework of collaboration between the state and the poor. As a result of this process, by 1972 these informal settlements occupied more than 10% of the city.

After this phase, the Policy of preventing squatting was developed between 1973 and 1990. During the dictatorship squatting was strictly restricted and the few that occurred were forcibly vacated. A decree was also made that sanctioned the exclusion of state housing programs that participated in them. There was a "first exception" in 1983: Squatting in resistance and need. Despite the repression of the dictatorship, because they need a place to live and also to resist, the poor realized the largest land grab in Chilean history, one that gave rise to the Cardenal Raúl Silva Henríquez and Monseñor Juan Francisco Fresno camps (fig. 4). With the city of Santiago in a state of siege, 8,000 families (39,000 people) negotiated the grab and although they were eradicated, they achieved their goal of getting a home. These poor are the displaced people the housing system failed to attend to.

Fig. 4. Images of the Cardenal Silva Henríquez camps, La Granja district, and Monseñor Juan Francisco Fresno, La Cisterna district, Santiago.
Source: ROSENMANN, 2007.

A fifth stage corresponds to the Land grab prevention policy, implemented between 1990 and 1999. After 17 years of dictatorship in the context of a severe housing deficit, the first government of the Concertación(5) promoted a broad social dialogue to avoid land grabs. The governmental measures, especially the increase of resources for subsidies and the alliance with construction companies enabled them to contain the demand of the displaced people who hoped for state housing.

The only squat during this period is Esperanza Andina in 1992 (a "second exception"). Despite the punishment that threatened the poor with losing their right to the state subsidy, with which the displaced manifested with the support of public opinion that the housing location was important and sets the president for new land grabs. The Esperanza Andina camp (fig. 5) occurred when the displaced families are waiting for housing through institutional mechanisms. Sensing that their request would take years to materialize and seeing that housing by the state would be moved farther and farther out in the peripheries, a group of people in Peñalolén –in the eastern zone of Santiago– mostly the children of those who had taken land in the past, revived the practice of their parents and put the issue of urban land access back on the political agenda. This time the situation was more complex because the State did not participate as it did in the late '60s and early '70s. Quite the contrary: the authorities considered that the housing programs offered formal alternatives that could satisfy the demand of all.

Fig. 5. Esperanza Andina squat, Peñalolén district, Santiago. June 19, 1992.
Source: Video frame El Mirador, TVN , 1999, from the audio-visual record of the residents.

However, the squat obtained the desired results in that the displaced could occupy the site of private property. In this case, the expropriation of the site by the MINVU had the unanimous support of several congressmen and public opinion. Over time, the price of the site became too high compared to the maximum price considered by the government in the final cost equation of the dwelling: it included compensation for the owner who had filed a complaint against the Treasury. Considering these factors, since that time the pressure of the homeless to find land was not tolerated anymore; in this context the Esperanza Andina Camp is an exception but became a great reference that created the precedent for what would later be known as the "Peñalolén land grab" and began the fight for the poor for the location of their projects.

A sixth possible stage is the Eruption of homeless, manifesting in 1999 with the "Peñalolén land grab". The President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle's housing program, oriented toward the production of a large number of dwellings built with subsidies by large construction companies, reached a crisis in 1997 with the copeva case(6). Beyond the direct connotations of the case, it was made clear that the increase in land value made it impossible to build social housing within the city unless structural changes were made in land accessibility policy.

Since then the homeless demanded quality location and housing in their protests. It anticipated the taking of a site that was property of businessman Miguel Nasur, to the north of the San Carlos channel in Peñalolén. In 1999, when the housing quality, segregation of the poor, bad living conditions and security problems became too pressing, 1,050 families began to occupy this large vacant lot, and although it began as a symbolic gesture, the massive arrival of displaced families transformed the operation into a citadel (fig. 6). After a lengthy negotiation an agreement was arrived at, in which the State would expropriate the land for green area, offering other locations to the squatters. Although this represented a hard setback for some of the families, for others obtaining housing in the district was considered and achievement even when some families on the site still did not have a housing solution. If the Esperanza Andina camp was a learning experience in terms of housing access, the camp in Peñalolén was about the struggle to find new ways to produce housing. For the first time, the people appealed to self-management, which was an improvement in the fight for the mere access to land and housing.

