MUTUAL AID HOUSING COOPERATIVES IN URUGUAY
A City Built by Us All
By Guillermo Font (*) (Spanish: Haciendo la Ciudad entre todos)
(English translator: Alicia Porrini)
Look more: Housing Cooperative for Mutual Aid "Nuevo Amanecer" (New Sunrise)
A CITY is a place to live but mainly a city is a group of PEOPLE. It is a place where everyone and every family develops an interchange with equals. From this place where life is shared, a SOCIETY is built with equal rights and obligations for every member. A city is the COMMUNITY of men and women who contribute with their effort to the creation of a common space.
In Uruguay, there is a social urban movement which is engaged in the collective building of the city. There are over fifteen thousand families (more than 50.000 people) of low income who are members of four hundred cooperatives which build (or want to build) their own neighbourhoods by themselves all together. This type of building is known with the general denomination of “mutual aid”. These words encompass a broad meaning of concepts and principles involving solidarity, fraternity, participation, self-management; education, work, development and organisation; unity, community and struggle; housing popular integral, habitat and environment.
Mutual aid housing cooperatives constitute a singular experience based on the development of a community and their contribution to an integral solution to the issue of housing for vast sectors of society which do not have access to individual loans.
This initiative is based on a previous Uruguayan tradition of self-building with the help of family and friends; strong sympathies for the libertarian ideas and solidarity of the Italian and Spanish immigrants that arrived at the beginning of the century; and also based on Artigas’s ideas of federation and social integration (with a multi-ethnic and cultural content) forged in the battles for independence and for Latin-American integration at the beginning of XIX century. Another contribution has been that of the pioneers of Rochdale (England), the textile workers of those years who contributed with the Philosophical Principles of modern cooperativism, renewed in the International Cooperative Alliance. Also the experience of Sweden housing cooperatives has influenced the elaboration of Act 13.728.
The three first cooperatives were founded in 1966 in the interior of the country and served as basis for Article 10 of Act 13.728, passed in Parliament on December 17, of 1968. As from moment, the housing cooperative movement started its growth, based on its economic efficiency, giving the best solutions to housing at the lowest cost, and also based on its immediate insertion in the most authentic experiences of the Uruguayan social movement.
Self-management and mutual aid
Through a collective process, the group becomes a Cooperative which works on house-building, urban environment and community services. The cooperative families, besides participating in the civil works, also analyse and discuss, propose and decide, through their democratic participation in the Cooperative Assembly, each and every stage and situation encountered along the way.
The premises are chosen and the social (organisation and community services), urban (green spaces, community rooms, internal roads) and architectural (housing plans, work schedules) projects are studied by cooperative members with the hired team of technicians (architect, social assistant, accountant and notary public). The cooperative is legally constituted and then, an application for a loan is submitted to the corresponding agencies (at present, the Ministry of Housing). The granting of loans is a process which may take a long time, depending on the political will of the government authorities in office. During the dictatorship, some cooperatives had to wait for 18 years before starting construction; also, several unsuccessful attempts were made by the military government to dissolve cooperatives.
Among the first decisions taken by the Assembly is the election of the name and flag of the Cooperative, symbols which constitute part of its permanent identity.
All the families composing the Cooperative are at the same time building companies, labour, resource administrators and users to whom the built houses are destined. Each family group has to contribute with a minimum of twenty-one-hour work week during the building stage, which is the equivalent to 15% of the capital constituting the cost of the works. Each house with two bedrooms has an area of approximately 70 sq. m. The delivery of the keys at the end of the works is an exciting moment for all members of the family, as it is only then that everyone gets to know which of the houses will be awarded to them.
Men and women work jointly in the works, and it is often the women who are in charge of those tasks with a greater quality of finishing, such as tile laying in bathrooms and kitchens.
The organisation is based on solidarity, equality, mutual help and democratic participation, being self-management of resources and community ownership of the building complex the main characteristics of these Cooperatives. Also, rotation in positions of direction and control are typical features, since re-election is only possible after a period of two or three years (depending on the case).
The Assembly is the highest authority of the Cooperative and is composed by one representative of every family group. The directive bodies (Directive Board and Cooperative Promotion Commission, Fiscal commission and Electoral Commission) are elected annually with partial renewal of their members.
Developing a cooperative is a long educational process of social integration and training, which starts at the moment of creation of the group, before the foundation of the Cooperative itself, and continues with community life and social development as time goes by. The starting point is an individualist conception: the need for housing, but during the various stages and tasks, this individual need develops into solidarity attitudes.
The Right to a Decent Life
The cooperatives are grouped in the Unified Federation of Uruguayan Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives as of May 24, 1970. The solution to housing has been only a part of the concerns of this movement. The struggle for the right to a decorous life for those sectors of society who live in the worst conditions has also been a significant part of our project, which is characterized by its capacity of solidarity and proposal.
Once the work is completed, the stage of living together starts. Stimulating the social development of neighbourhoods and with different degrees of success, cooperatives maintain and manage a broad scope of activities for all ages.
According to the needs of each group, community services are created, which are self-managed by the Cooperative, to improve life quality: medical and dentist surgeries; libraries and cultural centres; nurseries; sports and recreation activities; maintenance of green spaces, lighting and paving; improvements of public services; construction and donation of schools, etc. There are other services which are centralized by the Federation: legal, notaries and accounting advice; Prefabrication Plant; Agreements with medical emergencies and other institutions; Training Centers, Vacation Colonies and Students Homes, among others.
