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Imagining a Social Enterprise Model for the Provision of Pro-poor Housing Solutions in the Philippines

DavidHoffmann7 December 2016

In November 2013, super typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in full swing. Fragile shelter structures across the archipelago’s coastal areas did not withstand the strong winds and storm surges brought about by Yolanda. In the aftermath of the disaster, the government launched an emergency programme with the mission to ‘build back better’ [1]. The government was supported by the international humanitarian community, whose swift response matched the scale of the disaster in its scope and ambition. Yet serious funding challenges were said to hamper recovery.

 

Budget shortfalls are one of the most pervasive barriers to the successful implementation of recovery programs and a constant challenge faced by traditional development models. The idea that social enterprises could offer an answer to this issue has gained traction in the past years [2]. Social enterprises are organisations set up as revenue-generating business with social objectives, which allows them to be financially independent. As part of DPUs Junior Professional Programme, I was lucky to work closely with one of them.

 

Founded in 2014, LinkBuild is a young Housing Development Enterprise (HDE) whose mission is to scale up innovative, low-cost, and sustainable shelter solutions and programs for and with the poor. LinkBuild was set up as the latest addition of the Philippine Alliance, a grouping of 5 organisations that has a long history of successfully mobilising communities around savings groups in order to achieve secured land tenure. Given the current housing context in the Philippines, the need for this kind of program has never been more urgent.

 

The Housing Context in the Philippines

 

A new day begins in Quezon City, one of Metropolitan Manila’s 16 cities. The streets have been buzzing since the early morning hours, the traffic slowly pulsating through their aching junctions. As I work my way through the streets, I walk past busy informal settlements. Some are squatter settlements, the result of spontaneous and unplanned occupation of land. Others are informal subdivisions. The residents here live on a surveyed plot and they usually have proof of ownership or land-lease rights.

 

Flooded downtown Manila during rain season.

Flooded downtown Manila during rain season.

 

In Metro Manila, one out of every four people resides in informal settlements, often within disaster-prone areas. As an alternative, several shelter programs are being implemented by government and non-government actors. Yet the delivery of these programmes has been unable to cope with the rocketing demand for affordable housing. Driven by natural population growth and rural to urban migration, the main urban areas in in the Philippines are growing at a breath-taking pace. The country is projected to be 80% urbanised by 2025 [2] – an increase of 30 points from 2015. Moreover, officials are talking of a housing backlog of 5.7 million houses of which 60% are believed to be economic and social housing [3].

 

Most worryingly, some of the latest government’s efforts to deliver shelter programs have been proven to be counterproductive. A recent operation plan that aimed to relocate over 104,000 informal settler families out of danger zones in Metropolitan Manila, relocated 67 per cent to off-city sites [4]. The programme beneficiaries call these off-city sites the ‘death zones’. They feel effectively disconnected from their earlier life as they struggle to deal with the loss of their livelihoods and networks. Reports show that up to 60% of individuals that were relocated out of Metro Manila eventually return to the city [5]. If given the option, many ISF would rather remain in the old site despite the immediate risks they face instead of moving outside of the city.

 

Informal subdivision in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila.

Informal subdivision in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila.

 

At the same time, the private sector has recognised affordable housing as a potential growth market, yet it is struggling to set foot in the sector. From a purely financial perspective, affordable housing provision is a cut-throat affair. In Metro Manila, developing affordable housing amounts to ‘financial suicide’, as a local housing developer recently put it. The high land prices, as well as the additional costs of building in a congested city mean that selling houses for less than 7.500£, the maximum unit price at which they are considered to be affordable, can only be achieved at a loss. Even the supply of houses within the ‘economic housing’ brackets, at a unit cost of no more than 19.000£, is a hard trick to pull off.

 

The fundamental problem with these government and private programmes is that they treat informal settlers as an issue that needs to be dealt with, or an opportunity that ought to be exploited. What they fail to see is that informal settlers can be actors in the housing delivery process.

