Due to society’s inequalities, historical dividends and segregation, more and more can we see throughout the world, clever social housing programs. One of the most productive sectors in building, be it at moving the actual industry or having an active social impact, it has grown in most countries with no signs of winding down since the Second World War. But with the twentieth century’s ever-developing technology, it might be that there are also big developments in theoretical and a more human approach to these programs and the problems they face.

Traditionally, when studying these kinds of programs, the first source that comes to mind is the French situation. Historically driven by much social leadership in public administration, design and project the French cityscape, the French programs are comprised of associations, which, in broad lines, act on behalf of the government. In the country, around 15% of the stocks are of this kind, and in Paris, the association has more than three hundred thousand units with various types of financing and a range of rent prices, showing how broad and strong this program has become.

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Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy Housing project allows intervention from inhabitants

Other social housing programs, though, must be highlighted as well. See Alejandro Aravena’s work in Chile, for example, which became a beacon of innovation to the wide public in regards to personal expression. Normally, most social houses are comprised of serial production of large quantities of housing blocks with no real personality – and, as a purely technical and practical point of view, understand the necessity of such to successfully house and benefit the largest amount of people as quickly as possible. However, one must also comprehend that reality isn’t as described, purely practical, simply black and white. And Aravena understood that masterfully. By creating houses open to modification and personal expression through space, a canvas for inhabitants, social housing became less of a program and more of sharing the possibility to have homes. And this, which is called by some as “incremental design”, has become a sort of trend in good social housing, as we can see for example in the Monterrey Housing Project, set in Mexico, a country which, like Spain, Australia, and Belgium, has taken good strides in social housing recently.

While all this happens and evolves constantly, more and more programs come to fruition. Such is the case of “Minha Casa Minha Vida” (‘My Home My life’) or MCMV in Brazil. The program was set in 2009 while the country was fairly easily surpassing the 2008 international crisis. Even though the country would later be immersed in economical and an even larger political crisis, with seemingly never-ending fraud and corruption scandals, MCMV survived, although it had some major structural changes over the years. In an unfavorable scenario, the program helped almost fifteen million people, seven percent of the country’s population, as of 2018. But all is far from perfect.

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The MCMV program has received harsh critics. Apart from scandalous building and technical mistakes which made new building show cracks, it has many conceptual problems: in 2011, Luciana Correa do Lago (Ippur/UFRJ) was quoted saying that the program consisted of “nothing more than having the right to a house”, criticizing the inequalities and illegal buildings it perpetrated. Displacement of communities and lack of identity studies and care are commonly pointed out as reasons for disliking said program. Fraud, negligence and internal criminality have also been major issues, with reports of drug dealing, organized fraudulent schemes, money laundering and even militia-like-gangs being set inside the complexes, not to mention the numerous claims of prejudice towards the inhabitants. But let’s be clear, that is not merely a problem seen in Brazil; in fact, it is a concern in most programs worldwide. In the world’s leader in the subject, France, for example, this is a major question discussed today. So much so that the New Yorker published “The Other France”, discussing racism and xenophobia after terrorist attacks, alongside other critical points in the country’s capital and major cities’ social housing complexes.

So, how can social housing overcome these problems? It must be that, through the own program’s structure, there are instruments and advocates of change. The MCMV program might have a claim to such. It turns out that the Brazilian proposal isn’t unitary, in other words, it has more than one front and form of action towards helping the poorer parcels of society. And here comes the MCMV Entidades (‘entities’): it’s a form of social housing in Brazil which tries to tackle the problem through an elevation of social sustainability concepts seen in France and Chile works already presented to new and institutionalized standards. The program consists mainly of two sets, financing to families in order to build or qualify houses, while the said entities, which are cooperatives, associations or non-lucrative organizations/ civil society, are part of the building process. So far, the interesting approach doesn’t seem like enough of a substantial change from the normal MCMV to be called upon as an answer to the program’s’ problems. The difference, however, comes in how the houses are actually built and used, with a far more humanistic approach that involves direct contact between builder and consumer. The inhabitants are incentivized to participate in the process, taking a stand for themselves, their needs and wants, since they have the role of self-managing their new houses.

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In this context, it’s the concept of self-management takes the spotlight. Perhaps, it may work well in the country due to a large and rich history of self-building and management in the favelas, Brazilian poorer communities which, unlike some may think, have huge consumption, production and overall economic benefits to the life of Brazilian cities. Besides that, they also have massive cultural and identity roles to the population- and that’s a reason some criticize the normal MCMV program, which sometimes takes people out of these communities and puts them in far away impersonal and serial blocks. Now, with the MCMV-E idea, the approach is different and this self-management typology that, I hypothesize, is ingrained in the Brazilian people, is potentiated. But let it be clear this isn’t an impeditive for other countries doing this practice after all every human community has once been self-built and managed- it is just an idea to show how and why this Brazilian project is able to work in confluence with the communities at play.

Now comes the time to understand its process. Once the documentation is set, the cooperatives established and the land provided, the cooperatives choose how to build (self-building, joint effort, etc) and the actual building starts. Of course, this is an outline of the reality and that, being in Brazil, laws, and documentation are always complicated, but that’s a general idea. And results, as far as possible considering the social realities of Brazil, have been interesting since the buildings now have a personal feel which translates to being taken better care of. Crime rates are smaller, social activity is richer and the displacement of communities is generally reduced, all gathering up to a successful experience in the matter.

The idea behind Entidades makes us think about how to further develop worldwide social housing. Of course, it has problems, such as the tension between social and civil rights movements and the ruling powers, the disagreeing parts when it comes to working remuneration and the fact that, due to the successive country’s crisis, the program hasn’t managed to grow quantitatively, being unknown and unavailable to most. Even so, bringing the communities closer to housing and breaking the idea of the architect and builder as an untouchable and all-knowing being is already a great notion for the development of worldwide programs. Most of them exclude the main protagonist in the subject, which is the inhabitant himself, and by changing that, MCMV-E makes an active stand for communities through the self-management practice. With the ever-developing technologies of the twenty-first century, perhaps it’s being more human and present that will convey towards a better future for social housing programs.


André Caetano graduated Colégio de São Bento and now studies architecture and urbanism in PUC-Rio, Brazil. His main interest is the influence of space in our lives and choices, ranging from historical evidence of such to its new studies and projects, both in architecture and urbanism.

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