Re-Shaping the City by Making Urban Land Accessible : The Case of Housing Cooperatives in Uruguay

Benjamín NAHOUM, Raúl VALLES, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.


The claim for the right to housing, which is still very far from being effective, has shifted to the right to the city, construed as an acknowledgment of the fact that the adequate access to adapted urban and housing goods and commodities is a requisite for all inhabitants to enjoy decent living conditions. This is a claim for urban rights and when these are truly effective, they assert the right to the city and therefore citizenship.

The access to, or lack of, these urban rights is closely conditioned by the access to urban land and more specifically the location of inhabitants on the territory. Traditionally, housing public policies have overlooked this factor and have been based on exclusively economic assumptions. They have therefore privileged cheaper solutions, usually located on poor urban soils, without access to the adequate services and in outlying or remote districts.

At the same time, not only has the market failed to adequately solve the problem of access to land for popular sectors, but it has also, as part of its own rationale, been evicting people and generating permanent social segregation. This segregation is performed by making it impossible for lower-income sectors to afford a decent location in the city.

To enforce the right to the city, urban land must be considered a public good and along with an adequate location, it should be the basis for a decent urban and housing solution.

Uruguayan Housing Cooperatives

For the last 45 years, Uruguay has had a mechanism of social production of habitat: self-managed housing cooperatives. This mechanism has been recognized as one of the most efficient solutions to low-income sectors’ housing problem. This problem may not be as serious as it is in other countries in the region, but it has deteriorated these sectors’ living standards. Indeed, as they are unable to afford the solutions the market proposes, they are forced to turn to precarious and informal alternatives.

In Uruguay, the cooperative system has different expressions: self-initiatives; mutual assistance; prior savings, with direct management or management by third parties. The most developed form and undoubtedly the most subversive is self-management and mutual assistance under collective ownership - these mechanisms sidestep the market by making families the managers and builders of their own homes. Collective ownership grants ownership to the group whereas families are entitled to use and enjoy the common property. This is a reassertion of the concept of housing as a right instead of as a tradable commodity, thus keeping speculation at bay.

In addition to democratic participation, self-management, mutual assistance and collective ownership, this system relies on: technical guidance provided by non-profit multi-disciplinary teams; and the State’s participation as a key player in policymaking, in planning, in supervising and monitoring programme implementation, as well as in financing, namely thanks to subsidies. This is a role no other actor can play.

Funding for these programmes covers the access to urban land, but since the groups do not have their own resources and State funding is only disbursed once the programme has been approved and the loan signed, a vicious circle sets in: the land can be paid for with the funding, but the financing cannot be obtained if there isn’t at least a minimum guarantee regarding the land.

The Land Portfolios

This contradiction was solved when the Housing Act, which was voted in 1968 and it lays out the legal framework for housing cooperatives, was first implemented: a public Land Bank or “Portfolio” was established to allow beneficiaries to access adequate land and pay for it once they had received the funding they applied for. This boosted the cooperative movement significantly; after some initial hesitations, as in any new system, in less than five years cooperatives became the main production line of the Housing Plan.

Then a twelve-year dictatorship imposed a neoliberal economy in which cooperatives and their values of solidarity, democracy and State participation were not welcome. The Land Portfolio was also shut down, as it symbolized an intrusion in the market and a threat to its all-mighty power.

Once the dictatorship had been left behind, reality recalled the need to reopen the Land Portfolio, not just as a necessary tool for the Housing Plan (for cooperatives as for the other programmes) but also because it provided city governments with a crucial tool for urban planning.

Indeed, since the State is providing the land, it can also decide where and how constructions and developments will take place. And since the land is subsequently paid for, the mechanism operates like a revolving fund. The only requirement to start it is seed capital, which can usually be accounted for by land already owned by the State.

Hence in 1990, a Land Portfolio was established by the municipal government of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay where over half the country’s population lives. Other municipal governments soon followed suit and in 2008 a national Portfolio was created under the authority of the Ministry of Housing (the Building Portfolio for Social Housing, CIVIS). These steps were significant progress towards making the right to urban land a tangible reality.

The State therefore has a decisive role to play and is not just a facilitator for the market. This proactive gesture is an element of public policy which responds to a long-lasting claim from the cooperative movement. Obviously, this potential can be used for better or for worse, depending on the policies the Portfolio authorities adopt for the acquisition and granting of plots. And land can also benefit from it, if sufficient funds are allocated to putting to use idle land, public and private, namely vacant lots and abandoned buildings in urban service areas.

The Adequate Use of Land

Nonetheless, guaranteeing or facilitating access to well located land is not sufficient to ensure the enforcement of land’s social function. This social function entails social and territorial responsibilities, such as promoting the adequate use of land, types of use, target densities, and contributing to a suitable urban configuration.

Land policy and the cooperative movement can, hand in hand, prove to be a very powerful driver for materializing urban rights. Examples of this can be found in experiences throughout the city in which popular sectors have undertaken cooperative housing projects and are experiencing collective ownership of land and housing.

For instance, there have been significant experiments in consolidated urban areas with mean densities, as well as urban restoration initiatives in the historical centre of Montevideo (the “Old City”). Establishing favourable conditions for access to land and implementing high-quality urban and architectural projects have come together to meet the needs and aspirations of urban users.

Though the granted land has not always been given the best use, thanks to the Portfolios collective ownership and access to decent locations have demonstrated that there are alternatives for low-income sectors and that solutions can only come from a State which goes beyond creating a conducive environment for the market and strives towards social promotion.

These initiatives illustrate the need for an adequate legal framework to back these policies, but even more so the crucial role of political determination to make these rights effective.

This mechanism has led to grant buildings which in Montevideo alone cover hundreds of hectares, as well as to the building of over two hundred and fifty housing units of different kinds - of which many are cooperatives. In a small country like Uruguay, these figures are hugely significant.

The following map* is of Montevideo and shows the distribution of the initiatives that have been developed thanks to land grants: they are present in bordering outskirts as well as intermediate and central locations, and have been the grounds for programs with different population densities and configurations.

Finally, making urban land affordable and suitable for popular sectors’ habitability must be a guiding principle for public policy and above all a social and territorial right that must be rendered concrete. To do so, not only are tools and instruments needed, but also a steady and loud claim and struggle from popular sectors, since in María Lucia Refinetti’s terms “in the city, land use by some social sectors excludes other sectors’ use”.