Bring a smile to Brazil social housing conundrum

Perhaps, with hindsight Brazil can teach us a lesson or two how to reduce the waiting list for our homeless families, and offer affordable housing for thousands of low-wage TCN’s licensed by temping agencies


Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV) is a landmark social housing program in Brazil that has made significant strides in addressing the country's housing deficit and improving living conditions for low- and middle-income families. While the program has faced challenges related to quality, geographic disparities, and economic factors, its impact on housing accessibility, economic growth, and urban development is undeniable.

Continued efforts to enhance the program's effectiveness, address challenges, and ensure sustainable development will be crucial for its long-term success. Phase 1 (2009-2014); this was the initial launch which focused on addressing the immediate housing needs of low-income families. Initially, it aimed to build 1 million housing units.  In 2014 for the next four years, Brazil’s politicians expanded the program to include middle-income families and increased the target to 2 million housing units. It succeeded to introduce more favourable financing terms and increased subsidies.

In the current phase starting from 2018, we noticed further expansion with a focus on improving the quality of housing and urban infrastructure. Over its sixteen-year period, complications arose particularly as some housing units have faced quality issues, including construction defects and inadequate infrastructure.

Useful studies conducted 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 examine any additional costs that MCMV program has generated. The MCMV program has been effectively delivering affordable housing units in large numbers; however, it has also faced growing criticism over the planning, design, and quality of its end products. In particular, a critical link between affordable housing to adequate access and mobility is missing, since the developments took the form of isolated, housing-only projects situated on remote urban periphery.  

In Rio de Janeiro, for example, 53 percent of MCMV units delivered by 2013 to the lowest income bracket beneficiaries were unfortunately located in the far West Zone. In this example, MCMV homes were located outside the city centre which forced dwellers to drive as many as four hours to reach their place of work.  It required commuters to pay multiple transfers away to reach employment clusters and other urban resources. This is not the first time that social housing has been poorly planned in Brazil, a vast country with a population reaching 213 million.

As the country entered the military regime in the 1960s, the creation of the National Housing Bank (BNH) guaranteed a permanent source of funds for mass housing clusters. However, due to repeated cost cutting, such reforms resulted in low-quality, homogenized, and isolated projects, exacerbating the income disparity in Brazilian cities. Typical examples are Cidade de Deus, Vila Aliança, and Vila Kennedy all in Rio de Janeiro, constructed in 1961 and funded by the Alliance for Progress program developed by the late U.S. President John Kennedy. In particular, this NGO had demonstrated its vision to eradicate favelas.  

Social unrest fomented over the years, when in 2013 thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest, allegedly spurred by a small increase in bus fares. However, the root of these demonstrations was not a ten-cent fare change, but a protest against corruption which fanned an urbanization curse. This consists of sprawling, isolated ghettos that are impossible to access, service effectively, or provide a connection to the essential resources and opportunities of the city. Changes in government and political priorities have led to shifts in focus and funding for the program, affecting its long-term planning and implementation.

One cannot help not mentioning bureaucratic inefficiencies and delays in project approvals and funding disbursements.  All these have slowed down the construction and delivery of housing units. More headaches faced by home seekers concern late issue of subsidies and willingness of banks to grant favourable financing terms. As can be expected, some low-income families have struggled to meet loan repayment obligations, leading to defaults and foreclosures.  Some complain about hidden costs, such as maintenance fees and utility bills, all these have sometimes made housing units less affordable for the intended beneficiaries.  

A typical social housing project in São Paulo provides no amenities and comes with poor access to transit, keeping residents isolated and disconnected from the city. Studies carried out between 1970 and 1974 reported how the number of favelas in the cities almost doubled from 162 to 283, providing informal housing solutions born out of residents’ need to live closer to work. It came as no surprise that the Ford Foundation and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in 2014 embarked on an investigation into MCMV developments. It analysed four case studies located in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo so as to evaluate the impact of urbanization on residents. It is worth mentioning, how a university in the state of Minas Gerais applied this methodology, documenting a case located in Uberlandia.

Just as cities must be built for multiple integrated uses, government-sponsored affordable housing should not be conceived in isolation, especially at the scale of the MCMV program, which hopes to transform the social and spatial dynamics of so many urban dwellers. Equally essential to the long-term sustainability of such housing programs in Brazil is coordinated laying of services such as water, electricity, and sanitation in a well-connected location.  

Back to Malta, let us examine two studies by local field experts Mario Vassallo and Anna Borg from the University of Malta which highlighted an “increasing trend in homelessness situations within an overall context of perceived levels of affordable housing”. Inter Alia, it states how the increase in homelessness has been noted by both Caritas Malta and YMCA, lamenting that the true figures are higher than the reported number of cases of people living rough as shown on police records. Perhaps, with hindsight Brazil can teach us a lesson or two how to reduce the waiting list for our homeless families, and offer affordable housing for thousands of low-wage TCN’s licensed by temping agencies.

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