In spite of their contribution to society and to the social and community development on the city outskirts, housing cooperatives have had to struggle for their rights. Sometimes they have occupied fiscal lands or organised large demonstrations and protests in the centre of Montevideo and of other cities.
Another face of our social action are the so-called "Solidarity Sundays", when hundreds of cooperativists visit the site of construction of a cooperative complex and contribute with five-hour’s labour to that Cooperative, which represents an advance of thousands of hours for the building of the complex.
An alternative proposal
The experience of so much struggle and sacrifice along so many years developed the need of translating reinvindication and demand into alternative proposals for building our city. This contribution in quality was called the “Urban Reform”, and was mainly based on the interchange with social organisations of other countries.
Naturally this process started with the need for housing of the first cooperativists in the late 60s; then it was fostered by the need of contributing to the development of services (transport, sewage, schools, health) in those places far away from town centers, because those were the areas we could afford. During the dictatorship, as all other organisations of the social movement, housing cooperatives had to endure the hardships of the period. This story has been written since there is a need of sharing the experience both inside and outside the country.
At the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s a fundamental step is taken and an alternative proposal is created to build up the city from the people’s perspective: the right to build and live also in central areas with all services. This proposal focuses on prioritising the general interest over particular and speculative interests which turn housing into a consumption commodity, a conception which can apply to privileged sectors, but not to low-income workers, to whom housing should be a use commodity.
National and International Interchange
For a long time FUCVAM has maintained interchanges and has coordinated activities and experiences with cooperatives, unions and other social organisations and NGOs, as well as with municipal and governmental agencies, both in our country and all over the world. FUCVAM is an obligatory reference in the sphere of housing cooperatives of self-management and mutual aid in different countries. Some Europeans NGOs have supported several FUCVAM projects on cooperative education and training, social and community development, as well as some house-building pilot projects.
Among the main organisations with which agreements or interchanges have been made, are the Swedish Cooperative Union, CEBEMO in Holland, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos, the Movimiento de Ocupantes e Inquilinos de Buenos Aires (Argentina), CEVE of Córdoba (Argentina), the Unión de Movimientos de Vivienda Popular de Brasil, the Federación de Vivienda de Colombia and Habitat of Cuba. Cooperatives in Uruguay have been visited in several occasions by people from various social movements and cooperatives, Universities, NGOs and technicians from governments and municipalities from Sweden, Holland, Germany, Italy, England, South Africa, Cuba, United States of America, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Brasil, Paraguay and Argentina.
FUCVAM is also founder-member of the Confederación Uruguaya de Entidades Cooperativas (CUDECOOP) and of the Secretaría Latinoamericana de la Vivienda Popular (SELVIP); and it is also a member of the Confederación Latinoamericana de Cooperativas de Trabajadores (COLACOT), of the Housing Commission of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and of the Habitat International Co-alition (HIC).
We have received a Diploma by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements for our labour in the sphere of popular habitat, within the framework in the activities developed by FUCVAM along 1997, in the tenth anniversary of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, and an Honorable Mention in the World Habitat Award 1998, by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) of England.
The Contribution to Montevideo De-centralization
The cooperative experience in Uruguay has also contributed to the ongoing process of citizen participation, municipal de-centralization and service de-concentration of the capital of the country. Since the beginning of this process in 1990, with the territorial division of Montevideo in 18 Zones and the creation of Local Governments with their Local Boards and Neighbour Councils and Zone Communal Centres, the neighbours have gradually been empowered.
The role of the Neighbour Council is highly significant in this context, since it represents the neighbours and their organisations, and permanently monitors the municipal government with concrete proposals for the development of its own Zone and eventually of the City as a whole. The Council is an obligatory reference for the Local Board and the Municipal Government at the time of decision making.
Councils discuss the problems, reivindications and iniatives of neighbourhoods, and keep a close relationship with neighbours and social organisations. They make proposals and evaluate the key definitions for the development of the Zone life and municipal management (Strategic Development Plan, Five-year Plan, management key issues and annual budget, work plans and social policies.)
Many cooperativists have been proposed by their grassroot organisations, and have been elected as members of the Neighbour Councils in several Zones of Montevideo. They are accustomed to administrating and managing large communities, and therefore they feel comfortable in Councils, since these are bodies where, through democratic elections, they represent their neighbours, in the administration and management of small city parts, building the city all together.
- Councilor of the Zone 8 of Montevideo (Local Government)
- Member of COVIMT 5 , a Mutual Aid Housing Cooperative (http://www.chasque.apc.org/guifont/covimt5.htm)
- Member of the Electoral Commission (1989 y 1998), Fiscal Commission (1990) and National Directive Board (1993) of FUCVAM
- Editor of Autogestión Vecinal (http://www.chasque.apc.org/guifont)
- Editor of vecinet-notici@s (http://www.chasque.apc.org/guifont/vecinet.htm)
- Collaborator of CONTACTAR, magazine of municipal governments –edited for Latin-America in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina- (http://www.revistacontactar.com.ar)
- Collaborator of the local journal Charrúa, (Zone Nº 8 of Montevideo)
- Electrician (Independent worker)
© autogestión vecinal (http://www.chasque.net/vecinet)
Edición Internet 2001: Guillermo Font
Correo Electrónico: firstname.lastname@example.org
Montevideo - URUGUAY