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Collective reflections about development practice and cities


A Roof of Her (their) Own: Self-Constructing a Home in Lima

By Rosa Paredes Castro, on 28 June 2022


Through time, the struggle of people who migrated from Peruvian rural areas to Lima, the capital of Peru, has been marked by the “informal” occupation of the land that has transformed Lima into a megalopolis. In this context, the story of Maria kicks off in the 1960s when her family was forced to move from their original Tayabamba, a small town in the Andes, to Lima. Her emigration story is the trajectory of thousands of families that were forced to occupy Lima’s outskirts due to Shining Path terrorist actions in several towns of Peru.

Maria’s story highlights the trajectory of a woman who seek to overcome the barriers of the unequal land distribution of housing and how in this context, migrants created self-constructed and self-organized agencies that enable them to create a space for their families, as portrayed in the documentary “A roof of my own” (Turner, 1964) and the follow-up “City Unfinished – Voices of El Ermitaño” (Golda-Pongratz & Flores, 2018). Likewise, it portrait how self-construction has evolved throughout time regarding the inclusion of further generations challenges.

Housing Self-Construction in Lima

In the socio-political context of Lima, self-construction practices have turned into the rule rather than the exception. Even for the past two decades, Peru has increased their economic profits, the production of informal settlements has been severely intensified. Nowadays, more than 90% of Lima’s expansion corresponded to the informal production of housing (Espinoza & Fort, 2020).

Self-construction processes started from 1960s when immigrants from the Andes and other rural regions of Peru were forced to occupy illegally Lima’s outskirts. This first period was marked by a massive and collective occupation of an undeveloped land. Andean cosmovision have its roots in a relational and collective cosmovision that were supported by the practice of “Minka” , which was a practice that entailed mutual aid and collective workforce used for the benefit of the community. Since the origin of the people who occupied those areas were rooted in those ancient collective practices, the first production of self-constructed housing was characterized by social relationships of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual-aid.

First Migration (1960): Assisted shantytowns

The story of Maria started in this first occupation of Lima’s outskirts. Up to this point, Peruvian socio-political was marked by the spatial effects of Shining Path terrorist actions over several rural areas in Peru, those actions were forcing people to move from their original regions to escape from persecution, terror, and an ever-growing internal war. Lima, the capital of Peru, was the recipient of massive occupations in underdeveloped areas.

Maria, at 25 years of age, was forced to leave her original town Tayabamba with her three sisters after her mother was assassinated when refusing to join Shining Path. Her mother was a farmer, and they live from the commercial exchange of the products that the land used to produce daily. In that sense, Maria didn’t possess any savings that allow her to take a housing mortgage and access a social housing program. This is why, in coordination with other women and families, they organized themselves to take Pampa de Cueva, which it was an undeveloped area in the Northern outskirts of Lima, that used to belong to an industrial company.

Figure 01: Pampa de Cueva land being organized to start the first period of “assisted shantytowns”.
Lazaro Gutierrez, V. (1960). Personal archive. 17nov1960. http://17n.limanorte.com/


Figure 02: Women cooperating in the preparation of the land to built-up a house of one of the settlement dwellers. Lazaro Gutierrez, V. (1960). Personal archive. 17nov1960. http://17n.limanorte.com/


Turner (1964) in “Housing by people” explain housing self-construction processes by proposing an autonomy in its production. By recalling “people as infrastructure” (Turner, 1964, p.17), Turner states that rather than centralize the housing production in the state, this effort should be transformed into a self-governing approach by considering people’s participation as a social capital. Maria, without economic capital to invest in her own house, started to organize herself with other families in Pampa de Cueva settlement by reactivating the cooperative practices that migrants from the Andes carried out through “minka”. Initially, on how to distribute the land area for the accommodation of each family and aftwerwards on how to build-up collectively the housing dwellings of the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, the right to access a piece of land for Maria and the other families was not that easy to achieve. During 1960, there were successive evictions reinforced by the state and land private owners of Pampa de Cueva. The association between the government and the private sector produced several attempts to evict Maria and their neighbors. However, throughout “comites” (cooperatives), which were groups in charge of the community decisions organized at the core of the initial occupation, they started a process in which different forms of organization and mutual aid will take place, becoming key elements in the fight for the land tenure.

