MTST: Reimagining the Brazilian urban struggle after Bolsonaro


Notes on Bolsonaro's dismantling of housing policy and 10 points to rebuild it.

The news that the Bolsonaro family had added 107 properties to its estate, with 51 acquired in cash, contrasts with the reality of millions of homeless Brazilians and with the president’s 95% cuts for the housing budget scheduled for2023. This irony is even more tragic when we remember that it was in fact the alleged ownership of just one property, a triplex on the coast in the state of São Paulo, that was the basis for the political persecution that resulted in the 2018 arrest of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, removing the former president from the electoral contest that he was leading until then.

Social movements, such as the Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST), were active in denouncing these absurdities. For example, they occupied the triplex in question in April 2018 to demonstrate the farce of Lula's conviction, as well as when they protested in September in front of one of the mansions of the senator and son of the president, Flávio Bolsonaro. This single mansion was purchased in cash, worth R$6 million (more than $1 million USD), while 19 million Brazilians went hungry. Data updated this year show that there are at least 33 million Brazilians who do not have enough to eat.

These 33 million people  include many of the same number of millions of families that suffer from the problem of housing. Currently, the data regarding housing demand varies between 5.8 million and 7.78 million families in need of housing, depending on the methodology used, while the last census reported the existence of 6,070,000empty properties. This occurs in a country where the Constitution defines housing as a social right and where private property must fulfill a social function.

middle mtst

This housing deficit has grown significantly due to the fact that more than 30% of average household income is spent on rent. A family that earns the income of one monthly minimum wage (R$1,212, or approximately $240 USD, per month) cannot find a place to rent in the largest Brazilian cities for less than R$800 (around $160 USD). The national average value of the square meter for rent is around R$30 ($6 USD). In this scenario, if we estimate a 40 square meter property, the estimated value would be R$1200, the value of a monthly minimum salary. In a period of high unemployment, high levels of informal employment, and uncontrolled inflation, millions of families are forced to choose between having food on the table or making rent payments in order to have a roof over their heads.

There is no housing crisis or housing shortage in our society. Rather, there is a crisis of a capitalist model of access to housing that establishes — in a country with a colonial history of land concentration— land and houses as commodities,  when the socially constructed housing stock should be shared as a right and a basic social need. Brazilian social movements have created several slogans to convey this fact. "So many homes without people, so many people without homes"; "When housing is a privilege, occupying is a right" and many others that illustrate this reality.

These ingredients are the perfect recipe for the intensification of the class struggle in our cities. On one hand, the work of social movements and popular organizations has been fundamental in confronting this crisis, with historic advances in terms of the recognition of the right to housing and drafting of many public policies and legal tools. On the other hand, this struggle is hindered by existing power structures.

The last decade has accentuated these conflicts, with the increase in real estate speculation, the hosting of mega events in Brazil (the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Olympics), the impact of climate change and the expression of environmental racism, the militarization of the country based on a logic of public security that has aggravated the genocide of the Black population and mass incarceration.

Despite the efforts of social movements and civil society organizations, the tendency of rights violations in the cities, especially the right to housing, has been reinforced. Even more so after the coup of 2016, which removed President Dilma Rousseff from power.

But none of this comes close to what has been promoted by the Bolsonaro government. We have listed some of the facts that highlight the tragic nature of his government in relation to housing:

  • Bolsonaro has promoted administrative reform, which resulted in the abolition of the Ministry of the City and dismantled the spaces for social participation, especially the National Council of Cities, which brought together representatives of social movements, NGOs, unions, sectoral organizations, the private sector, and representatives of public management at various levels;
  • He ended the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life program, a program that constructed more than 5 million homes in its 12 years of existence) and zeroed out the budget for low-income housing for 2020 and 2021. The new program created by the Bolsonaro government, Casa Verde e Amarela (Green and Yellow House), was unable to address the housing problem;
  • He vetoed the Zero Eviction bill (PL 827/2020), a veto that was eventually overridden by Congress and became Law 14,216/2021. During the pandemic, threats of forced displacement increased by 655% and evictions by 393%. As of the most recent survey conducted in March 2022, 142,385 families remain under threat of eviction in the country, representing more than half a million people;
  • Bolsonaro has bolstered deforestation in the Amazon, agribusiness, mining, and activities with huge environmental impact, exacerbating climate change while drastically cutting resources for disaster prevention in recent years, including a 45.6% cut last year, in inflation-adjusted values.
  • He inflamed the discourse of criminalization of social movements, going so far as to call the Landless Workers’ Movement (fighting for agrarian reform) and Homeless Workers’ Movements (fighting for urban reform) terrorists, insinuating that these organizations would seize the homes of working families. However, it was President Bolsonaro who sent Congress the Bill 4.188/2021, which authorizes banks to seize real estate as collateral for debts, breaking with the right to housing, established by the Federal Constitution, a bill that is currently under consideration by the Senate.

