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A viable way to introduce social housing in the city centre of Belo Horizonte

by Paula de Castro Mendes Gomes

Abstract: In Brazil, there are over 6.8 million unoccupied domiciles while the country’s housing deficit is around 6.3 million units. By contrast, Brazil’s city centres have experienced a process of degradation and population reduction since the 1980s. In this context, this paper looks to reevaluate the existent vacant buildings, social housing, and squatting communities in the centre of Belo Horizonte. As a way to value the centre by examining its historical buildings, addressing the importance of social housing and the presence of people in such an urban context, and questioning the current social housing policies through the proposition of a different model. This is done through the study of existent squatted communities, proposing small-scale design strategies for the common areas of these buildings. The aim is to empower the community, potentializing its conditions, creating new ways of inhabiting the centre and becoming a catalyst for a more significant change in this area.

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[Image 1] Centro and the Railway.
Image by the author (2022).


This work examines Belo Horizonte’s city centre in Brazil, focusing on vacant buildings for potential social housing as an alternative to the existing national housing policy. The project idea stems from the degradation and population reduction many city centres across the country have experienced since the 1980s, along with data indicating more vacant homes than the housing deficit.

Belo Horizonte, a planned city from 1897 and intended to be the new capital of Minas Gerais, was meant to house government employees and the state’s elite, pushing the working class to establish informal settlements outside the city. Despite growing beyond planned limits and now housing over 2.5 million people, the historical spatial segregation from city planning persists. 

Following the history of unequal occupation, this study focuses on the 19th century planned city centre and its potential to accommodate a workforce that historically could not reside there. This study explores this by investigating vacant buildings and the possibility of repurposing them into social housing projects.

The appropriation of vacant buildings is already a common practice in Brazil through social-political movements that establish squatting communities in buildings that are not following their social function [1], and fight for their right to the city and housing. These movements suffer immense pressure from authorities and law enforcement, as many challenges arise, including the constant threat of eviction and problems with changing ownership of properties.

The intention of working with existent vacant buildings and squatting communities is to take a stance that reusing buildings - which are part of the city’s collective memory - is a way to value and reinforce the city’s urban identity and guarantee access to city life for a marginalised population. This will be done through a series of small-scale design strategies for the commons, using one of the squatted buildings identified in the centre of Belo Horizonte as a case study for this proposition. The idea behind the strategies is that they showcase different possibilities of use that can be developed by the community at different times and locations according to their needs, and allow them to maintain the ad hoc manner in which Ocupações are developed.



One of the first cities in Brazil to be designed, Belo Horizonte was planned between 1894 and 1897. This planned area would include essential public buildings, educational and cultural establishments, as well as housing for the government employees and the state elite who decided to move to the new capital.
Before Belo Horizonte’s inauguration, informal settlements already existed outside the planned area due to the absence of planning for the poor population, made up of construction workers, adventurers, and immigrants who had difficulties settling since the beginning of the city’s construction [2].    

Until the 1930s, a dominant hygienist perspective shaped urban planning, leading to the neglect of informal settlements like those which emerged in Belo Horizonte since the late 1800s. The State viewed these informal residents as a sanitary issue to be handled by the police, rather than recognizing their social rights [3]. In the 1940s, pension funds began constructing housing blocks for the working middle class [4] . However, these were not intended for social housing, which left the poorest population to settle in precarious outskirts as the city expanded.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the first favelas emerged in the city’s southern region, eventually becoming the prime location for real estate development for the wealthier population. This period saw significant economic and urban growth in Brazil, excluding the lower-income population from the formal market, leading to the proliferation of favelas and various informal settlements [5].



This economic growth directly impacted Belo Horizonte’s city centre, the focal point of this study. Known as Centro, the historic planned city from the late 1800s, started to experience the departure of the elite in the 1970s, intensifying in the 1980s and 1990s as this group was drawn to the emerging high-end real estate developments in the city’s southern region. This marked the start of a cyclical process where economic and population depletion fed regional degradation, and vice versa, consequently leading to the deterioration of the built environment and the existence of vacant buildings [6]. The poorest population moved to the most peripheral areas, reserving the best locations for those with the highest social status. This spatial mobility reflects the socioeconomic segregation of Belo Horizonte’s population [7] .
Belo Horizonte’s Centro has unique aspects concerning the segregation and manipulation of central areas by the wealthy. Despite being excluded from living there, a significant portion of the lowest-income population works in this area in jobs, commerce, and services serving this wealthy demographic. It is also the most accessible region, particularly in terms of public transport [8] .

