The Bolsonaro government freezes funding for self-managed social housing construction, destroys the Ministry of Cities and tries to declare the housing movements as terrorists
by Brian Mier*
Approximately 7 million Brazilian families live in substandard housing, in shacks or simple brick houses that are often built in areas at risk of flooding or landslides that are of low interest to the real estate industry. This is a historic problem that can be traced back to the massive waves of migration to Brazilian cities that happened, first, after slavery ended and states like São Paulo began actively importing immigrants for Italy and Japan to whiten the labor force and, later, from the massive exodus out of the northeast (1950s – 1980s) due to droughts and a process called grilhagem, in which big landowners fenced off and stole millions of hectares of land for monoculture production and cattle ranching, kicking off the small farmers who lived there. During this period, from 1950-1980, the populations of many cities in the more developed southeast quadrupled. Massive favelas of migrants sprung up and city governments have been struggling to provide services for these areas ever since.
During the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology organizers from the Catholic Church began putting local neighborhood leaders in touch with each other to talk about common strategies to address the housing shortage and the “popular” (or poor peoples) urban social movements were born. These social movements worked together with unions, progressive political parties and academics and gathered over a million signatures on two petitions which resulted in Articles 182 and 183 of the Brazilian constitution. These two articles stipulate that dignified housing ownership is a constitutional right for all Brazilians and that the social function of property has to take precedent over the profit motive. By the 1990s, Social movements like the União Nacional por Moradia Popular (National Popular Housing Union/UNMP, the Movimento Nacional de Lula por Moradia (National Housing Movement Struggle/MNLM, and the Central de Movimentos Populars (Popular Movements Central/CMP), had hundreds of thousands of members in all 26 Brazilian states, and, acting with their academic, union and local NGO partners in the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum/FNRU), they pressured the government to pass the landmark 2001 Statute of the Cities, which created legal guidelines to guarantee that city governments respected their constitutional requirements for housing rights and issues such as public transportation and sanitation. Later, newer housing movements such as the Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers Movement/MTST) and the Movimento de Luta nos Bairros (Neighborhood Struggle Movement/MLB) became important regional actors, with MTST leader Guilherme Boulos winning 500,000 votes in the 2018 presidential elections.
One of the first things that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did upon taking the presidency in 2003 was to create the national Ministry of the Cities to oversee federal investment in urban areas. In one of the most innovative policy decisions in the history of urban planning, the Ministry was controlled by the people through the National Conference of the Cities system. Working on the city, state and regional levels, social movements, residents associations, unions and a guaranteed minority share of business leaders and Brazilian NGOs held regular community meetings and elected delegates. Ever two years, the Federal Government flew 5000 delegates to Brasilia to spend a week voting on legislation and funding for urban reform projects. There, they would elect 100 representatives to sit on the National Cities Council. City councilors were flown to Brasilia every three months to sit in meetings with the Ministry of Cities director and staff and approve or reject legislation and policy initiatives in one of the largest democracy-deepening exercises in the history of urban reform.
The first National Cities Minister was former Porto Alegre mayor Olivio Dutra, who was an internationally renowned figure in urban planning circles due the pioneering work on participatory budgeting done during his tenure as Mayor. His assistant, Erminia Maricatto, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary for the City of São Paulo under Mayor Luiza Erundina, was one of the most respected leftist urban planners in the country. Unfortunately, like so many other Ministries in Lula’s government, the Ministry of Cities fell victim to coalition politics in 2005. Dutra and Maricatto left and from that point forward the Ministry was controlled by conservative political party coalition partners who worked to undermine or bypass the power of the city councilors, although they were not fully successful.
At the 2007 National Cities Conference, President Lula signed a decree ratifying the Federal Social Interest Housing Act – historic proposal of the urban reform movement – and allocated around $1 billion USD for self-managed social movement housing construction. This policy later expanded and transformed into a sub program of the Minha Casa Minha Vida housing program and, over the next 10 years, hundreds of thousands of families benefited from self-managed housing projects that were implemented by the social movements in cooperation with Caixa federal mortgage bank and local construction companies.
Unlike the United States’ public housing program, which has no viable path to ownership and traps residents into the permanent underclass, Lula and the social movements’ program was developed to guarantee ownership and it prioritized single mothers.
During these construction projects, which usually took two to three years, social movement members who had family income levels under 1.5 times the minimum salary would volunteer one day a week, working to clear the land and maintain construction sites in good condition. In exchange for their labor, they would receive larger apartments than in traditional social housing programs, averaging around 542 meters, with subsidized financing which would enable them to gain full ownership after 10 years of relatively low monthly payments that usually averaged around $30 USD. The housing projects that resulted from these programs were cooperatively self-managed, with resident-owners meeting periodically vote on issues related to their upkeep and maintenance.
The program was not perfect. The bidding system was set up so that any community association could bid on a project, and there were limited cases of corruption with fly-by-night neighborhood organizations popping up that later turned out to be shell organizations for construction moguls. Other criticisms included the fact that most of the housing projects were built on the urban periphery and failed to address the right for poor people to live in the city centers. Nevertheless, as a result of these programs, hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilians moved into the lower middle class through home ownership.
After the 2016 Coup, President Michel Temer canceled the National Cities Conference and gutted funding for Minha Casa Minha Vida Entidades. In January, 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro disbanded the National Ministry of the Cities. Not only has his government frozen all new funding for social movement housing construction, but his allies introduced a bill in Congress that would categorize social movements as terrorist organizations.
I produced the following short news story for TeleSur English about one of the last social movement housing construction projects in Brazil. Located on the northwest side of São Paulo, with over 1000 housing units, it is the largest project ever funded by the Minha Casa Minha Vida Entidades program. Authorized during the final days of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, it was created in a way that funding was guaranteed regardless of regime change. It is scheduled to reach completion in the next few months but, as UNMP leader Donizete Fernandes says, it doesn’t look like anything else like this is going happen in Brazil for a long time.
* Brian Mier is a former member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana directorate and 3-time delegate to the National Conference of the Cities.