Participatory Urban Housing Strategies: Two Case Studies - Brazil & Sri Lanka (Patrick Wakely)

This paper illustrates Chapter 4 of DPU Working Paper No:163/60: Urban Public Housing Strategies in Developing Countries: Whence and Whither Paradigms, Policies, Programmes and Projects1 that should be read together with it (DPU60 WP163)


Two Case Studies

Sri Lanka Million Houses Programme 1983-89


Rio de Janeiro, Favela Bairro Project 1996-2007

Patrick Wakely


The paper reviews two prominent, but very different, examples of government support to participatory enabling (‘self-help’) approaches to the procurement of affordable urban housing, services and infrastructure by the lowest income groups, both of which are well known to the DPU, which was closely involved with both of them:
    1)The Urban Housing Sub-programme of the Sri Lanka Million Houses Programme (MHP) through the conduct of extensive training with the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) for the implementation of the sub-programme -1983-89; and
    2) the Rio de Janeiro Favela Bairro programme through two evaluative research projects funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) -1999 & 2004.



1.1 Context
Prior to 1980, Sri Lanka’s urban social hosing policy entailed the administration of rent control legislation intended to ensure a supply of rental housing affordable to low-income urban households and the production of ‘conventional’ social housing, most of it in three- or four-story apartment blocks, built by direct construction. In addition, in 1973, following a period of unusually high population growth2 in Greater Colombo, largely due to migration from rural areas (Redwood & Wakely, 2012), the government enacted a ‘Ceiling on Housing Property Law’ intended to address the problem of exploitative urban landlords, many of whom owned large numbers of small tenements that were under-serviced and dilapidated through lack of maintenance, largely as a result of the stringent constraints imposed by the rent control laws. The law was also intended to introduce a measure of redistribution in the ownership of property to the lower income groups in the city by transferring the title of properties in excess of two per owner to the occupying tenants.

In 1978 the new elected ‘social-democratic’ United National Party government launched the One Lakh (Hundred Thousand) Houses Programme with the mandate to construct houses, largely in rural areas throughout the country by S&S and Organised Self-help Projects, administered by the newly created National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) under the then Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was also appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The One Lakh Houses Programme was unable to meet its numerical target of 100,000 dwellings by the end of the government’s first five-year term in office, but such was the political capital built up around it, that rather than abandon public support to self-help approaches to housing production by the lowest income groups, the Minister went a step further and launched the Million Houses Programme, with the promise to have supported the construction or upgrading of a million dwellings by low-income households and communities themselves within five years. Meeting such a target required a substantial revision of the centrally controlled and direct-labour-led‘ Assisted self-help’ mode of housing production employed by the One Lakh Houses programme. It took the form of confining government intervention to the provision of small incremental loans and basic technical advice (and some training) to low-income households for the construction and/or improvement of their dwellings. Correspondingly, the management and technical capacities of the NHDA that already operated through a decentralised structure of District Offices in each of the 25 Districts in the country had to be overhauled and ‘re-tooled’. At its start the MHP only addressed housing in rural areas. Housing in Colombo and other major urban areas was the responsibility of the Urban Development Authority (UDA), also under the Ministry of Local Government, Housing and Construction. In 1985 the Slum and Shanty Division was transferred from the UDA to the NHDA and the MHP Urban Sub-Programme was launched with a ‘Housing Options and Loans Package (HOLP)’ that embraced both the upgrading of existing urban slums and shanties and the provision of sites and services on hitherto undeveloped urban land. It also included security of tenure to the land on which a house was to be built or upgraded for the duration of the loan amortisation period, initially set at 30 years.

The basic unit of management of the programme was a Community Development Council (CDC), a community-based non-governmental organisation, that was expected to have a locally recognised leadership and management structure (chairperson, secretary, treasurer, locally accepted decision-making processes and regular minuted meetings open to all neighbourhood residents. CDCs had been set up in many under-served settlements in Colombo and other major urban centres in Sri Lanka by the UDA SSD and a UNICEF Urban Basic Services Programme in the late 1970s, but by 1985 they had no active function, though many of them were still in place, ready to be co-opted by the MHP Urban Housing Sub-Programme, in which they were responsible for the administration of small loans to individual householders for the construction and/or improvement of their dwellings and for the upgrading of neighbourhood infrastructure and services by communities, with oversight and technical and managerial training provided by the local NHDA District Office. The NHDA District Managers (DMs) and technical staff had themselves to go through radical changes in job-descriptions and on-the-job-training, provided by the NHDA Colombo-based national headquarters. District Managers were converted from being the managers of public sector construction enterprises to the managers of loan funds and supervisors of small loans distribution and recovery and the administration of field-level technical assistance and training advisors. Housing Officers, previously responsible for construction site technical supervision, became community development organisers and technical advisors to builder-householders and/or their contracted artisans and labourers. And so on.

