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“Maybe mutual help and communitarian consciousness are not human inventions.
Maybe housing cooperatives, for example, were inspired in birds.
On southern Africa and other places, hundreds of couples of birds unite, since ever, to build their nests sharing, with everyone, the work of everyone. They begin creating a big straw roof, under this roof each couple weaves its nest, which joins the in a great apartment block which climbs the highest branches of the trees.”
The reading of the book by Amanda Huron, “Carving out the Commons. Tenant organizing and housing cooperatives in Washington, D.C.”, where the author systematizes its competent and interesting study of the housing cooperatives in Washington, D.C., has awakened in me, a “foreign reader”, various questions, as I hope to explain below.
Like Amanda, I am a lecturer and a researcher of a public university. The University of São Paulo is located in the biggest city in South America, in a country with profound social inequalities and with a housing deficit of more than 6 million houses. Like Amanda I believe that our public universities (in the United States or in Brazil) must have the commitment do think, teach and work beyond our universities’ walls, in the city, with its inhabitants, from the everyday praxis (D’Ottaviano & Rovati, forthcoming).
In recent history, adequate housing has become consolidated as a right of every citizen. In fact, it is one of the fundamental rights established in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations – UN and in various national constitutions. In Brazil, the right to decent housing is defined by the Constitution of 1988. However, as in other parts of the world, despite the legal advancements, we have seen many families losing their hard-won houses (Nobre 2017).
As researchers of the housing question and activists of the right to housing, we face a double challenge: to show that without a public policy by the State the families of lower income will not have access to decent housing; and that it is necessary to support and promote alternatives that withstand the model of provision by the formal real estate market.
Amanda's book points out to two fundamental questions. First, the importance of the support of Washington's municipal government, with the interest-free funding for the purchase of properties by families threatened with eviction. Without the financial support of the public power the cooperated families would never be able to purchase their houses. And secondly, it shows how the model of cooperatives is a possible form of access to housing of quality and well located for low-income families, avoiding the options traditionally offered by the real estate market.
In recent Brazilian history the experiences of housing provision for the low-income population are precisely those organized and promoted by the housing movements (Rossetto Netto, 2017 and D’Ottaviano & Rossetto Netto, forthcoming). Nevertheless, the form of access to housing has been almost exclusively through property.
Today, only in the city of São Paulo, the biggest Brazilian city, with a few more than 12 million inhabitants, 4.000 families occupy nearly 70 buildings in the central area that were vacant and without use. In the whole city, 46 thousand families of homeless people squatter vacant buildings. In addition, the city has more than 350 thousand households located in favelas. Some of these families are organized in housing movements, others are not.
Brazil is not, of course, the United States; but we share some common problems: we desperately need quality housing for low-income families, who cannot afford rent or buy houses offered by the regular real estate market.
Amanda's book and her research show us possible alternatives to affordable housing for the low-income population, where:
. Cooperatives are a possible way to decommodify housing;
. Commons and State can work together;
. The co-op organizations (as the housing movements in Brazil) are examples for democratizing housing management;
. Even if the Limited-Equity Cooperatives experience are modest in numbers they are important as models to the necessary diversity of affordable housing options.
As Peter Marcuse and David Madden defend, we need more than ever that “a thousand housing alternatives bloom” (2016, p.209).
We go on fighting! After all, as José Saramago rightly said:
“The only place that exists is tomorrow. Our utopia is to do some transformation now.”.