This community initiated and managed project involves a community land trust-style model of collective land ownership and housing construction for low-income families. It emphasises the role of women, who are trained in construction skills, as well as community leadership, activism and negotiation with public authorities. Funding is provided through a combination of residents’ savings, micro-credit loans and a revolving fund and a total of 152 houses have been built to date, as well as a range of community facilities. The approach is now being used by community groups elsewhere in Bolivia.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

  • To ensure the right to decent, affordable land and housing for low-income households, with security of tenure and access to services, particularly for women and children.
  • To preserve long-term affordability through collective land ownership and the use of traditional mutual help construction and savings systems.
  • To promote an autonomous political movement of families, joined by a common struggle for urban services, through community self-help processes.
  • To demonstrate a successful long-term approach that local and national governments can adopt to improve their social housing policies.


Bolivian social housing policy has traditionally excluded the poorest of the poor in the country, who either work in the informal sector and therefore do not qualify for government-provided housing or who cannot afford to make mortgage payments.

As a result, low-income families typically begin the housing process by purchasing a piece of land on the informal market, lacking services and formal land titles. Without access to formal loans and mortgages, they must rely on their own savings and build incrementally over a long period of time. Services and infrastructure are gradually implemented, through a combination of community efforts and pressure on local authorities to provide basic services. The situation has been further exacerbated in recent years as increasing land values and speculation in both the formal and informal markets have made access to land unaffordable for low-income families.

Titles to land and property, as well as rental contracts, are traditionally issued in the name of the man, causing women and children to be particularly vulnerable in the case of separation. Overcrowding in rented housing exacerbates domestic violence. This project was initiated to address the key issues of increasing land values and speculation, gender inequality and domestic violence and the lack of mechanisms for housing finance for the poorest of the poor.

Key features

Initiated in 1999 by a group of homeless women heads of household, this project involves a community land trust-style model of collective land ownership and housing construction for low-income families. A loan was obtained by one of the women in the group, who then purchased a large piece of land on the outskirts of Cochabamba. The land was divided into 200m² and 300m² plots and the proportional costs were passed on to the other members of the group at a rate of US$3/m². Although the women slowly began to build on the land, it had been purchased informally and did not have planning permission, as it was in an area marked for agricultural use. This particular piece of land, however, was located on a steep slope not suitable for agricultural use and has since undergone a process of land tenure regularisation.

The project’s main beneficiaries are the 250 low-income families who have acquired land in the Maria Auxiliadora Community. With an average family size of six, almost half of the families in the community earn less than US$1 per day per capita and nearly three-quarters of residents are either unemployed (23 per cent) or working in the informal sector (47 per cent).

All homes have been built by the community through a mutual help process based on the Uruguayan cooperative housing model, with technical assistance provided by partner NGOs. Mutual help construction takes place on Sundays and each household must contribute a minimum of three to four hours per week labour. The project has been extended to include a number of community facilities, recycling facilities for solid waste and greywater and income-generating activities, in addition to housing construction. The community facilities include a day nursery, playground, library, neighbourhood committee office, recycling centre and a football pitch.

Land and housing in the Maria Auxiliadora Community cannot be rented out: it must be used to shelter the family. Those who have purchased the land and have not yet built their house cannot remain absentee owners: they must either build their house and move into the community or withdraw from the community and be reimbursed for the land. A total of 152 houses have been built to date and the system of collective land ownership has kept land costs down and preserved long-term affordability for low-income families. Property can be passed on to others via the community at the initial price of the plot of land plus the value of the house. The project has a strong gender focus and land titles are placed in the woman’s name. The role of community leader is also reserved for a woman and is carried out in two-year terms; in this way, the abuse of power is avoided and all women are encouraged to take on leadership responsibilities.

Low-income families with children and particularly women-headed households who are homeless are given priority in the selection process.

Covering costs

The cost of the 16.8 hectare plot of land was US$276,000, which was purchased by one of the women in the group, with an initial deposit of US$36,000, obtained via a bank loan and a loan from a friend. The land was then subdivided and the proportional costs were passed on to the other members of the group. An arrangement was made with the former owner whereby the debt would be repaid gradually through the payments received from residents for the individual plots of land. This system is fairly widespread in the informal land market and the current outstanding balance of US$23,200 is gradually being repaid to the former owner. Families can enter the project with an initial payment of as low as US$10 and minimum monthly repayments of US$10.