Even though there is a  concentration of uses that are directly targeted at the low-income population, the social housing developments promoted by the government - by the municipality, state, or federal government - are always implemented in areas on the periphery (Image 4)

Considering this 125 year history of unequal occupation and economic segregation in Belo Horizonte, this work investigates the opportunities that the city centre might have to house a population that has always been excluded from it, and the “equal opportunities, urban culture, and policies in the service and well-being of the citizens.” [9] , that this place can offer.




Centro experienced significant changes due to the affluent population leaving during the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a nearly 45% decrease in the area’s population. Additionally, nearly 50% of the new Centro population in the 2000s had moved to Centro during the preceding two decades, as noted by Pontes [10] . 


During this phase, housing stock in the city centre grew but the vacancy rate simultaneously rose [11]. The number of public vacant buildings surged in the 2000s and 2010s, primarily due to the relocation of government functions, previously situated in Centro since the city’s construction, to a new facility on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte.

According to Fundação João Pinheiro’s report from 2015, the country had almost 8 million vacant buildings, 80% of which were located in urban areas. This number of vacant properties would be enough to meet the demand of the 6.3 million housing deficit [12]. 

In the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte (RMBH), an area with a population of 6 million people, the 2019 report estimated that the housing deficit was over a hundred and six thousand houses [13]. At the same time, the latest data reported that there were over 190 thousand vacant housing units in the same area [14].

Even though real estate vacancy is a potential opportunity in the restructuring of contemporary urban space, it is still neglected both by the government and research institutions, which lack the initiative to support the formulation of public housing policies that address housing vacancy [15]. 
According to Turner [16], it has been widely accepted that over the last four decades mass-produced, repetitive housing is inherently uneconomic and socially and ecologically harmful. But despite this, Brazilian governments persist in creating two types of low-income social housing: endless repetitions of small houses and low-rise four-storey complexes primarily located on the urban peripheries [17].



Social housing emerges as a potential solution to the vacant buildings at the centre of Belo Horizonte. This approach is viable because of the region’s existing popular character due to its commercial uses and convenient access to public transport. According to Pontes [18], preserving the area’s popular character is essential, and the introduction of social housing serves as a means to counter spatial segregation. The author emphasises that this is a stable use, and less prone to depletion, especially when the improvement of one condition results in the rise of another [19].
Repurposing vacant buildings through social housing is a way to revitalise the city centre, as the buildings, ultimately, constitute the form of the city. Therefore, its degradation is also the degradation of the urban environment it exists within [20]. This approach also curbs horizontal expansion, decreasing peripheral development demand, fostering a denser and more sustainable city, requiring fewer resources to operate and recycling land and buildings [21].
The adaptive reuse of the vacant buildings in Belo Horizonte could also have a wider effect on Centro, as it promotes “urban intensification and encourages the use of public transport” [22]. It may revive lost leisure activities, spark social interactions in public spaces, and bolster existing commercial uses.


This study recognises the potential of existing Ocupações [23] in Centro to challenge current social housing policies. These communities question the absence of social housing in the city centre by occupying vacant buildings, aiming to disrupt the “culture of peripheralization and urban segregation” and enhance integration into the urban economy [24].
This alternative acknowledges the potential of an under-used, well-located area that has historically been occupied by middle to high-income households, but in more recent years, has been occupied by squatters occupying vacant buildings. Therefore, this study will further explore social housing’s potential in the city centre, focusing on existing squatting communities as a case study.


