FUCVAM (Uruguayan Federation of Housing Cooperatives for Mutual Aid) was founded in the 1970s, as the result of an incipient movement of mutual aid housing cooperatives in Uruguay. It is made up of a multiplicity of cooperatives that broad popular sectors can join in order to collectively build and access the right to use and enjoy a housing unit.
Its fundamental proposal of “mutual aid” is based on the fact that it is work on the ground by associated people that lowers housing costs. Cooperatives are generally built on terrains assigned by the state, at a low cost, with low-interest state loans. Participants are required to fulfill their work hours, as well as to participate in meeting spaces, assemblies, and education and integration activities. This structure also includes the Gender Area that, in the heat of the feminist tide in Latin America, started to question inequalities and violence both within and beyond the Federation. We spoke to Isabel Zerboni, a cooperativist and member of the Federation’s Gender Area.
How does the Gender Area of FUCVAM and the movement work?
FUCVAM was founded in the 1970s. It is a union-type structure, and therefore its operation is very patriarchal in many aspects. However, since it is made up of families, it has always had a very broad vision and a way of working that is closely tied to domestic life. For example, collective purchasing is something that has always occurred, in order to be able to buy things more cheaply. Our movement has always addressed the social problems that traverse us. Generating collective alternatives in terms of health care, education, consumption, solidarity food aid, intervening in situations of gender violence, against child violence, unemployment, and collective child care were always major issues. We always look for alternative ways of supporting families based on solidarity. This has given FUCVAM a twofold characteristic as a movement and a union organization, with a flexible territorial structure, but also as a union that makes demands to the state.
The Gender Area emerged in 2015, as a result of the feminist wave, that is where we come from. We started to see that we needed a space within the Federation to discuss these things. At first, we identified as a gender area, as the years passed we became feminists, and that is how we identify. Some 200 compañeras from all around the country participated in the women’s gatherings. We hold panel discussions, educational activities, sensitivity workshops, and mobilizations. We are working to generate gender committees in all the departments where cooperatives are organized to start working on the territorial level. Because, since we are located in Montevideo, the capital, sometimes it is difficult to reach the whole country.
Much of our work has focused on the issue of gender-based violence, since we are a movement made up of families. One challenge that we face now is identifying those cases of violence within the cooperative structure. There are different types of violence that are not always recognized. The way our organization has handled it is, in situations of gender-based violence in families in the cooperative, the aggressor has to leave the cooperative. If a man beats his wife or children, he has to leave immediately. The cooperative must guarantee that the woman can stay in her home.
You all also work on feminist urbanism. Can you tell us about that?
Feminist urbanism is a new issue for us. In the Gender Area, we see it as having a great potential for helping us plan the use of space. We want it to be present when members of the cooperative sit down with the advising team, with the architects, to plan the cooperatives. There are architects who come in with a proposal, they give it to the cooperative, the cooperative reviews it, approves it, and the exchange ends there. But we think that the whole process of elaborating the project should be participatory, and that cooperative members should be able to share their opinions, not only in terms of “I like that color tile, or I want the stairs to be made of such and such a material,” but the discussion should go much deeper. We think that, just as the foreman must have the will to teach, the architects who work with the cooperative must have the pedagogical vocation to transmit specific knowledge so that the cooperative is in a position to fully participate in the debate. Often the asymmetry of knowledge places you in a position that the other can prevent you from intervening if they do not want you to. The architects who work with the cooperative need to first carry out a pedagogical process with the cooperative members, communicate what they are going to do, the objectives and range of available possibilities, so that later the cooperative can shape what they want to build. After the construction process, the cooperative has a lot of very important, very rich knowledge, they know the construction plan in detail, and are is positioned to debate it with anyone. The problem is that that point it has already been built and there are few opportunities to change it. Some modifications occur in the process, but only minor ones, the structural elements have already been consolidated.
Thus, as the Gender Area, we do not want it to be a project that is presented by the architects for the cooperative to either accept or not. What we want is to think about it collectively from the beginning: where do we want the recreation space, what do we want the garden to be like, how are houses distributed in the space, the sidewalks, the materials, the vegetation, etc. One of the things that arose in the workshops is the need to grow, that is, to have space so that the houses can be expanded in the future. And we can predict that.
In the Gender Area, we also want to carry out this idea of co-planning the project from a feminist perspective. We want to not only debate the aesthetic dimensions, but also be able to include the discussion about care so that those common spaces are planned from that perspective.