Funding for housing construction has been obtained from a range of sources, including residents’ savings, loans from NGOs such as Fundación Pro-Hábitat and Habitat for Humanity and the labour provided through the mutual help construction process. Houses are built on an incremental basis. The loans provided by Fundación Pro-Hábitat have a 12 per cent annual interest rate and are spread over a period of three to five years, with average monthly repayment rates of US$45. Loans from Habitat for Humanity are given with zero per cent interest and are spread over a period of up to ten years, with a minimum monthly repayment of US$25 to US$30. The rate of loan repayments is high and only one household to date has been unable to make the payments due to a change in personal circumstances. In this case, an alternative arrangement has been made and the loan is being repaid in smaller monthly instalments.

Infrastructure and community facilities have been funded through residents’ savings as well as financial or in-kind donations from a range of NGOs. In some cases, the local government has covered the costs of infrastructure provision. Direct costs to residents for all infrastructure and community facilities totalled US$177 per household. With the cost of the plot of land ranging from US$600 to US$900 and housing from US$1,000 to US$10,000, total costs per household are therefore US$1,777 to US$11,077.


  • The project has greatly reduced the vulnerability of low-income families who did not previously have access to credit, decent housing or secure land tenure.
  • Women in particular have been empowered and domestic violence has been reduced.
  • The project has mobilised the families and developed a spirit of solidarity and collective action.
  • The experience has had a positive impact on Bolivian NGOs, successfully convincing them of the value of collective land ownership and the importance of placing the issue of urban land tenure high on the agenda.
  • The Bolivian Constitution allows for collective land ownership, although this has traditionally been applied only in rural areas through agrarian laws. As the Constitution recognises the population’s right to choose its own organisational patterns, the Maria Auxiliadora Community has applied this principle to a more urban setting and its Statutes have been legally recognised.


Why is it innovative?

  • Collective ownership of land: this community land trust-style system is highly innovative in the Latin American region, particularly in urban areas.
  • Financial aspects: combination of residents’ savings, loans and a revolving community fund.
  • Gender focus: role of women in community leadership, land ownership and housing construction.
  • Partnerships: this community-initiated and managed project has gained recognition and credibility over the years, developing partnerships with a range of NGOs and government agencies.
  • In contrast to the typical approach of the State and NGOs, which focus on house building, this project begins with access to land and works to ensure that the social function of land is fulfilled.


What is the environmental impact?

For the most part, conventional materials such as fired clay brick and hollow brick masonry have been used in housing construction, with corrugated iron or tile roofing. Local materials and suppliers have been used where possible and in a small number of cases traditional building methods such as adobe construction have been used.

Access to running water, sewage and electricity has been provided where previously there was none. A waste recycling project is currently being implemented within the community and municipal solid waste collection has been negotiated and obtained and a greywater recycling pool is being implemented by the community in order to reuse water for irrigation. Many trees have been planted by the community in the area.


Is it financially sustainable?

The combination of residents’ savings, micro-credit and the revolving fund has enabled the community to be independent and not to have to rely heavily on external funding or government support. The collective property of land is not an impediment for the families of the Maria Auxiliadora Community to access micro-credit funds for their homes: the Community and the collective land title are used as a guarantee by partner NGOs. Incremental housing construction allows families to improve/expand their homes as and when they are able to do so.

The project has worked to create a range of opportunities for income generation: weekly sewing and handcrafting workshops are carried out within the community and a group has been formed for specialised training in building techniques. A group of eight women has formed a small catering business and a few of the households within the community have established small home-based enterprises.

The preservation of affordability and accessibility to land and housing is a key objective of this project and land is viewed as a social good rather than a marketable commodity. Through the system of collective land ownership, if a family wishes to sell their house, it can be sold for the original value of the land plus the value of the house (evaluated in function of the cost of building materials and labour in the year the house was built). The idea is to avoid any appreciation or profit due to time or location. The evaluation is made by external experts and the house returns to the community, which then selects the next family.

In 1999, land in the Maria Auxiliadora community was worth US$3/m² and nine years later the price remains the same, in spite of all the improvements carried out in the neighbourhood. The price of land in the surrounding areas, such as in the Olmedo community which, in contrast to Maria Auxiliadora, does not have running water or a sewage system, has increased to US$15/m².


What is the social impact?