Ocupação (plural: Ocupações) refers to the act of occupying or taking possession of something, commonly used in Brazil to describe squatted buildings and their communities. Lourenço [25] defines the concept as reinterpreting a space that does not fulfil its social function and makes useful that which is unused. Rolnik [26] sees these occupations as a means of fighting for their place within the city.
Informal settlements and squatter communities stem from the “long-standing inadequacy and ineffectiveness of housing policies” [27] and create community-led spaces that embrace the diverse needs and backgrounds within the community. Government-provided social housing tends to create homogenous areas, assuming uniform needs among residents, leading to a mismatch between housing priorities and available options.
Ocupações are sometimes viewed as a means to avoid paying rent. However, “living rent-free” isn’t merely about saving money; it’s a necessity for many Brazilian families due to a severe economic crisis. Over 30 million people face hunger, and 6 out of 10 Brazilians experience varying levels of food insecurity [28]. In such circumstances, as noted by Turner [29], saving rent money becomes essential for families to regain stability.
In Belo Horizonte, two types of Ocupações exist: horizontal and vertical occupations, with this project focusing on the latter. Horizontal occupations occur on empty peripheral land, primarily involving self-built houses. However, they often do not meet the needs of many families due to their distance from the city.

Vertical occupations commonly occur in the city centre through the occupation of vacant buildings. While it may present challenges in construction, maintenance, and social interactions, this occupation provides access to city benefits, carries symbolic significance in terms of class conflict, and shapes public opinion [30]. In Belo Horizonte, the first such Ocupação was founded in 2002, with subsequent movements between 2005 and 2008, and a resurgence in 2015 with ‘Ocupação Zezeu Ribeiro e Norma Lúcia’. 


Brillembourg [31], notes that squatter communities are often absent from city maps. Therefore, this work makes an effort to pinpoint and emphasise existing Ocupações within the defined area in Belo Horizonte’s city centre. Notable Ocupações include Carolina Maria de Jesus, home to over 200 families, and Zezeu Ribeiro e Norma Lúcia, accommodating around 46 families [32]. 



Ocupação Zezeu Ribeiro e Norma Lúcia, the longest-standing squatting community in Centro, has faced significant pressure from authorities since the building began being occupied in April 2015. City legislators proposed converting the building into social housing and transferring ownership to the current community, but the project stalled, leaving the residents in a state of insecurity and eviction fear.

Official records do not detail the profile of the population in squatted buildings, but Pedro [33] gathered basic information from leaders of the social movements housed in the building. The residents are predominantly low-income, socially vulnerable, with education up to the 4th grade, and earning minimum wage. Many are unemployed, relying on government financial support.

During the 2000s, the building was scheduled for alienation as part of a broader program targeting over 90 vacant Centro buildings. The goal was to create a livelier city centre through substantial urban renovations, including the introduction of residential uses and adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings. While public investment revitalised public spaces, the private sector executed just three housing projects, none of which focused on social housing [34].

To Tonucci and Castriota [35], the squatting communities live in a conflicting duality: between aspiring to be recognised by the state, therefore not living anymore under the threat of eviction, and the fact that entering the formal city can result in the loss of pre-existing collective projects and arrangements that engaged the community in resistance and socio-spatial experimentation.
This work focuses on Ocupação Zezeu Ribeiro e Norma Lúcia as a case study, aiming to enhance conditions for this building and community. It seeks to illustrate how social housing can serve as a community resource to improve living conditions, influence the surroundings, and preserve its socio-political significance. This will involve design strategies for the current building, with potential applicability to other existing and future squatting communities, by providing good living conditions and using vacant buildings.