Fig. 6. Peñalolén land squat, 2002.
Photography: María José Castillo.

The Peñalolén settlement and the agreement in which they would be able to buy sites, directly or indirectly motivated new attempts to take land in Santiago: a series of "symbolic land grabs in protest". In 2003, the homeless in Huechuraba(7) made varies attempt at symbolic occupation to pressure the authorities for land within the district and effectively reached an agreement with the SERVIU. One year later, more people in Peñalolén began to mobilize for sites in the district, and the following year people in La Florida squatted in recently finished houses for the people from the Peñalolén camp (fig. 7); this act is the first in a series of attempts that began in 2005 in different districts of Santiago.

Fig. 7. Houses built for the inhabitants of the Peñalolén squat, occupied by the displaced people from La Florida in 2005.
Photography: María José Castillo.

After the first symbolic occupations, the retaking of Peñalolén in 2006 generated an eighth phase, that of the Location subsidy. At the beginning of the year and after Michelle Bachelet assumed power, there were three more attempts at taking land in Peñalolén. All were stopped and the settlers evicted. Months later, after moving the families from the Peñalolén camp to different places, hundreds of them tried to retake the site with the support of public opinion on the basis that the agreement had been unfavorable for them, that on this site there were still families without a housing solution and that at least part of the site could be destined for social housing (fig. 8). Three days after this attempt was suppressed, the government announced the introduction of a location subsidy and threatened the squatters with sanctions. The location subsidy was born, in part, with a mechanism whose purpose was to avoid illegal land occupation.

Fig. 8. familias/Peñalolén land squat, 2006, after the relocation of the families.
Photography: María José Castillo.

Currently, it could be said that Chile has entered a Latent land grab phase. Although there are instruments in place to access land, such as the location subsidy, people continue to think that squatting can be used to negotiate for land and are installed as an indirect means for pressure.

The Negotiation for Land Sale Since 2001

Since the enactment of the Housing Solidarity Fund in 2001, the displaced people of Santiago began to negotiate with landowners, with the SERVIU and sometimes with the municipalities to acquire sites, to undertake housing projects managed by their own committees and present them to the ministry. In the negotiations with the state, although the people sought collaboration, many times they used pressure because they considered that the SERVIU was not disposed to solve the land problem, unlike the municipalities. As the price of land is high and tends to grow speculatively when housing policy initiates new provisions, the homeless were unable to buy land in their districts. And so, between 2003 and 2006 the people began to protest or take land, but after initiation of the location subsidy, they were able to acquire sites with the increase in resources provided by the state.

When a project came together during this time, the available funds were generally insufficient and as such many solicit an increase in the volume of resources provided according to the 2006 Bachelet policy. So with the adjustments introduced by the president, some projects developed during the Lagos government were sponsored and financed later on. This was a quick learning period, because while the projects initiated by the people advanced, the program they were being based on had already been modified.

The work of the people is especially relevant in La Florida district. The directors overviewed the site, identified clean sites, contacted the owners and studied the necessary conditions according to regulations. Also in Peñalolén the municipality had initiated a plan for reserving land for the poor or to buy land after consulting them. However, the efforts of the people were generally unfruitful except for in a pair of cases in which the municipalities or politicians of the area decidedly supported the projects. Following the enactment of the location subsidy in 2006, the displaced people who acted as managers and those who called themselves self-advocates are those who implement the housing programs supplying all the gaps left by private development in the production of social housing. Thus began an intense search for land in Peñalolén, La Florida and La Pintana, among other places.

As generally in the sites identified for purchase the code did not permit the construction of social housing, the people asked the authorities to apply Article 50 of the General Law of Urbanism and Constructions that authorized them to change the District's Regulatory Plan so that SERVIU projects could be built. During the negotiations, the leaders familiarized themselves with the SERVIU authorities (who sometimes promised the same land to different committees) pressing them to cancel leases of sites given to organizations that did not use them and provide for the construction of urban infrastructure, among other actions to make the construction of social housing on the sites viable. However, with all these formalities it would take years to get a site. This is the main obstacle to their projects.

