Fundação Bento Rubião (FBR) is a Brazilian organization focused on land, housing, and the rights of children and adolescents. Since its founding in 1986, FBR has been guided by the principles set forth by the late Father Italo Coelho, a Catholic priest who devoted his life to improving conditions in Rio’s infamous favelas.
In 2001, the IAF awarded FBR a grant of $300,036 to be disbursed over three years, which was extended by an additional year. FBR increased its original counterpart commitment from $131,226 to $149,342. It also mobilized $38,144 from other sources.
Prior to undertaking its IAF-funded project, FBR had helped two associations in the communities of Shangri-Lá and Colméia apply its model for self-help housing: FBR trains residents in the skills necessary to design, build and maintain their homes, which might also lead to jobs in the construction industry. FBR used its IAF grant to build homes with Cooperativa Herbert de Souza on the west side of metropolitan Rio, and Cooperativa Ipiíba, located 15 miles east of Rio, in the municipality of São Gonçalo. The goals were to help residents build 60 homes, offer legal assistance with land tenure and influence official housing policy.
A component of the project not financed by the IAF was FBR’s program of loans repayable in low monthly installments over between 10 and 12 years. Proceeds were to be invested in future projects elsewhere.
The two developments were completely different.The Herbert de Souza complex was built in an urban area zoned for multi-unit dwellings. The site was surrounded by paved streets and served by utilities and public transportation. FBR’s plans for a 15-unit structure were modified to provide 19 units when flooding left four additional families homeless. Participants in the construction had been neighbors for a long time. Together they had advocated for better housing and they continue to urge passage of legislation that furthers the right of the poor to housing and land.
Ipiíba, on the outskirts of Río, is semirural and is not served by basic utilities or public transportation. The site selected for the complex there required the relocation of future homeowners from disparate places. The participants’ level of education was lower as were their employment prospects. What both groups had in common were precarious housing conditions with entire families, and sometimes several families, sharing single rooms with no running water or indoor plumbing. Both groups were aware of FBR’s accomplishments in Shangri-Lá and Colméia and had sought its assistance.
By 2005, 63 housing units had been completed, 44 in Ipiíba and 19 in Herbert de Souza. At an average cost of approximately $4,000 each, these units were easily affordable with an FBR loan. The construction, however, took longer than expected. Families worked every weekend for three years. But once they were completed, their houses had increased in value by more than 60 percent. Of the 225 residents trained, 17 men and 21 women found employment in construction; some in Ipiíba applied their skills to expand their homes. Women reported that experience in construction gave them confidence.
Because the municipality did not live up to an agreement to pave roads or extend the water system to the new homes in Ipiíba, residents built an unauthorized pipeline that provides them water for a few hours a day. FBR plans to construct 88 additional houses, tentatively scheduled to start in late 2011, which may pressure authorities to meet their obligation.
The Grassroots Development Framework (GDF) was used to collect and analyze results on three levels: the individual or family, the organization or grantee, and the level of the community or society. FBR itself applied its self-help model, acquiring additional experience upon which to draw in other communities; it also mobilized contributions. The social impact has been twofold: the construction model has been applied by other communities, and FBR has influenced the development of a new federal housing program.
Individuals and families
FBR’s project positively impacted the 63 families in terms of tangible indicators such as housing, training, jobs and income, and the intangible indicator of self-esteem. Many who had been living in improvised shelter on vacant land moved into multi-room units with indoor plumbing and other amenities, which they legally owned. Participation in construction proved a positive experience. A resident of Herbert de Souza reported that he became aware of his skills as a handyman. “I did not know I could do it,” he said. An Ipiíba resident commented, “For many years we have walked together with other families; alone I would never have been able to do it.”
At the organization level
FBR tested and refined its successful approach to affordable housing for the most vulnerable Brazilians, those living in favelas. Six years after the completion of its IAF-funded project, FBR continues to work on behalf of grassroots groups, advocating to ensure compliance with laws that articulate the right of Brazilians to decent housing and monitoring enforcement.
At the society level
FBR’s self-help model has had a multiplier effect. Shangri-Lá and Colméia led to Herbert de Souza and Ipiíba, which in turn led to the formation of two more cooperatives, Esperança and Anaia. In 2010, Fundo Nacional de Habitação de Interesse Social (FNHIS) approved funding for 1,126 new units. FBR was invited to join the executive council of the FNHIS, which in 2011 managed $700 million in funding new public housing. Joining forces with other likeminded activists on the Executive Council of FNHIS, FBR has pushed for reforms in the lending practices of the Caixa Econômica Federal, the Brazilian government’s largest financial institution.
FBR’s operation is assured for the next five years. It is offering training and technical assistance to three new cooperatives undertaking construction projects: Esperança, which plans to use $295,000 to build 70 houses; Ipiíba II, with $400,000 for 88 houses; and Anaia, with a budget of $318,000 and plans for 18 new houses. FNHIS is financing approximately 40 percent of the cost of the three projects.
FBR did not accomplish what it had envisioned for Herbert de Souza and Ipiíba with its loan fund. Managing loans is not FBR’s primary interest. Borrowers who perceived this stopped making payments. Some claimed that FBR had never provided sufficient guidance on repayment or never collected on the loans extended. FBR did not have loan officers and relied on technical staff hired for other purposes. Aware of its inexperience, FBR negotiated the transfer of the loan portfolio to Caixa. To date, no additional payments have been collected and the plan to fund other cooperatives with interest income was shelved.
For the Herbert de Souza and Ipiíba cooperatives, the goal was the houses for its members. Once it was accomplished, the enthusiasm for maintaining the cooperative subsided. In Ipiíba, in particular, plans for a community center and vegetable gardens fell through. In Herbert de Souza, cohesiveness weakened when members ignored signed agreements conditioning the sale of their units on the consent of the membership.
The right to housing is a topic in public discourse in Brazil. What was once perceived as a nuisance caused by migrant workers moving into big cities in search of jobs and squatting on vacant land or living on the street, has given way to a more compassionate approach to helping the poor. Herbert de Souza and Ipiíba are examples of what can be done to improve conditions in favelas. For its efforts on behalf of the poor, FBR was selected in 2005 by the Building and Social Housing Foundation of the United Kingdom as a finalist for its World Habitat Awards. It received the Al Khalifa U.N.-HABITAT Award at the Fifth World Urban Forum held in Rio in 2010.
FBR’s model proved feasible. Training in construction skills and related technical assistance enabled cooperative members to work together to build affordable houses for their families and, in the process, improve their employment prospects. FBR’s strong advocacy on behalf of the poor and its experience with self-help housing attracted the attention of federal authorities and led to its participation in government housing programs.
What did not work?
Housing projects definitely have a direct impact on living conditions, but to succeed, all the pieces must fall into place. FBR now knows the value of experience to the solvency of a loan fund. It was unfortunate, in the case of Ipiíba, that the municipality reneged on its agreement to extend the main water line.
When would-be homeowners cannot afford to borrow the necessary funds, homeownership must be subsidized. FBR’s proposal enabled low-income families to build homes with self-help and it also advanced the public debate on housing and land tenure. This has led to the availability of more funding for housing for Brazilians who had been excluded from homeownership, making for more inclusive communities.