After analysing social media, videos, and literature on Brazilian squatting communities, the significance of common areas for daily life and the resilience of Ocupações became evident. As Tonucci and Castriota [36], illustrate, these communities serve as “platforms for cooperative work and production of the common,” driven by survival needs or political and social experimentation. This work defines “commons” as a social relation, involving collective production, sharing, and management of resources within a community, as described by Tonucci and Castriota [37].  This characteristic is closely linked to the urban poor and slums, particularly in Brazil, and serves as a survival strategy shaped by social conditions and informality [38].
These commons are collectively created and adapted, taking diverse forms based on each community’s evolving requirements. They encompass features such as “community centres, communal kitchens, community daycare, and urban gardens” [39]. These spaces play a vital role in fostering community engagement, hosting public meetings, and safeguarding the Ocupação’s future. As Rolnik [40] notes, “these bustling common areas unite the occupation’s daily life, its residents, and the wider city.”
Ocupações navigate “contradictions and ambivalences, balancing the potential for autonomy and collective common creation with the harsh realities of extreme exclusion, deprivation, segregation, and violence” [41]. Given Turner’s [42], insights into self-construction and local development, it is crucial to recognize that this population requires assistance to realise their housing needs and ideas.
Architecture serves as a community resource, translating ideas into actionable plans that might lead to the guarantee of tenure or ownership of the space. For social housing to act as a resource for community-led initiatives, it must establish a strong social network within the housing community and project a strong sense of identity to the outside world [43].
According to Brillembourg [44], Ocupações are in a near-constant state of evolution, physically and socially, leading to interventions that may become irrelevant over time and necessitating removal or repurposing. Hence, design strategies were developed instead of design proposals.  The former aligns with the adaptable nature of Ocupações and the theoretical approach of this study, while the latter would require more extensive community-involved research and long-term flexible solutions.


The chosen methodology involves utilising visual and textual references as support for developing the proposed design strategies. Key quotes were extracted from the extensive bibliography, serving as the theoretical foundation for the investigation:

“The obligation to build your own house could be as oppressive as being forbidden to do so” [45].

“... commons is best understood as a social relation, a practice of collective production and social sharing between a community and some resources” [46]. 

“To think of architecture as an event - and not as a product - is to think of the experience generating and defining the spaces and appropriating them” [47]. 

“The important thing about housing is not what it is, but what it does in people’s lives” [48].


The design strategies were separated into different categories, thinking about both the daily life of the inhabitants as well as the strengthening of the Ocupação as a social-political movement. Those categories are classified in this work as “Moments”, as they represent a state of the Ocupação that can quickly change and adapt to the different needs of the community, being propositions of what can happen inside the building.

These Moments were focused on two main concepts. The first was to address the financial insecurity faced by the community. According to Pedro [49], the possibility of developing trades and selling services would be a “self-support policy for families” to develop their financial autonomy, provide better living conditions, and create a network of possibilities within the community, including uses such as a thrift store, seamstress shop, hairdresser and a grocery store. The second concept was to consider architecture as an event, thinking about the experiences that generate, define and appropriate spaces [50] . From this idea, spaces such as an assembly area, a terrace, a communal kitchen and a daycare were included.

This section merges different areas of the building, illustrating events occurring at various times and places, and adapting to the community’s needs. The Moments try to encapsulate the essence of creating spaces where the community can develop their trades and hobbies, create social relations, be the catalyst for the production of the commons and, ultimately, give the Ocupação’s community the feeling of “what it does for people, rather than what it is”. Along with the daily uses shown, this section portrays in detail how the social housing movements in Brazil are connected to other social-political organisations. Represented in this image are cultural movements, such as “Batalha De Mc’s” [51], environmental protection movements, political groups shown in the image of Marielle Franco [52] on the façade, the “União Nacional Por Moradia Popular” [53] flag, as well as “MLB” [54]  movement. 
These movements contribute to the significance and necessity of Ocupações in the city centre’s social housing movement. They instil vibrancy and ongoing community involvement, fostering socio-spatial experimentation within the Ocupação that extends into the city centre.



One of the most important conclusions from this research is to recognize the process of spatial segregation and degradation are connected. This work proposes that the only way to promote a proper regeneration project of Belo Horizonte’s Centro is to include new social housing initiatives, as well as value the informal communities already settled there through the Ocupações.

Looking more specifically at design strategies, this work considers small-scale interventions as a resource for community-led projects that can have a great impact on this population. These projects may even influence the surroundings, bringing diversity to the users and the social profile of the area, reducing the degradation of the built environment caused by the existence of many vacant buildings, and promoting urban intensification.

In this work, the core proposal is to do this through the commons. It is a space that creates and nurtures social relations, where the community develops their work and earns money.  The commons allow contact between the community and outside actors, as a way to strengthen existing and new social relations within the Ocupação as a social-political movement.


