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“Property Owners and Not Proletarians”: Housing Policy and the Contested Production of Neoliberal Subjects in Chile and Brazil


In much of the world, neoliberal reforms since the 1970s have been associated with the market-driven dismantling of social housing and dispossession of the urban poor. In Latin America, however, the neoliberal era saw the rise of unprecedented state programs to subsidize private homeownership for poor city-dwellers. Examining the adoption of these housing programs in Chile and Brazil, this dissertation investigates their logics and socio-political consequences. Through a comparative ethnographic study of grassroots housing organizations in Santiago, Chile and São Paulo, Brazil, it asks how the privatized provision of social housing shapes state-citizen relations and the political subjectivities of poor city-dwellers in different urban contexts. It argues, first, that housing programs in both Chile and Brazil represent a new neoliberal state strategy for managing the urban poor, which I call accumulation by inclusion. By using subsidies to enable low-income families – and women in particular - to purchase homes built by the private sector, they sought foster profitable urban development while including the poor in private homeownership. Yet, these programs also entrenched urban inequalities by enabling developers to mass-produce segregated and low-quality homes for the poor. Second, I show this elicited similar kinds of contestations, as women in both Santiago and São Paulo organized to demand participatory processes and claim rights to “dignified housing.” However, shaped by different modes of organizing in each city, these contestations generated divergent dynamics and outcomes. Localized collective action by fragmented “homeless committees” in Santiago failed to wrest control from state and private actors, resulting in degraded housing and a shared sense of denigration as second-class citizens. In contrast, mass mobilization by broad-based housing movements in São Paulo led to the institutionalization of civil society participation in Brazil’s housing policy. This enabled grassroots movement associations to exercise direct control over their projects, and produce dignified housing that conferred a sense of inclusion as full citizens. Finally, in spite of these divergent outcomes, women in both Santiago and São Paulo came to act as similar kinds of neoliberal homeowner-citizens. Rather than continuing to make collective claims on the state, they learned to assume individual responsibility for improving and maintaining their homes. My findings reveal that neoliberalism operates not only though exclusion and dispossession of the poor, but also through their inclusion in market-oriented modes of citymaking and citizenship. They also show how different local configurations of civil society shape the possibilities and limits of claiming social inclusion in neoliberal cities.

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