As stated by Turner (1964), if the right to the city is understood from a democratic and socialist context, “planning and administration are legislative processes limited to actions essential to establish and maintain an equitable distribution of resources” (Turner, 1964,p. 22). In Lima of the 1960s, that distribution was concentrated in powerful families that have inherited those pieces of land from their own families. However, the social capital of lower-income people was their only possibility to make decisions collectively and negotiate within the state regarding their right to housing tenure.

“We were not able to leave our houses because we have no other option to live, we persisted and remain despite the violence of the police. We couldn’t step back” (Maria, 2022). As a result of several negotiations with the state and a massive force of cooperation and self-organization, the right to remain was approved for Pampa de Cueva dwellers.

Figure 03: Polices taking Pampa de Cueva seeking to evict people from the settlement occupation. Unknown author (1960). Accesed: Caretas Archive (Lima, Peru)

Boom of “assisted shantytowns” and Collectivism strengthening (1970s-1980s)

Having achieved the right to remain, the spread of informal settlements increased rapidly in several underdeveloped areas of Lima as portrayed in the cover page of Architectural Design (Turner, 1963). In this period, the evolution showcases that the barriadas started covering the 10 per cent of Lima’s population in 1955 and 25 per cent in 1970 (Riofrio, 2003). Now that Maria and Pampa de Cueva dwellers have achieved the access to land tenure, the challenge was located on how to gain access to public services and technical assistance in the production of housing.

Figure 04: Pampa de Cueva (El Ermitaño) growth in 1963. Turner, J. (1963). Accesed: Architectural Design, vol. 33, nº 8. London.

The strengthening of the social organizations in Pampa de Cueva was an important element in the process to gain access to further subsidies from the government for public services. This organization was rooted twofold. On the one hand, cooperatives operated at the level of the negotiations within the state and on the other hand, they operate at the grassroots level by negotiating with the other families regarding which decisions will be the priorities for the common challenges. In this context, Maria became a leader in the organization of all the “comites” of Pampa de Cueva, also enhancing its political capacities for the benefit of the development of the common challenges of the settlement.

Turner (1964) states that an autonomy of housing production implies that rather than centralizing the decisions towards the state, governments should act as mediators that could empower the social capacities of people and their autonomous decisions. “Instead of needing to know how many houses are or will be demanded in a given place and time or for a given social sector, planners and administrators need only know the approximate quantities of building materials, tools, and labour, land, and credit that will be required. (Turner, 1964, p. 30). Following this approach, cooperative, and collective aid keep marking the growth of self-constructed housing in Pampa de Cueva. Maria’s house was built-up with the help of their neighbours. “With the other neighbours, we organize shifts to work each weekend. We helped each other and we know that we can rely on our “compadres” to finish our housing roofs or building up our rooms” (Maria, 2022)

As a result of that force of self-organization and a massive social pressure, the Ministry of Housing approved the legal framework that will enable new shantytowns to gain access to a permanent legal tenure and further technical and economic assistance as public services and infrastructure (Castillo-Garcia, 2021). According to Espinoza, et al (2020), lower income dwellers understood that if they take the land, afterwards the government will subsidize the land tenure and the access to public services (Espinoza, et al, 2020). Peru rapidly became a reference of “assisted shantytowns” among Latin America, since it was the only government supporting the self-production of housing (Riofrio, 2003). In that sense, the agency of Maria and Pampa de Cueva dwellers contributed to the integration of the production of self-constructed housing in the National Housing policy and as part of the correlative development strategies. (Castillo-Garcia, 2021).