By-and-large, the process worked well, particularly at the level of constructing or improving individual dwellings; slightly less so for the development of public infrastructure and services, though there are many examples of highly successful community contracts, through which CDCs tendered for and won ‘ community contracts’ for neighbourhood-level public infrastructure works. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the 30-year lease on land by householders whose ambition was to have full freehold ownership title in perpetuity. So, under political pressure, the NHDA lease was extended from 30 to 50 years by the Minister, against the advice of several of his technical staff, and in 2008 all old MHP leases were commuted to full freehold title with no further payments.

An important lesson learnt from the Sri Lanka MHP is the importance of effective and well-managed CBOs (CDCs) and their ability to communicate with and work in partnership with government agencies, in this case the NHDA District Offices (Riley & Wakely, 2005, (pp.43-64)). Concomitant with this is the capacity of the housing authority to initiate and provide appropriate and adequate community development and management support/assistance and training to CBOs.

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2.1 Context
The existence of informal squatter settlements (favelas) in Rio was first recorded in the 1890s. Epidemics of yellow fever and tuberculosis in the first years of the twentieth century drew attention to insanitary conditions in some city-centre areas of tenements that housed the poorest households in the city, which sparked a spate of slum clearance, forcing the evicted occupants to construct new informal favelas on the city fringes and on more central infill sites that remained undeveloped because of the dangerously steep slopes on which they were located. This process was repeated in cycles that entailed the demolition of relatively newly established favelas, only to be replaced by even newer ones, so that by 1950 Rio’s favela population amounted to 170,000 (7.5 percent of the total city population of 2.3 million). They continued to grow in number, size and density throughout the 20th century, notably between 1930-1960, a period of extensive industrialisation and rural-urban migration in Brazil3. Throughout the first eighty years of the 20th century, particularly during the period of military dictatorship (1964-85), little attempt was made to improve environmental and social conditions in favelas in Rio. Policy, led by the Federal government, continued to be one of favela clearance and forcible re-housing of their occupants in high-rise housing estates on the urban periphery. There were, however, occasional attempts at improving living conditions in well established favelas through ‘one-off’ un-coordinated environmental upgrading projects and the extension of some welfare services to selected favela communities. As part of these projects, Residents Associations were established with official municipal support to represent the affected communities in negotiations with government and utility authorities. In the 1950s Residents Associations were set up in many favelas in Rio –not only those in which there were upgrading projects. The Residents Associations, the leaders of which were popularly elected, were formally institutionalised by the municipal government and recognised by official utility agencies. Coalitions of different favela Residents Associations and other CBOs came together, calling for the termination of slum clearance activities throughout the city, replacing them with the in-situ upgrading of a greater number of favelas. This demand was responded to by the state government, which initiated a small number of pilot environmental upgrading projects. Many of these were successful and popular and by the beginning of the 1980s both federal and municipal governments throughout Brazil were starting to adopt ‘non-conventional’ approaches to social housing provision. In 1983 the Rio de Janeiro State Water and Sanitation Company (CEDAE)4 launched an ambitious sanitation upgrading programme to install water distribution networks and sewerage systems in all favelas in the city, which ultimately benefited nearly 250,000 people in over 60 favelas and initiated a reversal of CEDAE’s policy and strategic approaches that had previously assumed no responsibility for servicing in favelas as they were considered illegal settlements.