The processes of mutual help construction and collective decision-making have encouraged collective action, cooperation and integration among community members and have greatly reduced vulnerability of families who did not previously have access to housing or secure land tenure. A sense of solidarity among families has been instilled, as evidenced by the support received by families from other members of the community in cases of illness, financial difficulties or other extreme circumstances.

The Community is led by an elected Neighbourhood Committee in which, based on traditional Andean leadership structures, the presidency and vice-presidency must rotate every two years in order for each family to gain experience in leadership. Leaders have been trained, who now organise and take part in events around the right to housing, presenting their particular experience to NGOs, universities and other community groups as well as carrying out media interviews. The sense of achievement and solidarity among the community members has empowered them and reinforced the benefit of collective action. They are now able to mobilise themselves and negotiate with government authorities.

As a result of the project, levels of alcoholism have dropped as well as the incidence of domestic abuse and a Family Support Group has been set up to provide support to victims of domestic violence. With the title in the woman’s name, the fact that women are no longer at risk of losing their home has made them more likely to come forward or leave abusive husbands.

The project has led to a reduction in deep-seeded gender inequalities: land parcels are registered in the community list under the woman’s name, allowing the woman and her children to stay in the house in the case of separation (unless it is the woman who abandons the children). Women have also been empowered through training in leadership and income-generating skills.


  • Due to the community’s stance against existing clientelistic practices, the project faced opposition in its initial stages from the municipal authorities, who tried to destroy the first houses built in the Maria Auxiliadora community. The persistence of the community members, dialogue with the authorities and results achieved over the years have turned this initial resistance to strong support from local government, which is currently looking to transfer the approach to other areas.
  • At one point during the process, conflict developed within the community regarding the collective ownership of land: some of those who had initially purchased parcels of land thought they would be able to ignore the principles on which the community is based and sell the land after a few years for a profit. Some of these eventually left the community, as the system of collective ownership is protected by the community Statutes. Current members strongly support the principle, encouraged by what they have been able to achieve collectively as well as the recognition and support they have received from other groups.
  • The informal way in which the process was initiated and developed ended up placing a large amount of financial risk on the shoulders of the project initiator. The lack of initial capital funds meant that she had to accept, at the beginning, many candidates who didn’t correspond to the target population but who could buy a parcel immediately. Whilst this pragmatic decision has contributed towards the social diversity within the community, families now go through a much more rigorous selection process.

Lessons Learned

  • The living conditions of low-income families can be greatly improved with little external funding, provided that the families’ own resources are mobilised and channelled through savings schemes, traditional forms of solidarity and mutual help, collective action and access to credit.
  • Whilst it is important for the community to maintain autonomy and control of the process, the support of NGOs has been crucial to the success of the Maria Auxiliadora Community. The community’s ability to mobilise residents’ own resources has been an important factor in drawing additional funding and support.
  • Many lessons can be drawn by government agencies and NGOs from successful grassroots initiatives such as this one.
  • It is important to reinforce and formalise the process by which new members adopt common principles such as the collective ownership of land and are integrated into the community. Formal ‘training’ workshops have been set up for this purpose.



An internal evaluation process took place within the community in 2006 to identify areas which could be improved or corrected. Key areas to be addressed included the need for new members to participate more actively in the mutual help construction process as well as greater support to be provided for children and young people. An independent evaluation of the experience has also been carried out by the CEPLAG research institute in Bolivia.



Many visitors have been to see the project from a range of non-governmental organisations, universities and community groups, both from within Bolivia and from other countries. The value and impact of the project have been recognised by the new Bolivian government, and the community intends to transfer the approach to other areas through the national government’s new Social Housing Programme. Two workshops were carried out in December 2007 with staff and representatives from the Vice-Ministry of Housing, who have expressed an interest in transferring elements of the approach at national level.

The Cochabamba City Council has expressed an interest in transferring the experience, through a partnership between the Maria Auxiliadora Community, the city council and the national government, with technical assistance to be provided by NGOs Fundación Pro-Hábitat and Habitat for Humanity. The search has begun for a suitable site, families are currently being trained and the project has been included in the city’s 2008 budget.

Surrounding neighbourhoods such as Olmedo, who have seen the difference in terms of reduced levels of crime and violence and the ability to build and/or negotiate infrastructure and services, have begun to organise themselves, following the example of the Maria Auxiliadora community. Another women’s group from Sucre, Bolivia, has approached the community with a view to transferring the approach and the knowledge transfer process has already begun, with project visits and two workshops carried out to date.