 

Imagining a Social Enterprise Model for the Provision of Pro-Poor Housing

 

As a social enterprise, LinkBuild is set as a revenue-generating business with social objectives. This distinguishes it from traditional NGOs that rely on international aid and funding to run their programmes and operations. Historically, the Philippine Alliance members have operated as traditional NGO’s. However, the donor landscape is shifting as it tries to make its beneficiaries’ programmes more investor-friendly. As a result, donors increasingly treat capital disbursements to partners as an investment, which has important implications for organisations like LinkBuild. This new trend is pushing LinkBuild to imagine a business model that sits comfortably within the highly competitive real-estate sector while staying true to its vision of reaching and mobilising the marginalised communities.

These units were built on an in-city relocation site identified by the local government. It also facilitated negotiations with the landowner and landfilled 6.5 hectares of land. Seventeen (17) of these plots were allotted to one of the communities associated to the Philippine Alliance

The units pictured above were built on an in-city relocation site identified by the local government.  Local government also facilitated negotiations with the landowner and landfilled 6.5 hectares of land.

 

To achieve financial sustainability, LinkBuild’s latest wave of housing projects is being conceived as mixed-income developments. The idea is to make a part of the 670 units fit for middle-income clients. The units, which will be more spacious, will be sold at a price surplus, effectively subsidising the construction of the more affordable units. While this new approach seems like radical change in direction, it does have a compelling argument in its favour. It offers a possibility for the organisation to become financially independent over time.

 

In the short run, LinkBuild’s operations would still heavily rely on the access to a starting capital. LinkBuild has therefore partnered with Real Equity For All (ReAll – former Homeless International), one of the few investors who are venturing into the housing market at the bottom of the pyramid. The capital enables LinkBuild to cover the costs of ‘hard investments’ such as purchasing and developing land, as well as the construction of the housing units; and thus, LinkBuild cannot be thought of as a stand-alone organisation, at least not for the time being.  However, in the medium run LinkBuild is hoping to achieve financial sustainability sustaining through the profit generated by the sales of surplus houses.

 

Chart 1: LinkBuild’s Social Enterprise Model

Chart 1: LinkBuild’s Social Enterprise Model

Strong Communities Make a Difference

In line with the tradition of community-oriented organisations like the Community Architects Network and the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights, LinkBuild works closely with the communities that it seeks to reach. The Philippine Alliance is the main enabler of this process. Each organisation in the Alliance plays a strategic role in delivering LinkBuild’s housing projects, as their active networks and expertise allows them to mobilise and engage communities through participatory processes. For example, through the Homeless People Federation Philippines, Linkbuild is able to link with strong communities (see Chart 1) in different regions. After connecting with the communities,  LinkBuild conducts market research and hosts workshops with clients and communities to ensure that it is able to reach target clients; that it meets their specific needs; and that the project is financially viable. In the end, the gathered information directly feeds into the architects’ final project design.

Chart 2: What defines a Strong Community?

Chart 2: What defines a Strong Community?

Moreover, the close ties of the Philippine Alliance with the local government units help to navigate the hurdles that land acquisition and development may pose. For example, in Mandate City, local government identified land and facilitated the negotiations for acquisition. Given the competitive nature of the sector, this form of support is crucial.  Least but not last, LinkBuild also follows international best practice of developing in-city projects. By purchasing land that is centrally located, the organisation hopes to deliver projects that actively contribute to the integration of marginalised communities to the existing city fabric.

 

Participants of the Bago Gallera Site Planning Workshop in Davao City last September.

Participants of the Bago Gallera Site Planning Workshop in Davao City last September.

All of the above factors allow LinkBuild to distinguish itself from the traditional housing developers that tend to have a top-down approach to housing delivery and are primarily concerned with meeting sales objectives.

Ultimately Linkbuild’s model still remains to be tested since the mixed-income housing projects are yet to be completed. As the organisation enters unexplored waters with the Philippine Alliance, it will continue to learn by doing. And there remains a lot to be learnt. Given the housing sector’s state of permanent emergency, planning for the future of the countries’ urban poor is crucial. Despite the scale of the problem, there are only few organisations bold enough to offer an alternative. As it paves its way to sustainability, LinkBuild might well be leading the path towards the ‘imaginative reformulation of the systems by which we manage change’ [7]. And it is leading the change by asking the right question – how do we build forward better?