2.2 Programme Operation
In the early 1980s land invasions began to increase dramatically both on the city fringes and in central areas of Rio and the municipal government, then led by the Democratic Labour Party, in response to political pressure, initiated by coalitions of favela Residents Associations and a National Movement for Urban Reform, supported by the federal government, launched a programme called ‘Rio City’ (Rio Cidade) together with a new city masterplan, prepared by the Municipal Secretariat for Urban Affairs (SMU)5 with the objective of transforming the entire infrastructure and image of the city, for which the city authorities earmarked over US$ 220 million to renew much of the city’s infrastructure (water and sewerage networks, road improvements and street lighting. The masterplan recognised the need to address low-income housing (and favelas) as an integral part of the overall city development strategy, rather than a series of local interventions, as they had been hitherto. The housing objectives of the plan embraced; the rationalisation of land use; the upgrading and legalisation of favelas and illegal sub-divisions; the construction of subsidised ‘conventional’ public housing and the management of sites & services projects. To meet these objectives, in 1993 the city government established a Municipal Housing Department (SMH)6, which immediately launched the Favela Bairro Programme which had the aim of upgrading all of Rio’s medium-sized favelas by 2004, to which was added two secondary programmes ‘Bairrinho’ and ‘Grandes Favelas’ respectively covering small and large favelas, thereby embracing all favelas in the city and on its peri-urban fringes7. The Favela Bairro Programme was allocated a budget of US$120 million from the city’s coffers plus another US$180 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It explicitly set out to build upon the existing housing and infrastructure that had been built up informally together with earlier government upgrading initiatives in the city’s favelas. It was not intended to directly support the shelter needs of individual households, but to address the collective needs of each favela as a whole, by:
  • installing basic sanitation and circulation systems, enabling pedestrian and vehicular access to all dwellings and ensuring the effective and efficient provision of public services (environmental health, education and security);
  • introducing urban symbols of the formal city (paved roads, squares, tree-planting, recreation and cultural facilities);
  • incorporating favelas into the planning and management process of the city as a whole, including its planning standards and development control legislation, development plans and programmes, maps and registers.
In addition to these physical aims, the Favela Bairro Programme set out to:
  • provide for and administer, social and welfare services, including pre-school and child-care facilities, social, cultural and sports facilities, adult education and skill training opportunities and programmes;
  • provide recognised title to favela households and/or provide technical assistance to enable them to secure and demonstrate the legality of their tenure to the land and property that they occupy.

In short, the Favela Bairro Programme aimed at improving the standard of living of favela dwellers by integrating them with the formal city, in the first instance by upgrading the physical infrastructure and latterly by administering urban utilities (water, sewerage and solid waste recycling/disposal, electricity, telecommunications) and social and welfare services (sport, culture and leasure - community centre facilities, adult education and skill training programmes, pre-school and child care facilities, domestic and environmental health programmers). The overall objectives of the programme did not explicitly refer to it contributing to the reduction of poverty or the alleviation of its social impacts, through these measures, though it did clearly recognise the programme’s potential for “improving the quality of peoples lives… and the significance of integrating the two parts of the city: the formal and the informal, by meeting the basic collective needs of both” (Magalhães 1997).

The implementation of the programme was firmly based on participation and the co-ordination (by SMH) of favela communities, the relevant public service authorities and NGOs, working with each favela community.

Initially, the officially recognised Residents Associations, where they existed, provided community leadership and the point of contact between favela residents and communities and the public sector actors. However, in several favelas the Residents Associations lost their credibility with goverment departments and agencies due to their co-option by the powerful drugs and other criminal cartells and/or ceased to command the respect of their constituents and their local authority by becoming seen as being too close to government and ‘the establishment’ and thereby unable to represent the interests of the communities that they ostensibly represented (Riley & Wakely, 2005). Special-interest CBOs, ranging from religious groups to sports and lesiure interest groups, that existed alongside the Residents Associations in most favelas, also played an active part in the Favela Bairro programme. A key part in the programme was played by architectural firms and practices that were responsible for overall project design and supervision in partnership with favela communities, usually represented by the Residents Association. The sequence of work in each favela embraced four distinct stages, starting with a diagnostic study of existing conditions, based on professional/technical observation and the community’s priorities, leading to the preparation of an outline plan and proposals for physical/environmental upgrading and the provision or enhancing of social facilities and economic opportunities, culminating with approval by the relevant utility authorities and SMH and the awarding of contracts for works, usually based on competitative tenders by private sector engineering and construction companies, and the organisation of social and welfare services, co-ordinated by the Municipal Departments for Culture (SMC), Social Development (SMDS), Education (SME)and Employment (SMTb)8.

Although the architects retained responsibility for overall project supervision and co-ordination of the wide range of public, private and NGO actors, in many favelas the SMH appointed its own project manager from amongst its technical staff, who acted as the architect’s and contractors’ ‘clients’ with overall budgetary and quality control responsibilities.

2.3 Programme Outcomes
By 2008, when SMH with IDB support undertook a formal evaluation of the impact of the Favela Bairro programme, upgrading projects had been completed in 168 favelas, mostly medium-sized favelas, but including some in small and large favelas. All infrastructure works had been satisfactorily undertaken, including the creation and planting of new public open spaces, squares, road grading and improvements and the construction of safe pedestrian walkways and staircases. Social facilities, such as community centres, libraries, pre-school nurseries, schools, gymnasia and sports facilities had also been built in several favelas. This evaluation was somewhat mechanistic and concentrated on checking the ‘hardware’ components of each project against its initial terms-of-reference and goals. Nevertheless the outcome was impressively positive. Other surveys by independent NGOs and academic institutions have gone into greater depth on the impacts of the social components of the programme, including satisfaction surveys of the physical upgrading of infrastructure, etc.