Figure 05: Pampa de Cueva dwellers playing a football game. Lazaro Gutierrez, V. (1960). Personal archive. 17nov1960. http://17n.limanorte.com/

The switch from self-production assistance to neoliberal policies opening (1990-2000)

Nevertheless, from 1990 onwards, housing policies took as inspiration Hernando de Soto’s theories of neoliberal planning (Riofrio, 2003). According to De Soto, with the legal housing tenancy the private sector will regulate the further upgrading of informal settlements (Riofrio,2007). Technical capacity was transferred to local governments who can approve tentative land areas for social housing interests (Castillo-Garcia, 2021) and the production of social housing was commissioned to the private sector through the creation of MIVIVIENDA fund. As a result of those policies, informal land speculators appeared in several underdeveloped areas of Lima. Those neoliberal attempts were supported by Alberto Fujimori’s government, who used a populist strategy to promise housing tenure to migrants and contributed to a culture of stigmatization of cooperativism, community organization, and political participation.

“During Fujimori’s government, the members of the comites were bribed and the way we cooperate with others wasn’t the same (…) people were also afraid to be stigmatized as a terrorist for Fujimori’s associates” (Maria, 2022). Meanwhile, up to this point Alejandrina’s family grew up. She got married and after having two children her family required more space for inhabiting and working. Since the plot that Maria’s fight for allowed her to progressively adapt her house, they built a second floor for their children and expanded the first floor to open a small grocery shop. However, her sisters could no longer live with them, so they started looking for affordable options closer to their social and economic networks. In this process, the only alternative that they find it was to buy informally some plots to land trafficants in Pampa de Cueva. Having understood that the process of assisted shantytowns will further provide access to public services and land tenure, private speculators created systems of informal occupations and further traffic of land, distributing the land and selling the plots for 700 dollars, a value that lower-income families could afford by a small loan from a local bank.

This situation marked a different occupation, the mutual aid has progressively been disappearing. In addition to the regulatory opening for speculators, new generations were more interested into remain closer to their social and job networks but less interested in contributing to a community belonging (Riofrio, 2002). Even though there was initial support for self-construction processes, by opening housing regulations to “let the private sector upgrade the assisted shantytowns” (De Soto, cited in Riofrio, 2007), who were benefited were the land speculators rather than lower-income dwellers.

Second Generation Challenges and a never-ending process (2000-2022)

From 2000 onwards, the government offered the major responsability for the social housing production to the Real State sector. Influenced by the United Nations Agenda, which “recognizes that governments are not able to meet housing needs through direct action or state provision and that the diversity and scale of such need require the participation of the private sector and local communities” (UN Agenda 2012, cited in Payne, et al, 2012, p.13).

Meanwhile, alternative options for Maria’s family have been limited. Maria’s son grew up and with a family, affording the initial payment of a mortgage was not possible. Even If the government proposed subsidies for social housing in some areas located on the outskirts of Lima (Espinoza, et al, 2021), he didn’t qualify for bank credit with a $ 300 basic salary and accumulated debts. Therefore, his only alternative was still to buy a plot from the land trafficators. Consequently, self-construction from the 2000s onwards, influenced by the land traficant organizations, became the only alternative for further generations. By 2018, the production of shantytowns represented tentative the 90 percent of Lima’s expansion (Espinoza, et al, 2020).



Figure 06: Informal occupation in the Upper Areas of Pampa de Cueva by land traffic (2017). Paredes Castro, R. (2017). Housing Self-construction Illustration in Lima (Peru).

In this context, how could regulation work to the benefit of lower-income dwellers? Turner (1990, cited in Payne & Majale, 2012) proposes a switch in the traditional housing regulation by an “open system” that will enable households to find adaptable alternatives suitable to their needs departing from a range of competition of all the suppliers involved in the production of housing. In Lima, policies oriented towards Real State profits and the inadaptability of regulations towards the needs of new generations contributed to the progression of a never-ending process of land trafficant. In that sense, the fight for affordable and secure housing persists in the story of Maria.

