As befits a self-proclaimed "government of the social movements," the MAS has articulated a strong commitment to a progressive, non-market vision of social housing, epitomized by the slogan: "Vivienda Digna
Yet, the reality is more complex. During our visit, we gained perspective on the challenges and contradictions facing the MAS government as it seeks to implement a progressive social housing agenda within the constraints of a mixed economy, a politically divided society, and a state bureaucracy undermined by 20 years of neoliberal restructuring.
The Social Housing Program: PVSS
The MAS' ambitious $90M Program for Social & Solidarity Housing (PVSS) was launched with significant fanfare in April 2007, promising to provide at least 14,500 new units by the end of the year.
In important respects, PVSS represents a departure from
In the urban program, 20-year government loans are available for 100% of land and construction costs. Interest rates are 0% for houses in the lowest price categories ($2,500 to $8,000 initially, indexed to inflation), and 3% for houses costing $8,001 to $15,000. (The interest rate on a typical private bank loan, for which few families in
In rural areas, the government directly subsidizes up to 60% of construction costs (initially capped at around $3,600/unit), while families contribute 40% through self-help labor or donated materials. Departments, municipalities, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are encouraged to offset one-third of the national government's cost. Similar grants are available for remodeling, upgrading, and expansion of rural housing, with an initial target of 26,600 units.
With these financing terms, an urban family earning the minimum wage of $83 per month can afford a new $5,000 house with a monthly payment of around $21, at 25% of income. The smallest loan of $2,500 can benefit a family earning as little as $42 per month.
Moreover, although PVSS funding is derived from mandatory housing benefit contributions paid by salaried public and private sector workers and employers, for the first time in
Despite these novel features, PVSS also represents a continuity with the past, reflecting the political, economic, and institutional constraints under which the MAS government operates. Like previous programs, the emphasis is on new construction, which has high political visibility.
While PVSS projects are typically targeted to social sectors such as unions, neighborhood organizations, and indigenous groups, the program is largely private sector-driven, subject to government regulation. For example, the financieras who review credit applications, disburse government funds, and collect loan repayments are primarily established cooperative banks and other financial institutions. The constructoras who develop and build the housing are typically private or cooperative construction companies.
Major materials producers like SOBOCE, the largest cement company in
As a result of this pragmatic design, the launching of PVSS was greeted enthusiastically across the political spectrum—an unusual event in
Experience to Date: A Mixed Record
During the first year, PVSS experienced major start-up difficulties. By the end of 2007, despite significant demand, only 8,000 units had been approved and funded with scant evidence of actual construction. In his January 2008, State of the Union address, Morales lamented the government's disappointing performance while pledging at least another 14,500 units for 2008.
Over the past year, the program's pace has accelerated considerably. As of August 31, funds were committed for approximately 27,600 units in 200 projects, and all available PVSS resources were exhausted. Approved projects, located in 52 of
Interestingly, the distribution of program benefits has not favored the western, heavily indigenous, and poorer regions--MAS' political base. On the contrary, the eastern "Media Luna" Departments (and allied Chuquisaca) have received a disproportionate share of units (55%) and funds committed (64%), relative to their share of total population (40%). Agrobusiness elites in these resource-rich regions have been waging a violent "autonomy" campaign in opposition to the Morales government, although outside the provincial capitals the MAS maintains strong support.
On the whole, the housing approved by PVSS to date appears to be relatively affordable. Approximately half the units funded are in the rural program, aimed at the lowest population strata. In the urban program, three-quarters of units are in the $5,001 to $8,000 price range.
From MAS' perspective, PVSS has surpassed its original goal, achieving in just 17 months what it had promised to accomplish in 2 years. Still, in terms of tangible results, fewer than 4,000 units have actually been completed (with another 1,000 anticipated to be delivered by year end).
To be sure, substantial time lags from project initiation to funding and completion are typical of all government housing programs. But with more than 86,000 credit applicants approved or in processing, the government appears to be creating its own credibility gap. As one MAS representative has noted: "
Many problems encountered in the PVSS program appear to be systemic in nature. Materials costs have doubled over the past year, a predicament not unique to
In the cities, rising land costs--due in part to PVSS-generated demand--are a significant problem. A prominent bank participating in the program is under investigation for allegedly inflating land costs through straw purchases at several sites. This is the third financiera to be relieved of its PVSS responsibilities for suspected irregularities, a factor which has contributed to program delays. Still another prevalent problem is the inability of prospective purchasers to secure clear land title, a prerequisite for PVSS loans which require mortgage security.
Delays have also resulted from administrative shortcomings, related in part to
Nor has PVSS been immune from partisan conflict. Funding commitments have often appeared to be politically motivated, especially during the August 2008 recall referendum campaign (a plebiscite vote on Morales' government) when significant awards were made to projects in the embattled Departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Chuquisaca. The government has also used PVSS funds to settle political disputes with rebellious social movement organizations, such as the transport workers' union.
Most dramatically, in October 2008, following Morales' strong (67%) referendum victory and successful negotiation in the Congress to bring the new Constitution to a popular vote, the municipality of Santa Cruz (headquarters of the regional opposition) destroyed 100 PVSS houses constructed for a local indigenous group. While the immediate cause of this conflict was a jurisdictional dispute between two municipalities, the episode had broader political overtones. As ex-minister Rivera noted, "The anti-MAS municipalities don't want PVSS to succeed." The government is pursuing legal remedies for restitution, as well as punishment of the offending officials.
