Ambitious Brazil housing plan would replace slums
AGUAS LINDAS, Brazil—Cristina Silva dos Santos is close to realizing a dream she has had for 28 years, since giving birth to the first of six children: a home big enough for her entire family.
For now, she and her five youngest are squeezed into a four-room, rough-brick house the size of most garages, where they all sleep in the same room.
But a new government housing program, the largest in Latin America aimed at cutting overcrowding in slums, will give Silva a substantial down payment on a $30,680 (54,000 real) home with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom.
The program, "My Home, My Life," is a model for developing countries trying to alleviate the squalor surrounding roughly 1 billion squatters and slum dwellers worldwide, according to one expert.
Officials from Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and other countries facing housing shortages have requested information about the program, said Maria Fernanda Ramos Coelho, president of the state-run bank Caixa Economica Federal, which is administering the project.
Caixa officials also presented the program recently to their Venezuelan counterparts.
"This is undoubtedly a model that could be used in other countries," said Demostenes Moraes, director of Habitat-Brazil, the Brazilian branch of an international nonprofit devoted to building houses for the poor.
The program, started last year, is part of the social policies that have made President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva one of Brazil's most popular ever -- and could help attract votes for his chosen successor, candidate Dilma Rousseff, who trails in the polls going into the October presidential election.
Aguas Lindas, a city of 200,000 about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Brasilia, is a picture of unmanaged sprawl and hotspot for violence and drug trafficking that grew up with migrants moving to the capital to escape rural poverty.
Silva's new home is one of 1,600 to be built on the outskirts in a community that will have its own police force, school and water supply -- services that more often than not are absent from shantytowns in cities such as Aguas Lindas.
"As a single mother, this program is what allowed me to have my own house," said the 45-year-old food services worker, accompanied by her five youngest children during an interview in the old home. "Every day they ask me, 'When we are going to move?'"
Using federal, state and municipal funds, "My Home, My Life" pays 100 percent of the cost of a home for families who earn a maximum of $870 a month (1,530 reals) -- three times the minimum monthly wage of $290 (510 reals.) The amount diminishes as participants' salaries rise.
Houses are built by private construction companies, which act as intermediaries with the bank on behalf of customers.
As of February, the government had 670,000 new-home applications in the works and aims to have signed contracts for 1 million homes by the end of this year, Ramos Coelho said,
A second phase of 2 million homes is planned to begin in 2011, she added.
If the program continues at the intended rate, Brazil could erase its shortage of 7 million homes -- and hundreds of illegal settlements that have popped up over the years in the South American nation of 190 million people -- in the next decade.
"Brazil has not had any housing policy since the 1970s," Ramos Coelho said. "This program begins a new era in the country of eliminating our housing deficit."
Many of the city dwellers live in poor, overcrowded, crime- and drug-infested shantytowns known as "favelas." Brazil experienced an explosion of favelas from the 1950s to the 1970s amid a boom in industrialization that attracted rural dwellers to metropolitan life.
"My Home, My Life" aspires to transform the favelas into more formal and hospitable living areas, complete with security, recreational areas and public utilities.
Another goal is to remove homes from areas at high risk of landslides and flooding, such as the slum in Niteroi, a city of about 500,000 across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, where 60 houses were destroyed last month during heavy rains.
At least 232 people were killed in the Niteroi landslide and others in Rio de Janeiro state.
There is much evidence to indicate the program will succeed: Brazil's strong economic performance over the past few years -- despite a global economic crisis -- has provided officials with the means to bankroll the project; land for new housing is widely available in the enormous country, and both of the two main presidential contenders have pledged to continue the program if elected.
But the program hasn't been seamless: Some beneficiaries are complaining the houses are being handed over too slowly, while large cities such as Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo don't have enough land on which to build.
In Sao Paulo last month, about 2,000 protesters invaded unoccupied buildings to demand housing for the poor in Brazil, saying the government program will not be made available to everybody who needs it.
But for Mailson Barbosa de Santana, 22, and his wife, Luana de Oliveira, 18, "My Home, My Life" is a godsend, allowing them to buy a three-bedroom house in the same residential complex where Silva is going to live.
"We had been looking for a house for a year, but can only buy one because of this program," Santana said. "Now with our own home, we're going to think about having kids, too."