All the cooperatives used to have a large communal hall for meetings. Today this space is losing importance and has been greatly reduced. The Ministry [of Housing and Territorial Planning] has been reducing the number of square meters for building cooperatives and removing the communal halls from cooperative projects with less than twenty families. As FUCVAM, and especially the Gender Area, we think that the communal halls are fundamental for the community development of cooperatives and that we must fight for them, because it is precisely in that physical space where a ton of collective activities occur, such as committee meetings, assemblies, celebrations, cultural activities. Enabling the cooperative to participate in the architectural project guarantees that we give that room an important place.
There are other issues besides the communal room. We have had medical centers, community gardens, libraries, football fields, sports spaces, etc. that are being harmed with the reduction of square meters on which to build.
We are convinced that feminist urbanism can contribute many elements for spatial planning. However, we are in an earlier stage that has to do with studying how space is used in the cooperatives that are currently inhabited. That is why we are carrying out a collaborative research project with compañeras from the School of Architecture who are working with compañeras from the Gender Area to study how collective space is used in the currently inhabited cooperatives. We have been working on this for two years. Our long-term objective is to put forth a proposal in which we can increase the inclusion of different generations, taking care into account, recognizing that we will not always be young and healthy, that at some point we will go through processes of illness or disability that will stop us from using our houses like we do today, and not only our houses but also the rest of the cooperative. For example, the issue of stairs has been greatly debated. On the other hand, care particularly concerns us because we share a lot of the care work within the cooperative. Support among compañeras takes place naturally, the challenge is to better plan the space to strengthen that aspect. In principle, we want feminist urbanism to be a tool for thinking about the cooperative projects that already exist, analyze how we can improve them, and that this experience be useful in the planning process.
We are carrying out two processes: research that we hope will result in a proposal to work with the cooperatives being formed and, in turn, encouraging education in feminist urbanism, in order for the issue to be studied within the organization. This will allow us, as the Gender Area, to be able to later go out and work with the cooperatives being formed and promote that debate in each cooperative. But that will take place in a second stage, that is our hope.
It is difficult because our movement is made up of over 500 cooperatives and they all have different degrees of participation. This will happen little by little. Being able to put forth a feminist vision of cooperatives is an idea for the long-term.
When we speak of feminist perspectives regarding housing, the issue of non-discriminatory access also becomes clear. For example, what do women who are heads of household do with the hours they are required to work in the cooperative?
All the cooperatives include single women who are responsible for their children, it is a very common situation. Even more, many compañeras approach the cooperatives to solve housing issues caused by situations of violence, as a way to escape those situations. Then, what people who are solely responsible for their nuclear family can do is present a collaborator, then that person collaborates to fulfill the hours.
The cooperative is a very important network for the women who live in it. There are more women than men living in the cooperatives. If something happens to a woman, the cooperative looks for a way to support them. We have developed thousands of strategies in these 50 years of history. There are cooperatives only made up of women who are heads of their households. There is an LGBTIQ+ cooperatives, there are Afro women. An impressive diversity of cooperatives has arisen that have to do with social movements, with struggles for diversity, with the feminist struggle. Cooperatives have also emerged from unions, for example, of construction workers, that are almost all men. Then there are those that came out of teachers’ unions or unions of cleaning workers that are almost all women. There are also many cooperatives that have arisen from the children of members of other cooperatives, born and raised in cooperatives.
How can people join cooperatives?
Anyone over the age of 18 can affiliate with a cooperative. There are a lot of cooperatives in Uruguay, therefore a large part of the population already knows that they exist. There are cooperatives in all of the neighborhoods of Montevideo and in almost all the country’s departments. What happens is that a family approaches a cooperative and, if there is room, they can affiliate, first as an applicant and then as an owner.
From the legal point of view, a family can join a cooperative as long as their economic income is between 0 and 70,000 or 80,000 Uruguayan pesos, which is around 2,000 dollars. It is a criteria based on economic income and the number of members of the household. If you earn more than that, you cannot join a cooperative because the state does not allow it. But, since the minimum is zero, you can enter even if you are unemployed. This is relatively new, it has only been like this since 2008. This model was always designed for working men and women, therefore the minimums were always very low, but originally they did not account for the possibility of having no family income, however the new regulation does. In any case, the cooperatives often allowed people to stay who had lost their jobs, nobody was ever kicked out for not having a job. When the state lowered the limit to zero, it did so at the union’s request. That was a demand put forth by FUCVAM, along with the counterpart of the subsidy for the quota to be able to pay back the loan. That means that, if you cannot pay the quota because of low family income, the state will subsidize you so that you do not have to leave your house. Winning this subsidy guarantees access and that people can remain in their homes.