 

References

 

[1] National Economic and Development Authority, 2013. Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda:  Implementation for Results. [online] Available at: http://yolanda.neda.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RAY-2.pdf

[2] Overseas Development Institute, 2013. Why and how are donors supporting social enterprises? [online]. Available at: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8894.pdf

[3] The World Bank, 2016. Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines: Policy Paper for the National Summit on Housing and Urban Development. [online] Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/547171468059364837/pdf/AUS13470-WP-PUBLIC-Housing-Summit-Policy-Paper-has-been-approved-P155561.pdf
[4] Lorenciana, C.R. (2013). Philippine housing backlog is 5.5M SHDA targets to build a million units by 2016. [online]. Available at: http://www.philstar.com/cebu-business/2015/07/13/1476445/philippine-housing-backlog-5.5m-shda-targets-build-million-units

[5] The World Bank, 2016. Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines: Policy Paper for the National Summit on Housing and Urban Development. [online] Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/547171468059364837/pdf/AUS13470-WP-PUBLIC-Housing-Summit-Policy-Paper-has-been-approved-P155561.pdf

[6] Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. 2014. Developing a National Informal Settlements Upgrading Strategy for the Philippines (Final Report). [online]. Available at: http://www.hudcc.net/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/document/NISUS%20Final%20Report_July2014.pdf

[7] Sumsook, B. 2016.  Cities for People and by People. [online]. Available at: https://unchronicle.un.org/article/cities-people-and-people

 


 

David Hoffmann is an alumna of the MSc Urban Economic Development and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme. He currently works at LinkBuild, where he is involved with the design and implementation of organisational development strategies. Amongst others he organised workshops to encourage the knowledge exchange between community associations in Cebu and Davao.

 

*All pictures taken by D.H.

 

‘Africa Regional Dossier’ highlights some key issues raised by civil society groups in advance of Habitat III

RafaellaSimas Lima20 October 2016

 

For the past year and a half the DPU has worked in collaboration with the international civil society network Habitat International Coalition (HIC) to understand the various preparations and processes leading up to Habitat III, set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. Namely, the intent has been to understand how civil society groups and grassroots movements have been involved (or not) in these processes, that are meant to culminate in the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be agreed upon by national governments at the Habitat conference.

The first iteration of the DPU-HIC research was to look at the process of Habitat III national report production in eight countries where national report drafts were being prepared. Our research showed that in most cases, civil society participation in the national reporting process was quite limited, representing at best brief consultations, at worst reports undertaken by government institutions or consultants without much outside input. In addition, with a few exceptions, national reports themselves were quite limited in terms of commitments to ‘right to the city’ principles and other rights-based approaches advocated by some several civil society groups.

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

As attention shifted from the national level to regional meetings and the development of regional reports, the second project was an attempt to more actively respond to regional processes. Regional reports were developed by the five UN Regional Economic and Social Commissions and UN-Habitat. Like at the national level, the opportunity for civil society input at the regional level again seemed limited, and while regional reports were ostensibly supposed to build on national reports, it is unclear how much this actually happened in practice. Accordingly, the DPU, steered by an advisory committee of civil society networks, grass-roots movements and academics spanning the African continent, helped coordinate an Africa Regional Dossier (full report available here) to highlight key issues requiring more visibility and reframing in the New Urban Agenda, from a civil society vantage point. Beyond a reliance on selected interviews, the Dossier builds on two pan-African civil society gatherings organised in Johannesburg in November/December 2015: the Global Platform on the Right to the City’s regional meeting and the Session of Inhabitants coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants at Africities VII. Meanwhile, HIC coordinated a Latin America response, which is taking the form of an alternative Latin American regional report (forthcoming).

