Female-led Cooperative Housing Case Studies in Latin America

Isabela Lyrio and Genevieve Pagan
August 6, 2015


With the rise in demand for housing in Latin America, many countries have seen the rise in informal housing around important urban centers. Given the deteriorating condition of such informal housing, some communities have worked together to improve their housing situation, empowering female leaders and strengthening community ties. The case studies of Rio de Janeiro and Ecoaldea showcase the power of such movements.

Rio On Watch and Cooperative Housing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch (RioOnWatch) was launched in 2010 by Catalytic Communities (CatComm) an NGO in Rio de Janerio, establishing a program to bring visibility to favela community voices in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro. This news site, RioOnWatch.org, is their primary vehicle for publishing the perspectives of community organizers, residents, and international observers, in light of the fast-paced urban transformations that currently characterize Rio. The RioOnWatch program also works to grow the participation of community journalists and international observers in reporting on Rio’s transformations. Finally, this program dialogues with the mainstream and alternative press to engender a more accurate picture of favelas, their contributions to the city, and their perspectives. [1] Rio On Watch published the story of the Esperança Condominium in Rio de Janeiro, a female led Housing Co-operative in Juliano Moreira neighborhood.

In 2011 the housing deficit in Rio was calculated by the Pereira Passos Institute finding the need for up to 148 thousand units, accounting for those who live in precarious housing and those that spend up to 30% of their family household income on rent. Those who earn the equivalent of three times the minimum wage are classified as ‘Level 1’ of social investment interest. People who need popular housing are located all around the city, many in favelas. However, when they are told they will be relocated to popular housing units, thousands of families who live in precarious conditions choose not to go. This is because of the low quality and inaccessible location of such housing units, which are financed through a federal program instituted in 2007 called Minha Casa Minha Vida, which in English translates to My House My Life. Many of these houses are built in peripheries and the poor quality of housing is attributed to the government hired contractors.  There is little accountability held to the contractors, so funds get displaced during the construction process. Low quality materials are used, the opinions of the future residents are not taken into account and contractors are incentivized to build on cheaper land, cutting corners, maximizing their profit from the projects. Minha Casa Minha Vida was proposed as an economically stimulating program for Brazil, but so far has only contributed to reducing the possibility of high quality housing to those in need. Many residents of poor quality housing would rather see investment in infrastructure in their favelas and communities rather than being displaced to these popular housing units.[2]

Minha Casa Minha Vida-Entidades is a federally funded housing solution through self-management cooperatives. This program was created in 2009 with the aim of increasing access to housing through housing cooperatives. This program is aimed at families with an average monthly income of R$1,600 ($510USD) and makes them the key players in the providing a solution for housing shortage. There is a selection criterion to determine eligibility for this program through the bank Caixa.[3] Minha Casa Minha Vida supports the individuals through variable discount lending according to their ability to pay, subject to the payment of monthly installments for a period of 10 years, corresponding to 10 % of gross monthly household income beneficiary, or R$50.00, whichever is greater.[4] The Minha Casa Minha Vida- Entidades branches off of Minha Casa Minha Vida, after much struggle by social movements for the right to housing.  The objective is to make the fundamental right of housing accessible to families organized through housing cooperatives and associations. In practice, the proposal is to promote self-management and make it possible for residents themselves to take part in the whole process of planning and building the housing projects, in contrast to what happens in the traditional process of the [much-criticized mass-production model of the] Minha Casa Minha Vida program.[5]

Residents like Vanilsa, Maria do Carmo and Ribamar have taken advantage of this program and have led a female household coalition to build a condominium called ‘Esperança’ (translated: Hope), which will house about 70 families.[6]

Carminha, Maria Ribamar, and Vanilsa. Source: Camila Nobrega, canal iBase, 2015.
Carminha, Maria Ribamar, and Vanilsa. Source: Camila Nobrega, canal iBase, 2015.

Building this condominium has been a 10 year process with meetings, planning, receiving the material and actually getting to work and building the housing unit. The women of Esperança faced significant bureaucratic challenges and hardship initially, but in 2011 the resources were released and they could start work on the condominium. Project leader Jurema da Silva Constâncio says: “There are many steps until you get a house. First, years of meetings before mobilizing the resources. Then, all of the effort in the construction, and, finally, the challenge of maintaining all of this after everyone has the keys to their houses. The collective management is always challenging and difficult, but without a doubt it will bring us a better quality of life. The residents chose their building materials. And each one can choose some details, like tiles, for example. In other words, we can put our own touches on our own housing.”[7]

Ecoaldea Nashira in Colombia

The Association of Women Heads of Household was formed in Colombia in 1995 to help single mothers find work to support their families, but soon the organization realized that the biggest problem facing these women was not lack of work, but an inability to provide housing for their families.  Colombia is experiencing a “feminization of poverty,” in which a disproportionate amount of the country’s poor are women. The Association, with the help of a personal donation from Director Angela Dolmtesh, purchased a plot of land 19 miles outside of Cali, and 88 female-headed houses have been built since 2008, home to over 400 residents, under the title of Ecoladea Nashira..  Each of the women and family members plays an instrumental role in the construction of their houses, under the supervision of a privately hired contractor.[8]  Additional support to build the houses came from the Palmira Municipality.  Each head of family owns her house outright, but cannot sell it for profit; instead ownership is passed on to another family member.[9]

Committee Meeting. Source: Ecoaldea Nashira, 2013.
Committee Meeting. Source: Ecoaldea Nashira, 2013.[10]



The core goals for women empowerment movements such as this one are to allow women to escape the bounds of patriarchy and gender inequality.[11]  Beyond offering just housing solutions, the Ecoaldea Nashira project seeks to provide female-led households with a “better quality of life, offering a secure and nutritious supply of food within the compound, an environmentally friendly atmosphere and a source of income through the development of workshops where women can manufacture their own products.”[12] The 88 families work to provide a number of different goods including poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs, fruit and juices which are then sold at market.[13] Self-produced vermicompost is used to help with the agriculture.

The project has been assisted by outside organizations, both national and international.  These entities have provided invaluable resources to the grassroots ecovillage, teaching them everything ranging from hands-on skills, to economic and environmental awareness, to self-governance as a community.  The Change the World organization works with ecovillages across Latin America to bring low tech solutions to indigenous and marginalized populations. [14]


[1] http://www.rioonwatch.org/?page_id=14992

[2] http://rioonwatch.org.br/?p=9891

[3] http://www1.caixa.gov.br/gov/gov_social/municipal/programas_habitacao/entidades/entidades.asp

[4] http://www.unmp.org.br/index.php?view=category&id=75%3Aminha-casa-minha-vida-entidades&option=com_content&Itemid=98

[5] http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=22310

[6] http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=22310

[7] http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=22310

[8] http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/12/04/eco-community-colombia

[9] http://weadartists.org/colombia-a-utopian-ecoart-experiment

[10] http://www.nashira-ecoaldea.org/

[11] http://permaculturenews.org/2014/06/04/permaculture-around-latin-america-women-empowerment-colombia/

[12] http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/womens-ecovillage-colombia-nashira

[13] http://revolucionmatriarcal.blogspot.com/2011/05/nashira-ciudadela-ecologica.html

[14] http://world-changers.org/en/grass-root-social-initiatives/77-ecoaldea-nashira1-


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