Given the scale of these setbacks, one might assume that there were no gains and no resistance under Bolsonaro’s government. First, it is necessary to understand that the phenomenon of Bolsonarismo is linked to a dynamic of the growth of the extreme right on a global scale. In Brazil, this movement gained strength by combining the ultraliberal agenda of agribusiness and urban business sectors and those ideologically linked to conservative religious fundamentalism. Bolsonarismo is a local expression of a right-wing that seeks to halt structural changes that are based on the day-to-day organization of women, Black people, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous people, peasants, the homeless, etc. 

They claimed the Workers' Party as their main enemy, based on accusations of corruption disseminated daily by the media, but in a broader political panorama, they wanted to halt the process of democratic radicalization. It is not by chance that the party's representative is a white, heterosexual man, who claims the legacy of the military dictatorship, the concentration of income and land, among other authoritarian, hereditary, and patriarchal foundations of our society. 

That said, despite this short-term defeat, it is necessary to recognize that this process is a reaction to the range of social forces envisioning a new system. And even in an extremely adverse conjuncture, it was possible to amass our forces. In this sense, two initiatives stand out. The Zero Eviction Campaign and the People's Conference on the Right to the City. The Zero Eviction Campaign, which brought together more than 100 organizations from the countryside and the city, among them the Movement of Homeless Workers (MTST) and the Movement of Landless Workers (MST). Created in 2020, it has managed not only to produce data denouncing the tragedy of mass evictions, but has also consecrated important landmarks in the defense of the right to housing. The main case was the Argument of Noncompliance with Fundamental Precept 828 (ADPF 828), a legal instrument filed with the Supreme Court that serves to prevent evictions until October 31, 2022. Victory in the Supreme Court — unimaginable just two years ago — was only possible due to the great unity and mobilization of organizations and movements.

The Conference initiative recovers the most vibrant legacies of social movements and urban organizations in the country, still models for the world. In a process initiated at the end of 2021, more than 600 organizations from all over the country organized more than 200 preparatory events and gathered more than 600 militants in an activity in São Paulo, in June 2022, to consolidate a platform of 16 thematic struggles.

These processes of struggle for the right to the city and for housing are also not isolated in space. Recently, we have seen a historic achievement in Germany. Berlin, in the midst of the largest referendum in its history, approved by majority vote the expropriation of the large real estate rental corporations, following a campaign that had been built over many years. The struggle for the Constituent Assembly in Chile was also accompanied by an intense process of mobilization in defense of the right to housing, which incorporated it in the text of the new Constitution via popular amendment. 

This experience is no different from the almost 200,000 signatures that ensured the incorporation of articles on urban policy in the Brazilian Federal Constitution in 1988, or the more than 1 million signatures that submitted the proposal for the creation of the National Fund for Popular Housing to the Brazilian Congress in 1992, which provided the basis for the National System of Social Interest Housing proposal approved in 2005.

Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that this period has also been marked by processes of constructing unity and by movements’ creative capacity to build new utopias. It is with this spirit of accumulating forces in mind that we present our political imagination as proposals that illustrate contributions originating from these experiences mentioned above. We will present this in the form of 10 fundamental points. 

