The New White Elephants of Brazil
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The best experts in the world are still struggling to find the right answer to a shortage of workable housing for the poor.
It isn’t easy for the residents of the Irmã Dulce housing development to get home these days. Their neighborhood, a collection of new low-rise condos that gleam against the sky, is located on the outskirts of João Pessoa, a city set on a dirt road miles from any bank or supermarket. There are no bus lines, and it’s not like most residents will be driving — seeing as they live below the poverty line. Indeed, most folks travel on foot. Which is why you might raise an eyebrow at a key Irmã Dulce amenity: a parking space for each unit.
There’s a housing boom going on in Brazil — only this one is for the poor and backed by the government. Fly into any city in the poorest regions of Brazil, and you’ll spot them: rectangular scars on deep green fields, surrounded by nothing, except maybe a slowly decaying white elephant World Cup stadium. They’re the new housing developments borne out of the government’s 6-year-old “My House, My Life” program. Look closer at the white and clay-colored rectangles and you’ll notice they’re in fact box after box after box, appearing more like warehouses than homes, both reminiscent of Escher-esque illusions and symbolic of suburban dystopias. It’s in these communities that today millions of Brazilians live, with more moving in every day; President Dilma Rousseff has promised nearly 3 million of these homes will be delivered by 2018 — homes for 25 million, or 1 in every 8 Brazilians.
Although on the one hand the developments are a well-intentioned attempt to put a safe roof over the heads of Brazil’s neediest families, the communities’ brutal aesthetic and far-away placement, combined with misfired amenities, have caused architects and social scientists to sound the alarm. Those parking spaces, for one, are aimed at folks who can’t afford diapers without government assistance — proof, critics say, of the disconnect between smart design and the reality of Brazil’s housing constructions.
In fact, there’s a growing concern that these developments will further isolate disenfranchised communities, and could, counterintuitively, actually exacerbate inequality in the long run. “It’s creating new outskirts that will become new favelas (or slums),” says Cristovão Duarte, professor of urbanism at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “It’s a mistake.”
That concern is already rearing its head in Irmã Dulce, where residents must travel on foot for hours just to a local nail salon or to work construction. That only reduces their few chances to graduate from welfare, a regression for what many consider Brazil’s most signature, game-changing program — and the jewel in Rousseff’s crown.
It perpetuates poverty by pushing people to the margins.
Bryan McCann, Georgetown University professor of Brazilian history
Of course, this isn’t the only place, or the first time, that a government’s effort at public housing has yielded unanticipated results. Jump back to Egypt in the ’40s, when architect Hassan Fathy designed a village for a poor rural community and drafted a treatise on the experience called Architecture for the Poor. He didn’t expect, though, that rural Egyptians might actually prefer their old wooden structures, to which they eventually reverted. In the U.S., the ’50s and ’60s were a boom time for grand-solution public housing projects, burdened with the promise of urban renewal. Some notable examples included the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, with its 33 tall buildings, and the Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago — both tall megaplexes that turned out to be so dangerous to residents that the structures were razed.
Like past public housing projects, the stark constructions of My House, My Life are intended to be a sign of development. Most residents who live in the new condos are moving out of precarious conditions: wood shacks on buckling stilts, flood-prone riverside homes, tilting lean-tos on crumbling hillside favelas. Some are coming from no home at all. Public policy experts have hoped Brazil’s New Deal-esque experiment will help low-income families, and these kinds of homes could serve as a public housing model for the surrounding region – 111 million Latin Americans lived in slums as of 2012, and in Peru and Bolivia, in particular, nearly three-quarters of the population resides in inadequate housing.
For an embattled Rousseff, criticisms show how hard it is to get even her most popular program — which in many ways kept her hanging on to her presidency, if barely, this winter — right. A government spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment, though one principle guiding the projects has centered on the debate of creating community spaces. The idea was once popular, but you won’t find any purposely created spots at Irmã Dulce. The fear is that such spaces — like playgrounds and gardens — quickly dissolve into drug dealer or gang-ridden hangouts. Urban scholars believe the current construction trend in Brazil will guarantee that result anyway, because the buildings are so far from inner cities. “It perpetuates poverty by pushing people to the margins,” says Bryan McCann, a Georgetown University professor of Brazilian history.
But here’s the funny thing: Those arriving at Irmã Dulce will notice the unneeded parking spaces have not gone unused. Residents have set up barber shops, markets and botecos there — all beneath jerry-rigged plastic covers, strung with Christmas lights. It’s a visual display of how even in the most ascetic conditions, and despite government models, a community can find a way to re-create itself with unanticipated results.