Legal Instrument Discussion Since 2006

In 2006 the squatters abandoned land grabbing and sought other ways to fight for the objective of reserving land for the homeless. They began to discuss instruments for land use planning, to veto them and pressure the authorities to consider their interests. In the same year, the Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha(8) proposed a land law as a counter to the integration law of the then Minister of Housing and Urbanism, Patricia Poblete. As we stated, the movement failed due to strong opposition from the business sector.

Since 2009, the people of Peñalolén joined the discussions on the District's Regulatory Plan (PRC): they finally rejected it, arguing that it encouraged gentrification and that, if approved, they would see an even greater reduction in their access to land in the area. Then they drew up a master plan of the slums guided by the principles that they called popular urbanism.

It was decided to submit the PRC proposal to a vote, because the mayor refused to consider the people's interest; in a hard-fought process, the official option was defeated and the plan was rejected (fig. 9). Even though some District's Regulatory Plans had been stopped due to the people's rejection, for the first time a plan was submitted to popular scrutiny by a vote whose result was negative. Another significant fact, this time with respect to the Metropolitan Regulatory Plan of Santiago prms, is that in 2011, after denying land access to the displaced people in La Pintana, the people pressured the council until it was approved (fig. 10).

Fig. 9. Vote call for the District Regulatory Plan of Peñalolén, Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha.
Photography: María José Castillo.

Fig. 10. Vacant lots in La Pintana, Santiago.
Photography: Cristhian Figueroa

Finally, along with other organizations in Santiago the "National Federation of Popular Dwellers" fenapo developed an inventory of available land in several districts in Santiago and presented it to the ministry to ask for land in such a way that each committee in the federation would have land for their respective projects. The MINVU listened to the people but refused to reserve land for specific committees with the argument that these must be slated for bidding for all the displaced people. With this answer, the authorities became familiar with the modus operandi of the advocates that evaluate the territory identifying vacant lots to later negotiate their possible acquisition in a process implying a lot of work and capability.

In 2012, facing the lack of results, the fenapo continues to mobilize to ensure that the state would reserve land for the homeless, a proposal that certain representatives in the ministry rejected in that the purchase of land by state organisms would not be a transparent process. In parallel, in their economic report on Chile in 2012, the ocde recommends that the government buy well-located land and encourage construction on vacant or underutilized urban sites (ocde, 2012).

Internationally, some authors argue that land purchases to form public land banks is unsustainable for the majority of countries due to high costs and recommend other mechanisms, such as requiring developers to hand over a percentage of land or recover capital gains generated from public investments. In any case, the experience indicates that public intervention is indispensable to obtain sites for social housing, because the market itself does not generate land for the poorest of the poor (International Development Bank, 2009).

In Chile, there are no mechanisms in place to reserve land for social housing and there are almost no initiatives that promote the cause although the issue is increasingly present in the public discourse. Currently there are some voices in the academic and political sector affirming that to consolidate land banks implies rethinking the recovery of urban capital gains. Overall, the state should not shirk from its mission to define urban land use.

The reservation of sites for the poor is also a community level task. Here it is pertinent to mention and recognize the innovative procedures for obtaining public or private land for social purposes in La Reina district during the Fernando Castillo Velasco periods, a mayor whose dedication and perseverance was able to locally generate sites for the poor. In 1965 Castillo Velasco was able to buy the La Reina estate to execute a housing project for the poor: he got proper financial support when public institutions acquired a fraction of that land (Castillo Velasco, 2008). In 1992 he was reelected and created a parallel and complementary system to the MINVU to finance social housing projects. With municipal funds, he initiated locally designed projects and financed the construction costs that state subsidies were unable to cover.

From the central state side, at the beginning of the '70s the cormu utilized legal tools that allowed them to acquire land for urban and housing projects when it was declared an urgent public need. At this time, after a detailed inventory of available sites, the ministry acquired a significantly larger quantity than in previous years, with the intention of controlling urban expansion (Lawner, 2013). Finally, it should be noted that in Chile there is precedent for the partnership between ministries and municipalities, like that of the Municipality of La Reina with the cormu to jointly implement the Development Plan for the district, where there are models that could be studied and reconsidered for urban regeneration or to find and buy sites for social housing.