The majority of these record general satisfaction with the improvements in living conditions that resulted from the implementation of the programme, particularly the security of tenure to property that it brought and, in several favelas, a substantial increase in the value of property. Greater access to urban services and reliable supplies of water also featured amongst the most appreciated assets provided by the programme. Satisfaction with the participatory processes during the implementation of works (consultative community forums), leading to a strengthened sense of engagement in local governance and management and “being listened to” were frequently expressed as indicators of the programme’s success. In several favelas, people said that the implementation of the programme had strengthened the Residents Association and improved their managerial abilities, which was considered to be ‘a very good thing for everybody’. Few favela-dwellers were able to comment on the extent to which the programme had met its objective of ‘ingrating the favela with the formal city’. It was considered too early to judge this, even if people could recognise indicators by which to do so. However, several architects and social development professionals who had been engaged with the programme, recorded that there were clear indications of collective attitude change and raised levels of morale (feelings of greater security) in many favelas, as a result of the programme, but there was little indication of any reduction in the crime rate or drugs trade activities in the upgraded favelas (Riley et al,2001).

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The two case studies outlined above illustrate two very different approaches to ‘non-conventional’ participatory urban housing procurement (Wakely, 2014). The Sri Lanka MHP focused on supporting the construction of safe and legally recognised dwellings by individual urban households, so that they would benefit from the security of their houses as marketable commodities and as officially acceptable capital collateral. By contrast, the Favela Bairro Programme did not directly address the physical upgrading of dwellings, though the granting of secure titles to property went a long way to encouraging household investment in improving their dwellings, but principally aimed to improve the quality of life of urban informal settlement dwellers through the upgrading of infrastructure and urban services and the strategic targeting of social welfare programmes.

In neither case did the participatory upgrading initiative have a significant impact on the urban form or social structure of the city as a whole, though this was not a stated objective of the Sri Lankan MHP Urban Sub-programme, which explicitly set out to address no more than the quality of dwellings and domestic infrastructure through the provision of technical and minimal financial support to individual households. Even in Rio, where “ the integration of the two parts of the city: the formal and the informal” was an important programme objective, even the most successfully improved favelas remain physically visible and socially distinct as low-income neighbourhoods in an otherwise wealthy city.


1 DPU60 ‘Reflections’ Working Paper series, No.163/60
2 Over 2.2 percent per annum between 1953-71 (GoSL, Dept of Census and Statistics, Colombo)
3 In the decade1950-60, whilst Rio’s population grew by almost 40 percent, its favela population nearly doubled (Riley & Wakely 2005, (p.87)).
4 Companhia Estadual de Águas e Esgotos (CEDAE)
5 Secretaria Municipal de Urbanismo (SMU)
6 Secretaria Municipal de Habitação (SMH)
7 In 1994, Medium sized favelas (500-2,500 households) accommodated almost 60 percent of the city’s total favela population of more than 1 million people, the remaining c.40 percent being distributed between small favelas with less than 500 households and large ones, some of which with populations of over 100,000 people.
8 Secretaria Municipal de Cultura (SMC); Secretaria Municipal de Desenvolvimento Social (SMDS); Secretaria Municipal de Educação (SME); Secretaria Municipal de Trabalho (SMTb).

Redwood, M. & Wakely, P., 2012 “Land Tenure and Upgrading Informal Settlements in Colombo, Sri Lanka”, International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, Vol.4, No.2 (pp.166-186), Taylor &Francis, London, UK.

Riley, E. & Wakely, P., 2005 “Communities and Communication: Building Urban Partnerships” ITDG Publishing, Rugby, UK.

Riley, E., Fiori, J., Ramirez, R., 2001, “Favela Bairro and a new generation of housing programmes for the urban poor”, Geoforum, Vol. 32, No. 4, (pp 521-531), Elsevier, London, UK

Magalhães, S.,1997, “Pobreza Urba, un fenómeno de la exclusion: la experiencia de Rio de Janeiro y el Programa Favela Bairro”, Secretaria Municipal de Habitação, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Wakely, P., 2014, “Urban Public Housing Strategies in Developing Countries: Whence and Whither Paradigms, Policies,Programmes and Projects”, DPU60 Working Paper No. 163/60, UCL, London.

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The views expressed in 'Recent News & Reflections' are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the governments, organisations or agencies with whom they have been working.