Popular housing

Image: Inga Seliverstova


The lower the income class, the lower the share of residents in rented housing.

Until the 1940s, building popular rental properties was a highly profitable private investment in Brazil. The supply of residential units was high and the majority of the poor population lived in rented housing. The tenancy law, regulating the rental market, and the freezing of rental values ​​in the early 1940s, during the Second World War, were fundamental factors in the decline in the construction of popular rental housing. Investments began to be directed towards the development of industry which, in turn, attracted inhabitants from rural areas. The resulting acceleration in the urbanization process exacerbated the housing problem in cities, which were already facing stagnation in the supply of affordable housing for rent.

In the second half of the 1950s, for the Brasília construction megaproject, there was a migration of the northeastern population, who built the city, but had nowhere to live. There are countless atrocities and silenced deaths of the candangos who built the capital in the Central Plateau, such as the massacre of February 8, 1959. To meet the schedule, the progress of the works was accelerated without much concern for the safety of pedestrians, who could be promptly replaced by new contingents of northeasterners. When one of the workers fell from the top of one of the buildings under construction, the others ran down, but when they reached the ground floor, they no longer found the body, which had been removed without leaving a trace.

The situation worsened during the military dictatorship, with the creation of the Housing Financial System, a housing financing model accessible only to higher income classes, with conditions to access credit. Real estate credit in the 1970s promoted the expansion of the construction industry, which, in turn, was responsible for attracting more workers to jobs without specific qualifications. The cities received huge waves of construction workers who, however, once again, had nowhere to live.

To guarantee the housing system for the privileged layers of the population, the State turned a blind eye, tolerating irregular occupations of urban land through invasions of water sources, land grabbing and clandestine subdivisions, which enabled the non-capitalist provision of housing for urban workers recently arrived from field.

The research we carried out at the Social Economy Laboratory – LES at PUC-SP on the population’s housing conditions, “Rent and household income in Brazil”, published in Contemporary Economy Magazine from UFRJ, indicated that the supply of housing for rent, as well as access to credit for low-income families, is extremely precarious. The lower the income class, the lower the share of residents in rented households. Furthermore, the lower the family income, the greater the share of rent in the family budget.

Given the precarious supply of affordable housing, paying rent for the poorest sections of the population is practically prohibitive. This naturally explains the low participation of residents from the poorest sectors of the population in rented houses and apartments; and the search for alternatives that go beyond the real estate market, which means that the poor have to resort to favelas, occupation of idle properties, improvised homes, tenements, illegal occupation of land, invasions of water sources, self-construction, acquisition of possession of non-regularized homes and other forms of housing, which includes the occupation of sidewalks in large cities.

While we were carrying out our research on popular housing, Miloon Kothari, United Nations special rapporteur on housing rights issues, on a visit to Brazil, declared that movements that promote occupations are legitimate; and how irregular the Brazilian government is, which does not fulfill the commitment made in international pacts and is violating the right to housing. Miloon Kothari also stated that the government should recognize that there are no alternatives to movements that promote occupations.

During the first terms of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Anacláudia Rossbach, who had actively participated in the work team of the Social Economy Laboratory and is currently director of Latin America and the Caribbean programs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, provided technical assistance for the development and implementation of the Brazilian housing policy, the Growth Acceleration Program – PAC, to improve infrastructure in favelas; and for the Minha Casa, Minha Vida housing subsidy model.

Millions of affordable homes were built, welcoming many families who lived in at-risk areas and enabling a significant improvement in the lives of millions of people, in addition to expanding the secondary property market and the supply of affordable housing for rent. However, there remain enormous challenges to be faced. Today there are thousands of empty and idle properties – houses without people, people without homes.

In São Paulo, the Occupation 9th of July, administered by the Centro Homeless Movement – ​​MSTC, is today a symbol of the struggle for housing. The INSS building was idle for 21 long years. Abandoned since 1976, empty and dilapidated, it was occupied for the first time in 1997. After several evictions, it was recovered in 2016. The residents of Ocupação 9 de Julho organize cultural events and community lunches on Sundays that legitimize the movement and help to demolish the stigma that its residents are transgressors, because the government is outside the law, which does not provide popular housing.

The majestic Palácio dos Campos Elíseos, former headquarters of the Government of the State of São Paulo, today houses the Favela Museum. The museum is a manifesto that certifies the value of the culture developed by favela residents, people who, marginalized by the system, are impelled to resist, assert their self-esteem, live, innovate and create. The museum opens space for the visceral and living memories of favelas to be shared, recognized and strengthened. Its intense program includes exhibitions, workshops, presentation of research on residents of the outskirts, conversation circles, book launches and literary soirées.

*Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor of political economy at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of 1968, dreams and nightmares. [https://amzn.to/46zWlyv]

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