As a pioneer in the field of urban housing reform, Maria das Gracas “Graca” Xavier is mobilizing historically excluded groups to take charge of their housing needs, and in turn, advance their legal and political interests.
The New Idea
Through a highly participatory process, Graca helps groups of marginalized people come together to build housing units that are specifically designed to meet their needs, providing both skills-development and a renewed sense of dignity and belonging to groups long overlooked by government services. After the housing projects are completed, Graca holds regular meetings and seminars with members of each community; they learn about and discuss their rights and collectively decide how to act. Finally, she provides residents with a united platform to voice their concerns and political positions to the Brazilian government and related international housing initiatives. To date, self-construction housing has largely overlooked the needs of Brazil’s excluded groups; failing to fully engage those whose needs are greatest. Graca has become the first to explicitly link such housing schemes to issues of discrimination, using self-construction housing not as an end in itself, but rather as a tool to address the plights and injustices faced by women, blacks, homosexuals, and the elderly. By integrating participatory housing with education programs and legal advocacy, she aims to empower groups that have not been heard, even by Brazil’s more traditional social movements. To maximize her sphere of influence, Graca operates at multiple levels: Local, regional, and international. As the Coordinator of the Association of Housing Movements of the Southeast Region of São Paulo, she has been responsible for the construction of several housing units, benefiting more than 7,500 families. She works in close conjunction with the Union of Housing Movements of São Paulo, and has helped to create numerous policy changes in Brazilian law. Finally, as a recognized expert in the field and a respected councilmember of the Habitat International Coalition—a citizen organization (CO) comprised of more than 400 individuals and organizations involved in human settlement issues—she has begun to work with similar efforts in other countries in Latin America and around the world, challenging long-held distinctions between housing rights and the rights of women and minority groups.
Over the last several decades there has been a massive migration of people from Brazil’s rural areas to its cities in search of employment and improved livelihoods, and the rise in the number of urban habitants has yet to match available housing. This has led to an ever-growing impoverished population on city outskirts. In turn, this situation has produced a profound lack of community and social cohesion; driving some already disempowered groups into a state of neglect and discontent. Yet limited access to housing is not merely a problem of too much demand for too little space. Indeed, few can pay for the homes that are available. Housing contractors exercise inordinate influence over government policy in Brazil and as a result, public housing today costs in excess of five times the minimum wage; this has left a huge population wholly underserved. Moreover, the few public housing projects that are available are of inferior quality: At times as high as fifteen or sixteen stories, they tend to serve as grounds for crime and drug trafficking. Meanwhile, municipal government policies in São Paulo and other large cities have promoted suburban development, forcing families to live farther and farther from their workplaces. While there are currently 400,000 empty housing units in downtown São Paulo, they remain too expensive for many poor urban workers to afford. These costs, combined with the increasingly long commutes caused by the city’s expansion, have meant that many people are forced to sleep in the streets or other urban slums because they cannot afford to return home. The barriers to housing are particularly high for women, blacks, homosexuals, and the elderly. Unmarried and divorced women, women without children, and homosexuals often fail to meet the criteria to acquire credit for housing loans. For example, as part of a supposed effort to encourage nuclear families, unmarried women with children find it difficult to acquire titles to their homes. These barriers to access have implications that extend far beyond shelter alone: Without a home, it is difficult to secure a job or other essential needs. These conditions, in turn, lead to other rights abuses, as women and other similarly marginalized persons lack the confidence and support to defend themselves from violence, domestic abuse, and exploitation. Most public housing schemes have targeted “the poor” as a single cohort, and view poverty as the single most important obstacle to housing without regard for the differences in the way each group is treated. As a result, such pervasive sources of discrimination have been overlooked. Indeed, Brazil’s grassroots housing movement has failed to recognize that the lack of available housing for the country’s poorest populations is but one example of more widespread disenfranchisement. Believing housing to be a critical element to empowerment, Graca is one of the first to place housing within a larger human rights framework.