The Africa Regional Dossier is not intended to be a comprehensive report, but serves to highlight a series of key urban issues and propositions articulated by civil society actors in need of further visibility and commitment from national and transnational actors, to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda. The propositional aspects of each issue are summarised as follows:

1) Forced evictions and land grabbing: The urbanisation practices that are driving evictions and land grabbing need to be placed at the centre of struggles around evictions. This implies rethinking the balance between collective rights (including the collective ‘right to occupation’) and individual land rights acquired through land markets. Habitat II commitments to ‘prevent and remedy’ unjustified evictions need to be upheld. There is a need to develop legislative frameworks for legal redress, in order to support community rights in case of evictions that are deemed unavoidable.

2) Land tenure: ‘Land tenure’ should not be limited to private ownership and private land rights. Rather, diverse forms of collective and individual tenure can be recognised and explored as mechanisms to ensure marginalised groups’ access to land.

3) Rural-urban ‘divide’: Re-framing ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ not as a dichotomy but as interconnected parts of the same system, allows for the recognition of diverse urbanisation trajectories. Policy making could reflect this plurality and the linkages between the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ by emphasising inter-municipal and cross-departmental coordination rather than dealing with ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as separate categories governed by different authorities.

4) Infrastructure: At the local scale, infrastructure development plans need to recognise and integrate decentralised, low-cost and low-skilled solutions through targeted financial resources and training. Understanding diverse infrastructure provisions within the urban-rural continuum and through a combination of financing sources that connects Africa’s diverse economies is key. This can be facilitated through cross-departmental and cross-boundary coordination among local governments. Additionally, there is an opportunity to view infrastructure and service delivery as providing environmental outcomes, creating employment or economic opportunities, as well as social outcomes, for example, in mobilising youth.

5) Governance and the right to political voice: There is a widespread call amongst African civil society actors to reframe ‘good governance’ through a focus on deepening meaningful democratic practices. This implies ensuring better recognition of different social actors, facilitating increased participation in decision-making structures, and achieving more equitable redistribution of wealth and services. Equally important as involving civil society actors and other stakeholders is recognising unequal power relations among actors, taking steps to address these power imbalances in decision-making fora, and ensuring that more democratic governance leads to equitable outcomes.

6) Economic opportunities: The ‘economy’ can be re-conceptualised within a plural perspective of diverse systems—formal, informal, social, solidarity, etc.—interacting together. The fluidity and adaptability of informal practices can be harnessed while pursuing policies to limit potential exploitative conditions. In addition, viewing employment conditions through a human rights perspective would imply the need for the protection of jobs, especially in the informal sector, and the right to legitimate and decent work. At the same time, a focus on the capacity of local governments could improve their ability to generate revenue through taxation and the capture of value from real estate or infrastructure developments.

7) Security and urban conflict: In order for urban stakeholders to meaningfully address urban security, the varying manifestations of urban conflict and violence must be acknowledged along with the intersecting social, political and economic factors behind such violence. Often, interventions to address urban safety address merely the side effects rather than the root causes of urban violence. Security commitments need to call for building linkages between humanitarian, development and human rights approaches, and the fundamental principles of security and equity.

8) Climate change and environment: Climate change can go beyond concepts of sustainability and resilience, and be re-framed from the perspective of environmental justice. This allows for the links between social justice and climate change to be acknowledged, and for a discussion about the distribution of environmental benefits and hazards, so that the differentiated effects of climate change can be addressed.

In addition to these eight issues, the Africa Regional Dossier argues that the New Urban Agenda should place more emphasis on protecting against the loss of entitlements (for example, those outlined in previous Habitat agendas and human rights conventions), the distribution of resources and opportunities towards a more equitable urban development, and to the roles, responsibilities and capacity of local actors to implement and monitor the agreed agenda. The case studies in the Regional Dossier demonstrate some ways in which civil society groups can partake in such processes.

The regional scope of this Dossier reinforces the need for territorial debates in the process of elaborating international agendas such as the New Urban Agenda. This research also highlighted the lack of opportunities for civil society groups to participate meaningfully in such a process. Lack of transparency and limited access to regional reporting procedures compromised the potential of the agenda-making process to deepen a collective understanding of on-going urban challenges in Africa. This has thus represented a missed opportunity to build commitments from a variety of stakeholders towards a transformative New Urban Agenda.