  1. It is necessary to rescue the capacity of the State to intervene to promote the right to housing and to imagine cities and territories free of oppression, which take into account the confrontation of sexism, racism, LGBTphobia, and ableism, as elements of a Housing Policy as a State Social Policy. This requires:

    • Resuming the production of data and statistics disaggregated by sex, race, gender identity throughout processes of situation analysis, consultations, decision making, policy formulation, planning, implementation, and project monitoring and evaluation.
    • Expanding, through housing projects, planning for safe public spaces and equipment geared to the needs of these populations.
    • Universalizing access to urban infrastructure and the coordination of other public policies on the ground, in dialogue with the demands of these populations.
    • Promoting secure land tenure and housing by prioritizing these populations.
    • Strengthening popular organizations focused on generating solutions and spaces for participation.
  2.  Housing Policy also demands the creation of a large investment program in the urbanization of peripheries and slums (involving water, sewage, mobility, green areas, existing housing, land regularization, the production of new housing, environmental risk management, among other factors) and the construction of quality social infrastructure networks for education, childcare, health, culture, leisure and sports. This program should focus on the construction of popular community plans as planning tools with partnerships involving universities, social organizations and other actors in the community and have its implementation based on public-popular partnerships, involving several federated and popular entities. Urgent intervention in the periphery is needed to ensure rights are guaranteed. This means through political action, not policing and militarization. These investments should promote cities for climate justice. They should likewise confront environmental racism and halt the violation of the rights of Black and Indigenous populations.
  3. Promoting housing production through self-management and relationship with popular movements and organizations, in central and well-located areas, to be developed on public land or buildings owned by the Federal Government and on abandoned private land, which will be expropriated for failure to comply with the social function of property. Historically, one of the problems facing housing policy has been the availability of land integrated into the urban fabric, which has resulted in urban segregation processes. 
  4. Strengthening and expanding the provision of technical advice for social housing, the establishment of a public housing stock, the development of social rental programs and the production of well-located housing in central areas.
  5. Developing a program to regularize and guarantee the preservation of traditional communities on Federal lands occupied by Indigenous peoples, quilombolas, caiçaras, rubber tappers, small-scale gatherers, and family farmers in the floodplains, in urban and peri-urban areas.
  6. Implementing mechanisms to combat real estate speculation and to guarantee the social function of property and the city, based on a participative and integrated urban policy. This requires promoting several active measures already foreseen in law such as the demarcation of empty areas in areas with services and urban infrastructure, such as Special Social Interest Zones (ZEIS); the promotion of incentives for filling urban voids with Social Interest Housing (HIS), social and cultural amenities, and urban agriculture; regulation and application of urban development incentive instruments that make the production of social housing feasible and that combat the retention of idle urban land and real estate speculation, such as parcelling, building, compulsory utilization, progressive IPTU, among others, aiming at the fulfillment of the social function of property, the reduction of class, race and gender inequalities, from an intersectional perspective. 
  7. Structuring a national integrated urban development system, with  transparent financing and bugets between the federal government, states and municipalities, with guaranteed social control over public investments and spending, and a public platform for the dissemination of accessible data that can be monitored, evaluated, compared and understood by the public;
  8. Advancing social mobilization, occupation, and allocation of publicly-owned properties;the expropriation of idle private properties for urban reform, with emphasis on social interest housing and the construction of public infrastructure; recognizing, supporting, consolidating, and legalizing the occupation of public and private properties that do not fulfill a social function; and guaranteed security of tenure to occupants;
  9. Stimulating the creation of Collective Territorial Tenures as an alternative to guarantee permanence and accessibility of housing for vulnerable populations, while expanding the understanding of this model and the possibilities of its implementation in Brazil;
  10. Ensuring Zero Evictions, the end of forced collective evictions and the use of violence in these processes, guaranteeing the permanence of threatened populations or fair and full compensation for their losses, with the observance of Resolutions No. 10/18 and No. 17/21 of the National Human Rights Council on forced evictions;

The capacity for social struggle is the determining factor as to whether we will live through a historic moment of implementation of these guidelines. Recently, housing has been a great unifying factor for the struggles in Brazil. In recent years, the MTST has carried out occupations that mobilized thousands of families all over the country. This tense situation will not be resolved if the Brazilian State continues to treat housing as a police issue, and not as a political issue.

Therefore, we reaffirm the strategic role of considering this issue not only from the perspective of reviving the Brazilian economy, but, above all, in the contribution that Brazil can make to conceptualizing a new urban political economy, based on a logic of decommodification of urban space, valuing life – both communitarian and communal life – and collective production.

Rud Rafael, national coordinator of the Movement of Homeless Workers, member of TELAR - Territorios Latinoamericanos en Resistencia (Latin American Territories in Resistance), social educator at the NGO Fase, and professor.

Illustrations: Gabriel Silveira

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