By Marcella de Araujo Silva I Visiting Brazilian PhD student at CLAS
In 2009, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a new housing program. After a three-decade gap in public policy, Minha Casa Minha Vida (My Home My Life) promised the greatest provision of housing funding for historically marginalized populations. Families whose monthly income was up to R$5000 (around US$1200) could finally apply for different types of grants according to their income brackets. They are three: bracket one comprising families whose incomes vary between R$0 and R$1600; bracket two, R$1601–R$3275; and bracket three, R$3275–R$5000. Bracket one is also known as the “social interest bracket” and subsidies go up to 95% of housing cost.
The social dimension of such a program is better understood if we take into account the depth of the Brazilian housing deficit. According to Fundação João Pinheiro’s national statistics, there is a lack of 7 million housing units nationwide. The numbers are even worse if we consider living standards such as urban infrastructure, house densification, inadequate shelter, inadequate landing, and bathroom-less houses. Ninety percent of the Brazilian housing deficit—either quantitative or qualitative—involves the poorest families whose meager earnings do not exceed R$1600 (approx. US$400) monthly (1).
Despite its undeniable social purpose, Minha Casa Minha Vida was also created with an economic goal. The program was conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis as an anti-cyclical measure. On the one hand, the Brazilian government would finance building contractors, expanding the market and creating thousands of jobs. According to the president of Câmara Brasileira de Construção Civil (Brazilian Chamber of Building Construction), by November 2014, there were 500,000 workers whose jobs were on Minha Casa Minha Vida building sites (2). In addition, the federal government would help millions of poor families’ dreams of owning a house come true, as Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil) repeatedly advertised on television. Financing production and granting consumption was for at least four years the class-conciliation strategy of economic growth with social redistribution fostered by the Partido dos Trabalhadores’ (Workers Party). Minha Casa Minha Vida promptly became the second most important social policy in the country, right after Bolsa Família, the government’s poverty eradication program.
Minha Casa Minha Vida popular condominium in Colônia Juliano Moreira, Jacarepaguá neighborhood, West Zone, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Samantha Gifalli.
Notwithstanding, since its release, social movements and urban researchers have scrutinized Minha Casa Minha Vida’s apparent success. Even though the program addresses an old social demand, its mode of production, the form and physical quality of the new apartment buildings, and its territorial and social effects are objects of criticism (3).
Among architects and urban planners, Minha Casa Minha Vida’s most criticized aspect is its institutional framework. Enrollment varies according to income bracket. For brackets two and three, the dynamics are exactly the same as any regular real estate market. The negative outcomes are predictable. Since there is more credit, apartment prices increase enormously, sometimes making it nearly impossible for families to afford a new house. Since 2008, skyrocketed rents—97% higher in São Paulo and 144% in Rio—have pushed families from central areas towards more distant ones. For the social interest bracket, the enrollment procedure is two-fold: families might enroll themselves or they might be registered by social workers, according to maps of natural disaster risk areas. The outcomes are highly controversial and conflicting: depending on risk areas’ geographical limits, higher-income families unwilling to leave their houses for tiny apartments are registered, and extremely poor families who have lost shelter and belongings countless times are not.
Bypassing Ministério das Cidades’ (Ministry of Cities) intersectorial perspective of housing, sewage, and urban mobility programs, Minha Casa Minha Vida does not address sustainable urban infrastructure. For instance, in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro alone, between 2010 and 2012, almost 100,000 apartments were built, most of them in areas with limited access to public transportation and bereft of urban and social facilities. Hence architects and urban planners perceive the program as a massive production of housing units, rather than urban planning.
Not only does the project consist of building great numbers of units, but it does so in highly concentrated spaces. In the city of Rio, 27,000 units are distributed among only 82 condominiums. Each of them is shaped as an enclave, with high security bars, controlled entrances, and inner recreational areas of poor quality—a housing type until now more common among upper classes gated communities. Once they are handed over to the new residents, they become private spaces, privately managed. The extra expenses caused by this privatization make the housing scheme unaffordable to social interest bracket families.
Finally, these popular condominiums are distributed across cities according to the income brackets they encompass. In Rio’s most valued areas—the South Zone, nearby downtown, and near North Zone—where urban land prices are higher, barely any Minha Casa Minha Vida housing can be found. However, in the West Zone, unfairly known as the hinterlands of the city, there is great concentration of low-income condominiums. Thus, two modes of segregation overlap: the center-periphery and the gated-community.
As we can see, the current Brazilian housing program is highly controversial and it poses important challenges to sociological inquiry. What roles do these apartments play in poor families’ economic strategies and housing trajectories? How are these popular condominiums inscribed in the urban fabric? What kind of city is under construction? Only good qualitative and ethnographic research can unfold these processes and shed light into how people are coping with their dilemmas.
(1) Fundação João Pinheiro (2012). Déficit habitacional no Brasil 2009 / Fundação João Pinheiro, Centro de Estatística e Informações. – Belo Horizonte.
(3) All recent publications on Minha Casa Minha Vida and other urban-related themes can be found on this website http://www.habitacaoecidade-observatoriodasmetropoles.net/?cat=6