Across downtown neighborhoods in Brazil sit thousands of empty buildings, many abandoned or underused for decades while owing millions in property taxes. Meanwhile, Brazil is facing a major housing crisis with over 30 million people lacking decent homes. At the heart of Habitat for Humanity Brazil’s advocacy approach to sustainable urbanization is the concept of the social value of land and role of property—that every building in a city needs to be built with a purpose and fulfil a role that benefits the community, also reflected in the United Nation’s New Urban Agenda. A complex legal framework has seen access to land and housing being highly contested; the legal system, with a conservative judiciary, has tended to prioritize the rights of landowners over tenants. In a country where there are “too many people without homes and too many homes without people,” Habitat Brazil is advocating for municipal and national governments to implement social interest housing policies that will address these problems simultaneously.

With the innovative idea to link these two issues, Habitat Brazil launched a pilot study in the downtown neighborhood of Santo Antonio within the city of Recife. The pilot focused on mapping abandoned buildings within Santo Antonio to determine the number of empty buildings with the potential to be converted into housing units. The pilot also included an advocacy campaign centered on bringing public awareness to the housing insecurity issue, while advocating for major policy change. At the core, Habitat Brazil’s approach combines policy work with the social movement behind land reform within Brazil.

Habitat Brazil’s study gained public attention across Brazil with their pilot results. They found that 42 buildings could be converted into over 2,000 Social Interest Housing units for low-income families within Santo Antonio alone. Habitat Brazil presented these findings at a public event launch with 120 attendees, and conducted a multi-stakeholder forum for democratic city management and planning for the City Council of Recife. The findings, further spread across social media and over 17 press hits, reached over 40,000 people.

Moving forward, Habitat Brazil hopes to accumulate more official data regarding the thousands of other abandoned buildings across Brazil. Habitat Brazil is advocating for municipal governments in Brazil to continue conducting studies on housing issues. Habitat Brazil also is conducting Action Land Laboratories (LABS), the most recent on October 9-10, which provided an opportunity to facilitate policy dialogue and build capacity among diverse stakeholders to further elaborate housing policy proposals.  These policy initiatives will be presented to the municipal governments at an official conference in the upcoming months. Brazil’s recent political shift towards conservativism could jeopardize public housing services, prioritizing constant attention and response from Habitat Brazil to any attempt to rollback current gains.

Habitat for Humanity Brazil continues to prove the efficacy of evidence-driven advocacy campaigns, demonstrating that housing insecurity within Brazil can be solved by converting abandoned buildings into affordable housing units.