Brazil’s social housing programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida prides itself on having delivered an enormous amount of affordable housing. But putting a roof over people’s heads is not sufficient if the settlements are located on the far outskirts of a city, depriving residents of access to urban resources, claims Clarisse Cunha Linke.
Minha Casa, Minha Vida
Unprecedented investments in both public transport and social housing have marked Brazil from 2009 until 2016. Against a backdrop of rapid economic growth, large infrastructure investment programmes, and high-profile international events, ambitious social policies were implemented throughout the country. These advances created considerable opportunities for moving the city towards transit-oriented development.
The Minha Casa, Minha Vida (MCMV) programme, currently the main and sole channel for social housing production, was established in 2009. The programme has effectively delivered impressive numbers of affordable housing units, reducing the country’s historical housing deficit, with more than 4.5 million units distributed to the population. However, it has also received negative reviews and criticism for the planning, design, and quality of its end products.
Reproducing Old Patterns
At the core of the critiques is the fundamental lack of equipping affordable housing with access to basic services such as public transport, education, health, and social protection, reproducing the patterns of the 1960 and 1970s. The vast majority of social housing developments in Brazil have historically been built as isolated, housing-only projects on the far-flung urban periphery.
Six decades ago, the Housing National Bank and Housing Financial System were set up by the military regime in order to guarantee a permanent source of funds for housing and mass production. However, at that time, concerns about delivering cost-benefit projects resulted in poor-quality, homogenised developments, that ignored local social and cultural specificities and demands. Developments were located in the periphery, isolated from economic opportunities. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, the social housing programme was employed to relocate favela residents that were evicted from the inner city. During the 1960 and 1970s, 175,000 residents were moved into 40,000 houses that were built in settlements such as Cidade de Deus and Vila Kennedy. But these developments were so badly located that within a few years, the number of favelas in the inner city almost doubled: informal housing solutions responding to people’s need to be close to work.
With the current MCMV programme, the pattern has not changed. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, 53 per cent of the MCMV units delivered between 2009 and 2013 were built in the far-off West Zone, 50 km from the city centre. Residents living in the West Zone are up to four hours and multiple transfer fees away from areas of employment and from the centres of urban resources in downtown and the South Zone.
The Importance of Location
In 2013, Brazil experienced the most intense wave of protest in decades. The urban social movements that erupted across the country followed hikes in bus fares, but they have brought to the fore much more than simply the need to address the unsatisfactory services and excessive costs of urban transport: They have shed light on the flaws of a certain mode of urbanisation that is spawning disintegrated places that are impossible to service effectively and efficiently, thus denying a mass of people proper access to urban resources and opportunities. With this in mind, government-sponsored affordable housing can no longer be considered in isolation, especially when on the scale of a national programme that transforms the social and spatial dynamics of urban development.
A well-connected location and appropriate infrastructure are about as important as water and sanitation to the long-term sustainability of social housing projects. This has to include aspects ranging from a network of safe and welcoming streets that entice people to walk, cycle, and socialise in the public realm to a public transport network that provides rapid and frequent service. This connectivity must be tightly integrated into the fabric of the city, with the goal of connecting a constellation of neighbourhoods.
Studies conducted in the last years by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) in partnership with the Brazilian Ministry of Cities compared three scenarios to understand the additional costs that MCMV program has generated. The scenarios looked at construction: (i) near the urban centre, (ii) at the edge of the consolidated urban area (at “the end of the city”), or (iii) outside the urban sprawl.
The Hidden Cost
When building on land outside the urban sprawl, it is the responsibility of the municipal public authority to bring the necessary infrastructure and basic services to the new residents; this causes additional cost. The third scenario shows an additional value of approximately R$ 10,000 per housing unit, considering only the installation of basic infrastructure such as roads, public transportation, and community public facilities such as schools, health care, and social assistance units.
If we take into account an enterprise of 3,000 housing units (a common size for MCMV projects), this amount reaches R$ 30 million of additional costs for each housing project. In more centrally located areas, these costs would not exist, since there the necessary infrastructure and equipment are most likely already existent and consolidated. In the long term, costs for these additionally built equipment and services exceed 2.5 times the costs of implementation.
More Than A Roof
Revisions of the MCMV programme’s regulation for its new investment phase have been conducted and recommendations adopted by the Secretary of Housing at the Ministry of Cities. These emphasise the financial inefficiency of locating housing on the outskirts. Simultaneously, they equip decision makers in the government with tools to plan for more sustainable solutions. New parameters were established that link access to sustainable mobility (walking, cycling, and public transport) with better locations for housing projects.
As Brazilian urban planner Raquel Rolnik says: “Nosso déficit não é de casas, é de cidade”— “Our deficit is not so much one of housing units as one of urbanity”. It is crucial to ensure that social housing policies and programmes are brought together into a coherent whole, so that such massive efforts result not only in quantitative, but qualitative provision of housing, featuring access to services and mobility. Housing is not only about putting a roof over people’s heads, but about creating places that are nurturing and that are connected to the resources of the city to which they belong.