5 groups awarded for self-built, self-managed housing projects

Community members and Cooperación Comunitaria workers re-construct a home demolished by a 2013 hurricane in the Mexican state of Guerrero. (UrbaMonde)

MEXICO CITY — Carlos Rojas got tired of being what he calls a “conventional architect” and of the stressful life that it brought in Bogotá. That sense eventually pushed him and a few friends and colleagues to start an experiment: In 2006, they founded Ecoaldea Aldeafeliz, or “Happy Ecovillage”, in the Colombian town of San Francisco de Sales.

“We are a social experiment on responsible economic, social and ecological life,” Rojas said this month. “We state that cities are seeing a major decline in the quality of life and that we have to create the conditions for life in the countryside.”

The Ecoaldea Aldeafeliz pioneers built their houses with mud and bamboo in an eight-acre area. Sixty members pay USD 1,500 each for land, funds which are donated to the association. Then they plant coffee and milpa — an ancestral agricultural mix that involves mainly corn, beans and zucchini — for the 30 people who actually inhabit the village. Eventually, Ecoaldea Aldeafeliz aims to become self-sustainable.

The initiative is among five projects to receive this year’s Latin American Social Production of Habitat Award, which has been running since 2015. The awardees were announced here last month by the Swiss group urbaMonde, the Habitat International Coalition, the Uruguayan Federation of Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives and the British Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF).

The other winners are Cooperación Comunitaria (Community Cooperation), from Mexico; the housing cooperative Esperança, from Brazil; Cobañados Coordinator, from Paraguay; and the Comunidad del Buen Vivir (Community Development Committee) of Los Pinos, in Ecuador.

Chosen by a five-member jury, the winners automatically will compete for the World Habitat Award 2017, a more established prize also hosted by the BSHF.

[See: Can Swiss housing cooperatives introduce their approach in developing countries?]

Latin America is among the most urbanized parts of the planet, as 80 percent of the region’s total population of 641 million people live in towns and cities. Further, at least 104 million live in slums.

That disparity has led many academics and advocates in the region to suggest that answers can be found in a strategy they call the social production of habitat. The concept emphasizes that housing and other local community spaces should be self-built by those who are going to use them and by non-profit social group, to local specifications. This approach, backers say, circumvents both the predations of markets and the diktats of planners.

In Latin America, Bolivia and Ecuador have been pioneers in the introduction and implementation of this approach. More recently, countries such Mexico have legally endorsed the concept but have yet to implement it yet.

[See: As a global commodity, housing has ‘lost its currency as a universal human right’]

Last year, the international community adopt a new 20-year strategy on how to plan, build and manage sustainable cities, called the New Urban Agenda. While that document recognizes important elements of the social production of habitat — encouraging, for instance, “cooperative solutions such as co-housing, community land trust, and other forms of collective tenure” — advocates say this has yet to translate into action on the ground.

Organizers of the award say they are hoping to strengthen that aspect of the New Urban Agenda in coming years. The winning projects vary in scope, but they share certain principles, emphasizing self-management, collective construction, “mutual help” — meaning that everyone helps each other in home construction — and community decision-making. Three of the projects also focus on the struggle for affordable housing, including a defence of other rights.

The awardees feel empowered by the prize, several said. “It’s important that social production implies a model of participatory production,” Isadora Hastings, general coordinator of Cooperación Comunitaria, said during an awards ceremony here. “We can’t keep thinking about land as a commodity: Habitat is a right.”

Here is a rundown on the other four winners:

Mexico

In 2013, two hurricanes devastated parts of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest regions. Public and private assistance flooded in to help affected communities, and one of these groups was Cooperación Comunitaria (Community Cooperation). Hastings said the work began with an analysis of the damage, which included deaths, crippled communications and other infrastructure, destroyed crops and more than 5,000 homes irreparably damaged.

The NGO, based in Mexico City, focused on the El Obispo community, in the township of Malinaltepec, where 11 houses were demolished and another 26 were severely damaged. Together, the community and the NGO launched a comprehensive effort to reconstruct the homes.

[See: Summit aims to ‘substantially increase’ local strategies on disaster risk]

“We began with the community space, so that the people would quickly join up with the process,” Hastings said. “We generated another way of making things — improved building techniques and zoning, to better select where to build houses, and improved the environment and quality of life.”

The innovative results led to a local risk map, better construction techniques, new and cheaper houses resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes, a self-building manual translated into a local indigenous language and more, all facilitated by private and public funding.

Altogether, the group help built three community centres and 33 houses, benefitting 260 inhabitants.

Ecuador

On the southern outskirts of Quito, the Ecuadoran capital, a group of 300 underprivileged families have been working since 2006 to take legal possession of a 32-acre piece of land that used to belong to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The land’s value is estimated at around USD 1.5 million — unaffordable for the group. Nonetheless, the Los Pinos Comunidad del Buen Vivir put forward a proposal for how to divide up the plots for ecological and housing purposes.

[See: Did Habitat III make progress on the stickiest of urbanization issues — land reform?]

After a legal battle between the ministry and the municipalities of Mejía and Quito, the former finally wrested ownership of the land. It is now expected to be transferred to the families.

“The municipality has the authority and obligation to improve human settlements. Possession is fundamental,” said Jenny Díaz, the committee’s former president.

Paraguay

A similar experience has faced Cobañados in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción. There, 120,000 people, organized in eight zonal collectives, are defending public lands along the margins of the Paraguay River from eviction. They are under threat by the Asunción Coastal Strip, a 14 km-long, two-highway system that will connect the area with the rest of the city.

“We’ve built houses. We have learned to work communally — and that’s what we most value, because it’s more than the state gives,” said María García, the organization’s general coordinator. “We comply with the universal right to housing. We have been recognized by the municipality as a social interest group. [Our] self-management has played the role of public policy,” she noted, suggesting that the organization’s work has substituted for that of the state.

The land extends through nearly five acres, where three cooperatives built 203 houses in three neighbourhoods between 2012 and 2016 — more than original targeted — with public funds and donations. But most of the people lack sewage, drinking water and electricity.

It’s “struggle after struggle, daily”, said García.

Brazil

Since 2000, the housing cooperative Esperança has fought to get decent housing for 70 families in Rio de Janeiro. Its work had been particularly facilitated by a public housing programme known as “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (“My House, My Life”), but this was halted when President Michel Temer took power in August 2016.

[See: Traditional African roof-construction technique wins international award]

Based on mutual help and a collective process of self-management, the cooperative built 70 homes between 2012 and 2016 on federal land in the Jacarepagüá neighbourhood, in the western part of Rio. The project benefited 210 people.

“We have faced obstacles such as access to private lands and to finance. The experience shows the importance of guaranteeing access to urbanized, well-located public land for the production of social housing,” said Susana Kokudai, housing programme coordinator at the Bento Rubião Foundation, which assisted the cooperative during the process.

Due mainly to the public housing programme, Brazil has seen a host of new housing cooperatives sprout up to attend the needs of the poor. But now, such efforts are becoming more difficult following the end of the programme.

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Emilio Godoy is a Mexico-based journalist who covers the environment, human rights and sustainable development. He has been a journalist since 1996 and has written for various media outlets in Mexico, Central America, Spain and Belgium. In 2012, he won the Journalistic Prize on Green Economy and Sustainable Development. Full bio

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