The process of coordinating the African Regional Dossier demonstrated the appetite of civil society groups to share experiences, deepen their understanding about wider regional processes, and collaboratively build synergies for transnational collective action. We hope that this Dossier, far from being an exhaustive list of key issues, can contribute to the on-going discussions within and around Habitat III, but most importantly, that it can be of use in the building of linkages and collaboration among civil society groups across the Africa region advocating for more just urban development.

Community savings: mobilising for secure tenure and housing in Davao

Laura JHirst7 April 2015

Barangay Payatas, a Quezon City neighbourbood, is home to the Philippines’ largest landfill site, where up to 500 truckloads of waste are dumped daily, and on whose slopes hundreds of people live and work, many of them scavenging for recyclable waste.

It’s here that the foundations of HPFPI were laid in the early 1990s, by Vincentian missionaries who initiated social initiatives with the waste-pickers or mangangalahigs (so-called ‘chicken-scratchers’). This included a savings programme, and as participant numbers in Payatas grew, so too did news of its success.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through savings

Other communities from cities across the Philippines visited and formed savings groups back home and in 2001, the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines (HPFPI) was incorporated. Today, the savings programme still underpins HPFPI’s community-driven interventions; whenever a group is organised, the first group project is savings.

The idea is that mobilisation through savings can develop communities’ financial capacity to invest in and plan their own developments, through for example negotiating and managing land acquisition, relocation, or on-site upgrading. As a social mechanism, savings brings community members together regularly for support, to exchange ideas and strategies and over time build capacity to negotiate with the state, private sector or other stakeholders to gain secure tenure.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Urban challenges in Davao

Davao, where I am currently working, is the primary city of the southern island of Mindanao. Geographically, it’s very different to Metro Manila, mainly thanks to its low population density and relative greenery. However, it’s still highly urbanised, and with a quarter of the city’s population classed as ‘urban poor’, many of its inhabitants are subject to the same urban trends that proliferate in the National Capital Region.

Davao has a severe lack of affordable land and housing options for low income families, resulting in the spread of informal settlements, often on hazardous land, illegally, with minimal service provision, and at risk of eviction. The huge housing backlog is being addressed at a painfully slow rate by local government, making the work of community-based organisations like HPFPI and the Philippine Alliance vital.

From individual to federated savings groups

Since I’ve been in Davao, I’ve witnessed how savings groups become part of the federation in a number of ways. Some approach the federation directly, encouraged by word of mouth, but also driven by imminent threats to their security. We were recently contacted by community groups in the Ma’a neighbourhood who, having heard of the federation’s work, requested a savings orientation. They are facing eviction from the private land they are occupying and want to mobilise to search for and acquire a relocation site.

A similar eviction threat to the Arroyo settlement (home to 3000 + households and located close to the HPFPI office), has mobilised federation members to encourage their neighbours to start saving in order to be ready to respond to any future plans for the land. Savings here have previously paid for legal fees to fight similar eviction orders.

The federation also reaches out and extends support to areas which have experienced natural disasters, as well as encouraging savings groups, as in Arroyo, which has suffered fatal floods in recent years. Additionally, partnerships between local government and the alliance can pave the way for the introduction of savings and community mobilisation.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

© Laura Hirst

Current projects of the Philippine Alliance

The Alliance is currently constructing houses as part of a large relocation project at a site called Los Amigos, which has initiated a new group of savers. We are also facilitating community mapping of a number of informal settlements in an industrial area of the city, for community planning purposes, supported by a progressive local government unit.

We hope that this will act as a catalyst for these communities to create savings groups, supporting the planning process with increased social and financial capital. The strength of the savings programme has also allowed communities in Davao to access funds through the ACHR Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme for upgrading projects to address problems of land, infrastructure and housing at scale, often in partnership with local government.

These have included bridges (including the now world-famous, and rather beautiful bamboo bridge in Arroyo), flood defences and structure upgrading across a number of communities.

Models of community saving schemes

The federation’s model of savings comprises several different funds, amounting to five pesos (about 7 pence) a day; an Urban Poor Development Fund (loanable, for projects to develop the area) and group savings (withdrawable anytime for emergency use) are kept by the community, whilst a monthly contribution to a city fund helps HPFPI to sustain its activities, and build a revolving loan fund at the city level.

