Solidarity and the City: advocacy and the self


March for housing dignity in Sao Paulo

I’m waiting by the Teatro Municipal  in the centre of Sao Paulo where 2000 families are waiting with banners unfurled. An atmosphere of calm expectation and quiet fortitude is in the air. The families come from all over the city, from occupations in the centre, houses in flood-risk zones, self-built settlements on the periphery, and social housing tenements. Some will have risen before dawn to reach here, balanced on crowded buses for two or three hours or more. Many will have forgone a day’s wages from their washing, selling and cleaning jobs. All ages – from the very young to the old are present, with women outnumbering men by about two to one. They are from Sao Paulo’s housing movements and they are here to march for the right to decent housing.

In a city where the rent on a 35m3 bedsit of on the periphery is roughly 150% of the minimum wage, and 11% of the population live in what is officially ‘substandard housing’[i] many face the choice of food or rent – to either live in slums far from the centre and without basic services, or to bed down under a bridge, in the park or by the side of the road. CAFOD partners APOIO and MDF, both here in force today, have spent more than 50 years between them marching, organising, occupying and negotiating with the authorities in order to establish housing public policies for everyone.

 The huge backlog of housing need which dates from the city’s rapid expansion of the last 40 years, is today compounded by real estate prices, which have risen by almost 20% in 2011, the second highest increase of anywhere in the world. New initiatives such as the city’s Green Corridors and expansion of the metro system are followed by waves of demolitions of informal housing and fuel further property speculation. Meanwhile a forest of abandoned buildings is left empty in the centre of the city and existing housing policies and programmes are either not implemented or only partially so.

Coming from a country in which organised civil society mobilisations take months to plan and generally require carefully thought-out communications and promises of collective emotion and political effectiveness, I ask myself, ‘what makes these families so committed to their cause?’ What does make someone travel five hours round trip to a march knowing that they might not receive an answer from the authorities today, next month or even this year? Where does this energy come from?

The answer seems to have a lot to do with the individual transformation that takes place in those who get involved in the city’s housing movements. Rose explains that she has gained much more than access to housing through her own participation in the movement – it has been her ‘remedio’ or cure. When her 14-year marriage ended she was left alone feeling alone, depressed and with rent and bills that she couldn’t afford pay. Fighting not just for her own right to housing, but also for the rights of hundreds of other families stimulated her to grow and change. She now co-ordinates a big occupation in the centre of the city and is a driving force inspiring other women and men to demand their rights.

One of the most striking features of the housing groups in Sao Paulo is the way in which the potential and talent of each individual involved are valued. This is in sharp contrast with the brutality by which huge swathes of the urban poor are systematically excluded from access to decent housing and basic services in the city by a logic of unregulated land speculation and either a mixture of inaction and neglect by the authorities. Participants in the movement don’t wait passively for a house to arrive: they are encouraged to participate in lively monthly assemblies, to donate what they can to collective food baskets for families in difficulty, to access training, and to spread the word amongst their neighbours.

After being welcomed into the house of a neighbourhood co-ordinator with coffee and orange cake, I am astonished to hear that, like many other leaders, she actually spends very little time enjoying the home for which she struggled so long to acquire. Like many others, her simple but decent house was built by the hands of local families in ‘mutirao’, on land to which title will have been won only after painfully long and bureaucratic negotiations with the authorities. These houses are typically tiled throughout with pastel paint on the walls and decorated with kitchen fittings paid for in minute weekly instalments over many years. Clearly they mean a lot to their owners. But instead of enjoying this modest fruit of so much striving, the coordinators typically either spend the greater part of their time travelling to and meeting with communities in other neighbourhoods or else in sleeping in the occupations in the centre, accompanying the day to day of the families living there. ‘How can I enjoy my house today when I know there are still families waiting for theirs?’ one of the co-ordinators, Maria do Planalto, asks me with artless simplicity. In learning to demand their own rights, a space of intense and humbling solidarity seems to have opened up within the protagonists of the movement – an unstoppable current of commitment to bring about change has spread far beyond the individuals themselves, out into the community and the furthest peripheries of the city.

Many models of advocacy stress the relationship between duty-bearers and those claiming their rights. However, advocacy is also a process that involves the self. By participating in the housing justice movement, the people I met experienced a journey of personal transformation: they changed within at the same time as changing the community and the world around them. But what of the duty-bearers in the government who have the power to grant title to land and to provide resources for house-building – will they change? Those in the demonstration hope so, and in a letter to the city’s judges they invite them to ‘leave your shaded cars and the locked doors of your offices, come out of your closed condominiums! Come and join the people and together let’s have equality and human fraternity!’

[i] Data from 2010 Census, IBGE

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