Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond

Does property serve a social function? You might think the answer is “yes, of course”. The purpose of a house, for example, is to house people, to serve as a space in which to create a home. These days, though, it seems that houses are more often used as a financial good rather than to serve a direct use like that of providing shelter. This is evident in the vast international system by which land and property are bought and sold according to the supply and demand of the “property market”. In many national contexts, you cannot really be secure in your housing situation until you own your own house. This in many ways dictates patterns of urban development: people will buy or rent property in areas where the property value is low enough that they can afford; meanwhile, wealthy developers have every right to buy up property and profit off of it as they see fit—after all, they paid for it.


But this is not an inevitable process; in fact, it reflects only one interpretation of what we call “property”, one that fulfills a trajectory of urbanization that seems near impossible to challenge. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of the “social function of property” whereby property must fulfill a social function and cannot merely be used for profit, is increasingly taken up by social movements fighting for the rights to land and housing around the world.[1]

São Paulo is one city where the contradictions of the “property market” are especially apparent, and groups contesting the situation particularly active. The housing deficit is currently estimated to be at 230,000 homes.[2] Meanwhile, there are hundreds of vacant buildings in the city center. In response to this, dozens of sem-teto or “roofless” movements have formed, demanding the right to secure housing and undertaking occupations of vacant buildings to draw attention to the housing crisis. These occupations not only highlight the current urban reality of unequal property ownership, but also put into question the very concept of property.

The private ownership model of property

In his work Unsettling the City, Nicholas Blomley highlights the hegemony of what he calls the “ownership model” of property, where there is generally one definable owner to a clearly delineated piece of land, and property almost exclusively means private property. Private property indicates a certain form of power that seems to have “an independent, nonstatelike quality”, as the idea that someone can exclusively claim a parcel of space is taken for granted.[3] This model came to dictate what kind of property we are supposed to value–i.e., private, owner-occupied, etc.–which in turn raises the overall perceived value of this kind of property, in a process seen as uncontestably determined by “the market”. But only those who are able to buy into this market get the right to property.

People did not always conceive of property in this manner. This particular understanding of property arose to prominence out of a desire to provide order to the city, beginning with the colonization of land. Indigenous groups did not usually conceive of property in the same way as their colonizers, and so a new, more regulated, interpretation of property was necessary in order to physically “settle” the land: “the colonization of land, the physical substance, could not have proceeded without the simultaneous colonization of property, the mental structure for organizing rights to land.”[4] Adrian Blackwell describes how this ownership model then enabled property to be carefully partitioned and therefore easily exchanged in a capitalist market:

The secret of capitalist property lies in the way in which the most grounded and immobile of things—land—can be made to move through its financialization and exchange-ability, while this same property is rendered absolutely solid, reified, as each absentee owner decides who can and cannot enter it.[5]

Thus property has come to be viewed as a parceled good to be bought and sold. Brazilian scholar and planner Raquel Rolnik argues that housing is viewed increasingly as an investment asset in a globalized financial market, rather than as a social good. She explains how, rather than a means to distribute wealth, housing has become a “means to wealth”, where “the value is the possibility of creating more value, which depends on the speed and number of transactions capable of generating value appreciation”. While ideas of housing as commodity confronted various national welfare models in different national contexts, many governments around the world have mobilized a range of policies to “extend market discipline, competition and commodification”.[6] The result has been urban enclaves created for the wealthy and international elite, with the poor confined to peripheral areas (or, in the North American case, “inner city” areas), often with limited basic services and employment opportunities.[7] Clearly in Brazil as elsewhere, this has meant the growth of informal settlements, forming part of an agenda which Rolnik asserts is “to create an urban scenario where the poor don’t exist and at the same time ‘unlock’ the value of land”.[8]

Viewing property and the real estate market as natural and self-evident has a de-politicizing effect. It masks the actors and social processes involved in deciding the “value” and accessibility of property. It assumes that the value of property lies only in its exchange value, and that this value is to be decided by the “market”. It makes it very difficult to imagine that property could be understood in any other way.

Interpretations of property in Brazil

Some government actors have made efforts to challenge this dominant system of property. Brazil is one of the only countries to have put into its constitution the “right to the city” of all citizens, in an attempt to address issues of social exclusion, segregation, and inequality. After years of demonstrations and efforts by the national urban reform movement since the 1980s, Brazil also passed legislation at federal and municipal levels to acknowledge the “social function of property”, most notably in the form of the 2001 City Statute.[9]

While this discursive shift towards recognizing the social function of property is significant, in practice the dominance of the classic property paradigm in Brazil persists. Ultimately, Brazil has been unable to overturn a dominant property regime that has privileged elite interests since the time of the colonial administrators. Ruling elites used property as a way to maintain power through the changes of independence (1820s) and the abolition of slavery (1888). In fact,

Planter elites were motivated to commodify land because, with the end of the slave trade, they needed to find new forms of capital investment. They also wanted to use land instead of slaves to guarantee loans. Both required…the creation of a legitimate real estate market to generate and maintain land values.[10]

Thus urban development in Brazil has very often entrenched the commodification of land and property at the expense of the poor. This was also assisted historically by a discourse of “social hygiene” that justified the expulsion of the poor to the periphery, while central land was reserved for the elite. Meanwhile, a strong campaign to advertise the casa própria (“house of one’s own”) encouraged relocation to the suburbs, and fostered a culture of private home ownership.[11] These discourses continue to hold currency today, as the privately-owned, single-family home continues to be the ideal of property in Brazil, and in cities like São Paulo, efforts to “revitalize” the city center aim to attract higher social classes to buy property and foster financial competitiveness.[12]

Re-imagining property

It is in this context that sem-teto movements have been occupying buildings in the city center since the 1990s, to advocate for the right to decent housing, and challenging inequality and exclusion where the state has been largely unable to provide a lasting solution. According to Lucy Earle, the idea of occupying empty buildings in the city center emerged in the mid-1990s in response to numerous city-wide processes, including the poor and working class being expelled to distant periphery areas along with renewed attention on concentrating regeneration projects for higher-income groups in the city center.[13] The first occupations eventually evolved into a vast array of autonomous movements that have undertaken occupations in the city center. While the tactics and stated objectives of different movements are not always identical, the demand for decent housing is a unifying feature.