[1] Função Social da Propriedade or Social Function is a concept introduced by Estatuto da Cidade, that states in its fifth article that the urban or rural property must, in addition to serving the interests of its owner, meet the needs and interests of society. In this way, the social function conditions the right to the property, by establishing that this right is limited with respect for the collective good. 

[2] Pontes (2006).

[3] Bonduki (2004).

[4-5] Lourenço (2014).

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[Image 2] Location of Belo Horizonte.
Image by the author (2022).

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[Image 3] Map of the planned city of Belo Horizonte with north facing down. 
Image source: Aarão Reis (1895).

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[Image 4] Location of Belo Horizonte city centre and location of social housing.
Image source: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte - Lei de Parcelamento (2019). Image edited by the  author (2022).

image 5.png

[Image 5] Ocupações map.
Image adapted by the author (2022). 

image 6.jpg

[Image 6] “When Housing is a Privilege, Occupation is a Right” (written on the façade of ‚Ocupação Zezeu Ribeiro e Norma Lúcia‘).
Image by the author (2022).

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[6] Mc Murtrie (2021).

[7] de Souza (2008).

[8] Pontes (2006).

[9] Brillembourg (2013).

[10-11] Pontes (2006).

[12] FJP (2018).

[13] It is important to notice that all those numbers account for the situation pre-COVID-19 pandemic, which could have affected the situation for the worse. FJP (2021).

[14] FJP (2018).

[15] Mc Murtrie (2021).

[16] Turner (1976).

[17-20] Pontes (2006).

[21] Bromley (2005).

[22] Heath (2001).

[23] Ocupação is the term used in Portuguese for communities that live in squatted buildings, that are usually led by organised housing and homeless movements that had been forming in the city centre for some time, came into being from the second half of the 1990s onwards. 
Rolnik (2019).

[24] Pontes (2006).

[25] Lourenço (2014).

[26-27] Rolnik (2019).

[28] Verenicz (2022).

[29] Turner (1976).


[30] Pedro (2019).


[31] Brillembourg (2013).


[32] A new ocupação called Ocupação Maria do Arraia was established in July 2023 after this study was completed.

[33] Pedro (2019).

[34] Pedro (2019).

[35-39] Tonucci and Castriota (2022).

[40] Rolnik (2019).

[41] Tonucci and Castriota (2022).

[42] Turner (1976).

[43-44] Brillembourg (2013).

[45] Turner (1976).

[46] Tonucci and Castriota (2022).

[47] Lourenço (2014).

[48] Turner (1976).

[49] Pedro (2019).

[50] Lourenço (2014).

[51] A rap battle occurring in Belo Horizonte since 2007, beneath Viaduto Santa Tereze.  It is one of the main meetings of the country’s hip hop culture and a symbol of resistance and occupation of the urban space. Leocádio (2020).

[52] Marielle Franco was a Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) city council member, and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberty. She was also a member of the LGBT community and a human rights activist, especially against police brutality in the favelas, or slums of the city. She was murdered in March 2018, which was deemed suspicious for several reasons. Fernandez (2018).

[53] A social movement that fights for the right to housing and to the city, popular participation in public policies and the fight to end evictions and the criminalization of social movements. [10] UNIAO (accessed 22 August 2022).

[54] The Movimento de Luta nos Bairros, Vilas e Favelas (MLB) is a national social movement that fights for urban reform and the human right to live with dignity.  MLB (accessed 22 August 2022).

[Image 7] Section.
Image by the author (2022).

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Paula de Castro Mendes Gomes is a qualified architect and urbanist practising in Brazil. Her research focuses on the idea of preserving a city’s collective memory through adaptive reuse, community-centred design solutions for social housing, and preservation of the built environment and the urban fabric.

MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett, UCL 2022
Postgraduate degree in Geography, City and Architecture - Escola da Cidade, 2021
BArch and MArch Architecture and Urbanism - Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais 2018


Published in Issue 2024

Dis-Ruptive Horizons


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Infinite Possible Worlds
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Istanbul’s Lost Leisure Spaces
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Towards a Sustainable Urban Mobility
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Rethinking Progress
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Unbuilding Neue Heimat West
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Homo Paulista: The Rise of a New Tribe
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