Each group is also encouraged to save 150 pesos a month for future land purchases. Groups meet weekly and there are rules about the collection and storage of money for transparency and accountability.

Whilst the model appears straightforward, as with any community mobilisation work, challenges arise from group to group. During my first month here, each Saturday we visited each of the HPFPI affiliated community associations in Davao to assess and understand their current situation and any problems they were experiencing.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Community organisation is complex

Mobilisation depends greatly on the huge commitment of voluntary time and effort of the HPFPI ‘mothers’ and coordinators; during the early days of a group’s formation members need orientation and training in record keeping.

In the long term groups also need to be sustained and encouraged; groups can succumb to savings fatigue, and become discouraged about slow progress and gains. Some associations in Davao are comprised of members who have mobilised for land acquisition but are spread living across different sites, which brings practical problems in terms of regular savings collection and meetings.

Leadership issues, schisms within associations and mismanagement of savings do occur, and in these cases, the mothers need to employ huge sensitivity and diplomacy to navigate community politics, histories, relationships and individuals to maintain strong community associations that can continue the struggle for secure tenure.

How can emerging challenges be overcome?

In light of our visits, we’ve been discussing ways to address some of these problems. We hope to start piloting a few changes to the model with new groups, such as rotating responsibility amongst all members for collecting savings on a weekly basis, so that everyone feels included and responsible for the group’s financial status.

Community and leadership exchanges between stronger and weaker groups are planned, to strengthen the situation of those currently struggling through sharing learning and successes across the city.

We hope that at the same time we can build on these activities to reinforce and deepen the (often challenging) ambition of the alliance to develop a strong, organised and engaged citywide platform for communities to discuss, plan and build their way to secure tenure and housing.


Laura Hirst is currently working in Davao City with the Philippine Alliance as part of the DPU-CAN-ACHR junior professional internship programme. She is an MSc Social Development Practice graduate and a former Graduate Teaching Assistant for the programme. Her interests include participatory urban governance and social diversity, gender justice, participatory processes and methodologies and photography. She has previously worked at the UCL Urban Laboratory as well as for Leonard Cheshire Disability, PhotoVoice and One World Action in the UK, civil society organisations in Peru and Cameroon and on action research projects in London, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

This contribution is the latest in a mini series of posts from our interns in the Philippines. Read blog 1, on the Philippine Alliance and blog 2, on Community Mapping in Metro Manila.

The struggle for the recognition of collectively owned urban land in Cochabamba, Bolivia

DingLiu23 February 2012

Post written by Jo Maguire, DPU alumna 2003-05.

The new Bolivian constitution, introduced in January 2010, when over 64% of the voting population approved it, states that adequate housing is a right (Article 19, Section I), that the state will promote social housing plans based on the principles of solidarity and equity, directed preferably at low-income families (Article 19, Sec II) and that collectively owning property is recognised (Article 56, Sec I)

Many of the articles in the new constitution await the introduction of laws to support them, and social housing provision and the right to collectively own urban land is among them. Collective land is legally recognised in rural areas, as an important feature of indigenous rural communities, but not in urban areas. However, the residents of a community in Cochabamba are the attempting to change that, by pushing the local government to pass an ordinance that recognises their community as collectively owned, and by proposing a new national law that recognises collectively owned solidarity communities in general.

The Community Maria Auxiliadora is a beautiful anomaly. In the peri-urban “Zona Sur” of the city of Cochabamba, it was created 12 years ago by a steering group of five women, following the vision of Rose Mary Irusta. She took out a loan to buy a parcel of land so that low-income women and children could have access to their own house, rather living in the squalid, overcrowded rented housing conditions that so many families have to endure in the city, with the related problems of stress, illness, abuse, youth delinquency and child neglect. The result of this vision is the Habitát para Mujeres, Comunidad María Auxiliadora (Habitat for Women, María Auxiliadora Community), an intercultural solidarity community.  Currently with just under 2000 residents (365 families), it is planned to grow to 5000. It has a democratic base, with a Management Committee elected every two years, and a President and Vice President that are always women. There is much encouragement of women’s leadership, recognising that women tend to be more concerned and affected by their families’ housing. There are many single parent families. A mainstay of the community is the community work carried out on Sundays, where the community’s principles of solidarity and mutual self-help are evident. The community is not religious, nor has a political line. It is multicultural: residents come from all over Bolivia, there are different indigenous groups as well as mestizos (mixed race), and two indigenous languages are widely spoken as well as Spanish.