As a young volunteer in the favelas outside São Paulo, Graca quickly realized that the lack of housing available to the poor in Brazil was as much a result of pervasive cultural and legal barriers as it was a result of financial obstacles. She also knew self-construction housing could serve as a useful entry point to secure improved legal rights for the severely underserved—especially women, homosexuals, and the elderly—instilling in participants the confidence they need to advance their political and social agendas. Graca’s method first employs gathering interested families and individuals into groups of at least two-hundred. Working through São Paulo’s Southeast Association of Housing Movements, she arranges an initial meeting between all of the participating families to identify the skills that each has to offer. They then form a committee to oversee construction and income-generation projects. Each family is engaged at every stage of the process—from the initial design to the actual construction—and often commit to working weekends and holidays. The groups help one another with skills training and assign each participant to a particular task—as electricians, plumbers, tile producers, or the like. Unlike most other self-construction programs, Graca ensures that everyone has a role, regardless of his or her physical or economic condition. She is keen to emphasize the importance of each role, so, for example, the elderly women who help distribute water feel as valued as those conducting electrical work. The collectives consist of 80 percent women on average, and range anywhere from two-hundred to five-hundred units. Unlike other attempts at collective housing, which rely exclusively on private funding and collective savings models, Graca has successfully leveraged public financing from the city, state, and federal levels. This funding is supplemented by resources generated by the families, ensuring that all participants have a financial stake in the project’s development. The housing units are designed specifically to address the needs of each community and to challenge common stereotypes (for example, providing elderly residents with elevators and a sports court). Housing construction is only the first step, however. Once the units are complete, Graca holds regular educational seminars on topics ranging from violence against women to self-esteem and legislative concerns. Intended to raise consciousness and to empower residents to demand change, these programs are intricately tied to her efforts to influence public policy. Residents form support groups, in which they discuss issues relating to rights abuse and discriminatory legislation and together decide how to organize. For example, when the government proposed a law to establish a much-needed national housing fund in 2001, Graca and groups drawn from the various housing collectives leveraged 1 million signatures in favor of its passage, holding informational sessions in public squares to rally support. Graca meets with members of each community for several hours each week, and then holds brief meetings with public administrators to translate the communities’ interests into policy changes. By remaining in constant dialogue with Brazil’s other leading social movements, Graca is able to stay abreast of every major development in the black, lesbian, and gay communities and the women’s movement. This tactic works both to keep housing issues at the fore of every grassroots agenda and to strengthen the housing collectives’ political advocacy efforts. She has developed numerous partnerships with universities, government watch-groups, and a range of advocacy organizations to address the needs of specific minority populations. All of these groups play a participatory role with the communities; as she includes the disempowered in state and national housing councils. Graca successfully leveraged these and other partnerships to improve the rights of the elderly, identifying a loophole in a law that previously denied access to housing to those over the age of sixty-five and helped to enact a law enabling women to own homes.As a member of the governing council of the Habitat International Coalition and recognized expert in the field of urban housing, Graca is well situated to lobby the United Nations and other key international bodies for increased pressure on the Brazilian government to improve minorities’ access to housing. These lobbying efforts have led to considerable policy advances both in Brazil and abroad; she has been invited to share her experience in countries as far away as Kenya. Furthermore, Graca offers residents of the housing collectives a direct say in what changes are made. For example, she and her team wrote an elaborate report denouncing the government’s treatment of street people—citing an incident in which the Mayor of São Paulo attempted to expel them using a water-hose—which they sent to the UN. As a result, the UN sent an international delegation to investigate the charges and they met with residents of one of the housing collectives. The Mayor also visited the community and promised the delegation he would discontinue his efforts in exchange for their not publicizing the case in an official UN report. As a member of a global coalition of networks, institutions, and individual professionals that links grassroots women’s community development organizations to partners, Graca has joined forces with others involved in housing advocacy around the world. In 2006 she hosted a delegation of representatives from seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to exchange experiences and approaches to urban housing. Using her position as Coordinator of the Union of Housing Movements of the metropolitan region of São Paulo in Sao Paulo state, she is in talks with representatives from all twenty-four states in Brazil to expand her approach across the country.
Graca grew up in a poor family in rural Bahia. Having lost her mother at the age of five, she was shuttled between various relatives and worked from a young age as domestic help. In her late teens, she moved to São Paulo to join her sister, and worked for four years in a paper factory. There, she became involved with a group of progressive catholic youth, which served as her introduction to human rights causes. Due in large part to her background, Graca grew increasingly committed to improving the lives of poor families. She pursued certification in adult education and volunteered in the favelas on the outskirts of the city in her spare time. While juggling employment with regular community meetings and raising her three children, she was forced for a time to discontinue her studies. In 1984, around this same time, her mother-in-law’s house burned down. While working to rebuild her family’s home, Graca began to realize the importance of housing to human rights and a host of other social concerns, and soon began coordinating the housing movement’s community engagement efforts. She rose quickly in the movement, and successfully balanced work, family life, and her growing community activism. She entered law school in 1999, and earned her degree from the University Paulista in 2004. In 2006, she also completed a graduate program in public policy at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Graca has since worked with various housing projects outside Brazil, including those in Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, and Kenya. She developed a campaign to protect the rights of women to maintain ownership under the country’s patriarchal land entitlement system in Kibera, and became interested in the factors that can limit or enhance a person or group’s creativity and entrepreneurialism. While Graca has made such experiential exchanges a central element in her work, she remains conscious of the profound contextual differences found in various countries, and indeed, within different Brazilian states.