The Poor 's Place in the City

With different mechanisms, from the occupation of sites to self-advocating and negotiating for sites, the people have acquired the capabilities needed to access land. In more than half a century of experience, they have learned to identify sites and consolidate practices to access them. By occupying them and urbanizing them, even purchasing them, create inventories, negotiating purchases, changing building codes and more. However, access to land continues to be an aspect in housing production where the most impediments are found; in fact it is the focus of the fight: without land there is no house. Without a well-located site, there is no access to the city.

Starting in 2006, the efforts of the poor were centered on accessing land so as to not be displaced outside the city. Since 1997, after the statement that in Santiago there is no land for social housing, the authorities modified the prms with the argument that it is necessary to expand the urban border to increase the amount of land available for social housing yet at the same time confirming that the extreme peripheries is the place for the poor.

For their part, the poor argue that they are the ones who have built the peri-central slums, and as such, their descendants should have the right to remain there. The battle flag of the poor is the right to a place to live in the city; the right to location is a fundamental right in the city.

From the practice of self-advocating, the poor have acquired capabilities that allow them to affirm that public policy needs a land bank in the peri-central and peripheral districts and of vacant sites in central districts as well as the creation of other redistributive instruments that ensure them access to urban land. The poor of today can be described as inhabitants of neighborhoods with a low standard of urbanization that have produced an important part of the city and have acquired a historical right to remain in their districts, but under the risk of being expelled to the peripheries ever farther away. The peri-central slums are values for the sense of belonging in their residents and for their connectivity to the city center.

On some occasions, the government authorities and some experts have argued that the slums of Santiago are formal neighborhoods with property titles, such that their inhabitants are not at risk of being expelled to the periphery. In reality, this expulsion consists of a threat: first, because half of the inhabitants, the squatters, are neither the owners of the house, nor the lot where the live and at some point in time they will try to own a home. Second, because the owners have no protection against urban speculation that generates the changes in land use. Many times, the people are opposed to the modification of the site-planning instruments, because while over the short term more effective land use can mean an increase in property value, over the long term it can imply that they must give up their location because the perceived resale value could be insufficient to acquire a home in an equivalent location.



1. In Latin America, many countries have laws that restrict the capitalization of urban land gains, such as Colombia, an illustrative and well documented case.

2. In 1997 it was demanded that all conditioned urban development areas (Zoduc) designate 5% of land use to high-density housing projects. In 2003, it was required that in projects of conditioned development (PDUC) 30% of housing must be acquired with a housing subsidy and at least 40% of these, equivalent to 12% of total housing units, must be of social interest.

3. In many European countries this mechanism is often utilized; normally the percentage transferred to the public sector fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the land used in the operations (Llop, 2005; International Development Bank, 2009).

4. Housing program financed with a a small contribution from the families and a significantly larger subsidy that those of previous programs. The applicants must be organized and sponsored by public or private enterprises.

5. This is the name of the left-wing political coalition that ran the country after the dictatorship of Pinochet.

6. In the units of a recently inaugurated complex, the rain began to filter through the roofs. The first solution the construction company offered to the inhabitants was the provision of plastic sheets to cover their houses.

7.This is a neighborhood in the northern periphery of Santiago (Trans. note). 8 It could be translated as "Struggling people's movement".

8.It could be translated as "Struggling people's movement".



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1. María José Castillo. Architect, 1988; Diploma in Urban Management Projects, 2002 and in Social Housing, 2003, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; Specialist in cooperation for the development of human settlements in the third world, 2005, and PhD in Architecture and Urbanism, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 2013. She is currently a professor in the Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago and urban consultant of the Municipality of Providencia.

2. Rossana Forray. Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 1982; Masters in Urbanism, 1991 and PhD in Applied Sciences, Université Catholique de Louvain, 1998. She has been a visiting faculty member in France, Mexico, Nicaragua, Madagascar, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and the United States; she has been involved in research and academic work in projects and policy related to urban and social development, industrial patrimony, urban regeneration and more. Her current research is related to mobility and public space within the framework of sustainable urban development. Among her publications the books Coproduire nos espaces publics and The Tribune Tree, European Principles of Citizen Participation in urban Regeneration Policies are to be noted. She is currently an associate professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and invited professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain.

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