To enter the community a family has to have a low income and not own a house or land in Bolivia. They must sign that they agree to the community rules: that the land is collective, that they have the right to indefinitely use the plot allocated and leave it to their children; that they cannot sell or rent out their house, as the community is “for living, not for profit”; that they will do community work and attend the monthly meetings; that they will not sell alcohol. The cost entering the community and having a plot on which to build a house is 600 US$, i.e. 3$ per square metre, while surrounding neighbourhoods are selling at over 20$ per square metre. It can be paid over a year. The price is fixed, so making a plot and house accessible to low-income families and avoiding the current free-market approach to land in peri-urban areas, where land is bought as an investment and left vacant. While a family does not have an individual title deed, they do have a legal document naming them as co-owners of the whole community and giving them and their descendents the right to occupy their housing plot.

The social impact is impressive. There is security, a rarity in peri-urban areas; less alcoholism or violence within the family than in other neighbourhoods; mutual support and solidarity (for families in crisis there is a repayable fund to help them, and if that is not enough a whip-round). Many of the young people are studying at university; the local school says that the community’s students are getting the best exam results; there is a self-managed youth group, putting on events for the children of the community and carrying out projects. The community is developing its own culture, and restoring aspects of a culture still found in the countryside in Bolivia but usually lost when people move to the city: a culture based on communitarianism rather than individualism.

The cornerstone of this social and physical capital gained by residents is the collective ownership of the community. If the residents had individual title deeds they could do what they liked within their walls and the community would have very little control. As it is, the Management Committee debates an issue and then takes it to the monthly community meeting for a decision: a man continues to beat up his partner and children, despite help from the Family Support Committee, should he be expelled from the community? A family has not paid their monthly housing loan payments to the NGO for over a year and does not live in the house, should the house be given to another family and their investment repaid?

All this has been gained by a lot of hard physical work. The residents have cleared the roads, put in a well, water tank and pipe network, and a sewage system with an ecological treatment plant, built a community office, sports facilities, and an afterschool club. Most of this has been done without help from any level of government. National and international NGOs have helped to an extent, especially with house building loans.

The community is better known internationally that locally, with a World Habitat Award in 2008, and as a shining example for the Habitat International Coalition. But there are many powerful local interests that work against the community: politicians visit and say it should be a model for all Bolivia and then do nothing. The whole of the Zona Sur of Cochabamba city, with 200,000 residents, is still classified as rural land, and this benefits a corrupt network of surveyors, lawyers, “loteadores” – people that illegally buy grazing land from local peasant farmers and divide and sell it as housing plots – as well as local government officials and politicians.

So the struggle to get collectively owned urban land legally recognised is not easy. The community, particularly the group Mujeres Lideres de la Communidad Maria Auxiliadora (Women Leaders of the Maria Auxiliadora Community), is currently attempting to push the local government elected body to pass a ordinance that recognises that the community is collectively owned land, however there are representatives and officials that oppose it. The community has elaborated a law that will permit collectively owned urban land and recognise solidarity communities, which is supported by the Vice Ministry of Housing, and is presently with the President’s office and other Ministries for consultation.

An unexpected breakthrough resulted from a recent judges’ verdict. Rose Mary Irusta was taken to court, accused of fraud by a small group within the community. They had family members working abroad, had built large houses and wanted to sell up and move on. The judge stated that they knew perfectly well the rules of the community when they entered it, and there was no evidence of fraud. Moreover, he stated that the community was collective owned; so giving some legal acknowledgement to the existence of collectively owed urban land.

Jo is an architect living and working in Cochabamba-Bolivia. The views expressed in this piece are her own.