“Nevertheless, we are still positive in the future of our family, we struggle to build-up our houses and access to sanitation and electricity, I believe that my son will also be able to someday have a house for him and his future family” (Maria, 2022).


Maria’s trajectory showcase that even though the initial government support of self-construction processes benefited the development of lower-income housing access, within the enhancement of the neoliberal policies and the correlative land regulations for the benefit of Real Estate developers, a vast ground for private formal and informal speculators was opened. Furthermore, the strengthening of those policies and the new generations’ interests also has contributed to the weakening of the social organization and cooperative practices. In this regard, Maria’s story demonstrates that individual land tenure doesn’t guarantee that the right to housing will be achieved. As shown in the story, this also open the ground for alliances between the private sector and the state rooted in a long trace of corruption carried out in Peru.

Furthermore, Maria’s story also highlights the power of organization and people’s agency as social capital and strategic elements in the fight for housing. Beyond a romanticization of self-construction, the story shows that community participation is imperative in the journey toward housing. Therefore, housing requires to be reframed as a process rather than a product (Turner,1964).  Beyond understanding the housing question from a critique of the state, the story shows that the right for housing navigate in the nuances of politics, personal trajectories, community participation, and urban and housing policies. In this context, further questions need to be raised. How to co-create adaptable housing policies in which the different agents involved could generate flexible and affordable alternatives for lower-income dwellers? How to navigate land traffic challenges from a co-production and participation of further generations? And finally, how to reimagine collectively a roof of her (their) own?

Bibliography & References

  • Castillo-Garcia, F (2021). Public Housing Policies in Peru 1946-2021 and contributions to a public housing policy 2021-2030. https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0316-5201
  • Espinoza, A. & R. Fort (2020).Mapeo y tipología de la expansión urbana en el Perú. Lima: GRADE; ADI. https://www.grade.org.pe/publicaciones/mapeo-y-tipologia-de-la-expansion-urbana-en-el-peru/
  • Fernandez, J.C & Pelaez,F (2021). Unidades cooperativas: de la vivienda titulada al barrio titulado. En FIIU5. Resiliencia Urbana. Tomo I. (pp. 21 – 27). LIMA. Ocupa tu calle. https://96p.ef8.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Libro-FIIU-5.tomo1_.pdf?time=1615397872
  • McGuirk, J. (2014). Radical Cities: Across the Latin America in Search of a New Architecture. London: Verso. – Watkins, Katie.
  • Golda-Pongratz, K. & Flores, R. (2018). Ciudad Infinita – Voces de El Ermitaño” [City Unfinished – Voices of El Ermitaño]” (2018)
  • Golda-Pongratz, K (2021). John FC Turner (1927-). The Architectural Review.Self-built housing + AR House: The Architectural Review Issue 1477, December 2020/January 2021. https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/reputations/john-fc-turner-1927
  • Riofrio, G. (2003). Urban Slums reports: The case of Lima-Peru. Global Report on Human Settlements 2003. The Challenge of Slums.
  • Riofrio, G. (2007). La política de vivienda en el Perú responde a la oferta y no a la demanda [In person]. Palestra, Portal de Asuntos PúblicosPE. http://repositorio.pucp.edu.pe/index//handle/123456789/11941
  • Payne, G. & Majale, M. (2012). The Urban Housing Manual: Making Regulatory Frameworks Work for the Poor. 10.4324/9781849773362.
  • Turner, J.F.C (1964). A roof of my own (UNTV 1964, 29 minutes)
  • Turner, J.F.C (1976). Housing by people: Towards autonomy in building environments. London: Marion Boyars.

This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.

One Response to “A Roof of Her (their) Own: Self-Constructing a Home in Lima”

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