Sem-teto movements can be said to resist the dominant property paradigm in their assertion of the social function of property and of the city. The movements “operationalize” the law by asserting the most obvious, direct use value of property because the occupations themselves serve as housing for movement members (at least temporarily).[14] They also call attention to buildings that are not fulfilling their social function, that have been left vacant by the real estate market.[15] For example, in their mission statement, the Movimento de Moradia Para Todos (“movement for housing for all”, or MMPT) defends “the right to re-use buildings in the city center that are not meeting their social function”.[16] By focusing on the city center, the movements are also fundamentally challenging the current unequal spatial logic of the city.

In their occupation of vacant buildings, the MMPT advocates specifically for locação social, or state-run socially-rented housing, which is currently quite rare in Brazil. One argument for this is that, if a building remains public property, then residents do not have to be subject to the pressure of the real estate market that will expel them when the value of central areas rises. By activating the social function of property through the occupation of vacant buildings, along with proposals for alternative forms of property ownership, sem-teto movements are questioning an individualistic exclusionary private property model that has impeded the poor’s ability to reside in the city center and excluded them from political processes that decide city development. This is not to say that sem-teto groups have discovered a utopian alternative to private property. Many of the groups’ members ultimately still want to own their own home.[17] But by asserting use value over exchange value and using property in collective ways through the practice of occupation, sem-teto groups are widening the space for an alternative property politics to come about.


Right to the city v. the right to property?

An occupation is an act of appropriation, but not one that is inherently contradictory to the right to property. Mark Purcell describes Lefebvre’s classic ideas on appropriation within the right to the city:

The right to appropriation is the right to define and produce urban space primarily to maximize its use value over and above its exchange value. The notion of urban space as property, as a commodity to be exchanged on the market, is antithetical to the right to appropriation.[18]

In this way, Lefebvre contrasts the right to the city with the right to property. But these two concepts are only contradictory if we assume that property must be a commodity, if we give the individual, private ownership model described by Blomley the all-encompassing power that allows elite urban actors to continue building and selling property for the benefit of a select few. What if it is not a matter of doing away with the concept of property entirely but instead, reimagining property itself?

Walking around the center of São Paulo, observing the combination of newly-built apartment towers, real estate agencies, and numerous banners of sem-teto movements decorating abandoned buildings, it is clear that the development of the city center remains undecided. But even in cities where the commodified, private ownership interpretation of property seems to have won, where luxury apartment buildings are springing up at every corner and social movements are not nearly as visible, there is room to re-think things. We need a new, politicized model of property that allows for a more just urban development to take place: one where the expulsion of the poor is not seen as inevitable, and where success is not measured by an increase in land values. Where property is valued for its ability to provide for people in need—for its use value, not exchange value. Where a house is not a commodity, but a home.

[1] See Charlotte Mathivet (ed.), 2014, Take Back the Land! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistances & Alternatives, Passarelle No. 10, Paris: AITEC and Ritimo.

[2] Agencia Brasil, “Ocupações em São Paulo: cidade tem déficit de 230 mil moradias”, Ultimo Segundo, 8 September 2015: <> [Accessed 30 January 2016].

[3] Nicholas Blomley, 2004, Unsettling the city: Urban land and the politics of property, New York: Routledge.

[4] Banner quoted in Blomley, p. 10.

[5] Adrian Blackwell, 2014, “What Is Property?”, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 68, No. 1, p. 52.

[6] Raquel Rolnik, “Late Neoliberalism: The Financialization of Homeownership and Housing Rights” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, p. 1059.

[7] Ibid., p. 1063.

[8] Ibid., p. 1064.

[9] Evaniza Rodrigues and Benedito Roberto Barbosa, 2010, “Popular movements and the City Statute”, in The City Statute of Brazil: A Commentary, p. 25.

[10] James Holston, 2008, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 136.

[11] Holston 2008, p. 160.

[12] Daniela Sandler, 2007, “Place and Process: Culture, Urban Planning, and Social Exclusion in São Paulo,” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 471-493.

[13] Lucy Earle, 2012, “From Insurgent to Transgressive Citizenship: Housing, Social Movements and the Politics of Rights in São Paulo”, Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1, p. 47.

[14] Ibid., p. 121.

[15] Roberta Dos Reis Neuhold, 2009, “Os Movimentos de Moradia e de Sem-teto e as ocupacoes das imoveis ociosos: a luta por políticas públicas habitacionais na área central da cidade de São Paulo”, Post-graduate dissertation in Sociology, Faculty of Philosophy, Letters, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo, p. 125.

[16] Movimento de Moradia Para Todos (MMPT), 2014, “About”, Facebook. Translation by author. <; [Accessed 12 August 2014].

[17] Luciana Tatagiba, Stella Paterniani, and Thiago Trindade, 2012, “Ocupar, revindicar, participar: sobre o repertorio de açao do movimento de moradia de São Paulo”, Opinião Publica, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 399-426.

[18] Mark Purcell, 2003, “Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 578.


This piece is based on my MSc dissertation, downloadable as a working paper at: 181

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