The 386-unit "Integration of the
The units feature a utilitarian design and are densely packed across the site, but at a total cost of $5,000 (including land) they are extremely affordable. While some residents have criticized the quality of construction and are demanding an investigation of their financiera's possible role in land speculation, owners interviewed in a recent news account--all former renters—welcomed the reduced costs, increased security of tenure, and accessible location of their new homes. Said Miriam Sánchez, a single mother of five: "What hurt me most, living as a tenant, was that having children seemed to be a sin...a barrier to finding a place to live. The dream of having my own home seemed impossible to realize, until now."
The NGO Perspective
An alternative approach to social housing is offered by RENASEH (the National Network of Human Settlements), a coalition of 11 NGOs that combine housing advocacy, development, and organizing and have led the struggle for housing rights in
In RENASEH's view, social housing (urban as well as rural) should emphasize incremental construction and remodeling of units with reliance on individual and collective self-help, progressive microcredit loans, and other forms of creative, non-mortgage financing. This is the dominant shelter strategy that poor Bolivian families have used for generations. For households with unstable sources of income, it is easier to borrow small amounts and upgrade living space incrementally as family needs expand. Focusing on rehab, RENASEH maintains, will stretch scarce public resources further. Arguably,
Moreover, self-help and community financing strategies build solidarity, empower communities, and foster a collective, participatory stake in housing. This approach, RENASEH believes, is more consistent with social housing objectives than is reliance on market-oriented strategies that encourage households to spend beyond their means. Says architect Guillermo Bazoberry: "For most Bolivians, housing is a form of social security, not an investment. The government should be helping people and communities directly, to make the informal housing economy work better."
Over the past 15 years, RENASEH's member NGOs have helped families built 10,000 new homes and renovate 30,000 units, utilizing incremental and self-help building and financing strategies. Their 15,000 micro-credit loans have a repayment failure rate substantially lower than that of traditional banks.
Critics argue that families with the most pressing housing needs (including female-headed households) may lack the time and skills for individual or collective self-help, and point to the public and private costs of uncompensated labor. In addition to the loss of construction jobs and economic stimulus, creating a decent unit takes longer, and quality may be compromised. The critical supportive services provided by the NGOs (including architectural, construction management, and organizational assistance) are labor-intensive and may be difficult to replicate on a larger scale.
Still, successful examples, such as the Maria Auxiliadora community we visited in
To finance the housing, the community uses a traditional collective savings system called pasanaku in which members' personal funds are pooled and redistributed, as needed, to each family in turn. Progressive microcredit loans of $1,000 - $3,000 are made by the NGOs to individual households, but are guaranteed collectively (with no mortgage security). Mutual-help construction is a community obligation. The community has developed its own water, sewer, and irrigation systems. The pasanaku system is also used to finance family and community enterprises (such as catering, sewing, and construction materials).
The community has approached PVSS for funding to build additional units. The cooperative form of land ownership poses a challenge, but this may be ameliorated by the new Constitution.
Social Housing and the Constitution
RENASEH was instrumental in securing the right to housing in
Article 19 of the new Constitution establishes every Bolivian's right to a decent, adequate home and living environment, that dignifies family and community life. It requires all levels of government to promote social housing programs--including adequate financing--based on principles of solidarity and equity, and with preference to groups having the least resources and greatest need. (An unanticipated benefit of the autonomy conflict, notes RENASEH, is that all levels of government now want to take credit for social housing.)
Article 56 guarantees both private and collective ownership of property, provided that its use is not harmful to the collective good. The original draft explicitly allowed the government to expropriate surplus urban land not serving a social function, to be reused for social housing. This anti-speculation provision was removed in a compromise with Samuel Doria Medina, to prevent his UN party from joining the opposition boycott of the Constituent Assembly vote. The final Constitution negotiated between MAS and the opposition parties in Congress emphasizes that urban real estate is not subject to confiscation.
With the new Constitution about to be ratified,
In November, the government announced that resources had been found to fund another 26,000 units of social housing in 2009. In line with the new decentralization trend, satellite program offices have been established in several Departments with the goal of more delegated decision-making. The government is considering allocating funds to each Department on the basis of population, with projects to be selected jointly by the Departments, municipalities, and popular organizations. An agreement has been signed with the National Federation of Neighborhood Boards (CONALJUVE) to promote participatory decision-making in housing design and construction.
To contain costs, the government has announced plans to develop a state cement company with loans from
Finally, RENASEH hopes to work with the Housing Ministry to develop a program for urban housing remodeling, expansion, and upgrading based on its successful community experience. Habitat for Humanity is now acting as a constructora for several projects. Whether the incremental building and financing approach can be "scaled up" and made compatible with the political and institutional requirements of a national housing program remains to be seen.
In many respects the PVSS program illustrates the larger challenges and contradictions of the government's efforts to bring about "revolutionary" change through democratic reform. As with other MAS initiatives (such as gas nationalization and agrarian reform), ambitious social goals have been constrained by underlying economic and market forces and the need to accommodate opposing political interests. The weakness of existing government institutions and bureaucracies is an obstacle to the achievement of MAS' redistributive agenda across the board. Tensions between the consolidation of state power and popular demands for more democratic and community-oriented practices are characteristic of relations between the social movements and the MAS government today.
As it evolves in the future, the social housing program will likely continue to provide a revealing window on
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and affordable housing consultant and activist based in Boston, MA. She has been researching social housing and urban social movements in
Republished from Progressive Planning: The Magazine of Planners’ Network, #178, Winter 2009