El Salvador


Many successful mutual aid and self-managed housing projects have been produced across El Salvador, inspired most prominently by the FUCVAM model of Uruguay. Originally intended to help revitalize historic downtown centers, cooperatives like ACOVICHSS and ACOVIVAMSE prove that this alternative model can improve not only the lives of residents by filling a gap in market-led housing, but the neighborhoods in which they’re produced as well.

Background and Key Principles

Similarly to many neighboring nations, El Salvador is experiencing a housing shortage that is  disproportionately affecting low-income communities.1 The deficit is currently approaching one million units with no signs that this trend might reverse soon.2

Complications with land legalization limit access to adequate housing for vast swaths of the population while segregation and violence continue to drive instability for many families. In San Salvador, the country’s capital, many households face poverty and social exclusion. Before 2001, 29% of the city’s population lived in informal settlements where people experienced not only housing insecurity due to risk of eviction but also poor, unhealthy living conditions due to a lack of basic services, overcrowding, and poor sanitation and waste disposal.3

In order to promote democratic housing production and confront a failure of the for-profit housing market, cooperatives throughout El Salvador build upon the FUCVAM model that was first pioneered in Uruguay. At the helm of this effort is Fundacion Salvadoreña de Desarrollo y Vivienda Minima (FUNDASAL, or the Foundation for Salvadoran Development and Affordable Housing). FUNDASAL is a private non-profit aid organization dedicated to sustainable and equitable development, supporting local efforts in the production of self-managed housing.4 In adopting Uruguay’s FUCVAM model, cooperatives engage in mutual aid and democratic governance practices, use sweat equity to save on labor costs, promote long-term affordability, and encourage residents to more deeply engage in the design, maintenance, and promotion of these projects. These practices highlight the success and potential of the struggle for democratic and self-managed housing in El Salvador and beyond. 

Implementation and Impact

The goals of these housing projects, which provide a welcome alternative for market-driven solutions, are quite clear: to protect families by providing opportunities in historic city centers; to resist the threat of eviction for vulnerable populations; to revitalize these city centers through artistic, educational, and cultural activities and thereby improve the larger community; and to mitigate the expansion of informal settlements, which tend to concentrate in the urban periphery.5  

FUNDASAL modeled their approach to producing mutual aid housing on FUCVAM’s approach and partnered with the Federación Salvadoreña de Cooperativas de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua (Salvadoran Association of Cooperative Housing for Mutual Assistance, or FESCOVAM) and the local community in order to produce the first mutual aid housing cooperatives.6 

Two of the first housing cooperatives, La Asociación Cooperativa de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua del Centro Histórico de San Salvador (ACOVICHSS) and Asociación Cooperativa de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua del Barrio San Esteban (ACOVIVAMSE), assembled land in the historic center of San Salvador by acquiring plots from the government at low cost and purchasing plots from private property owners. Using designs inspired by the historic features of the neighborhood, ACOVICHSS and ACOVIVAMSE replaced or renovated aging or dilapidated buildings in the city center with new construction, complete with shared public and commercial spaces. In keeping with the aesthetic of the historic downtown the cooperatives built colorful, multi-story blocks with central courtyards to maximize natural light, ventilation, and opportunities for increased social cohesion. Furthermore, the cooperatives initiated various social programs for the benefit of residents, including cooperative-led orchards in the city center to provide local, healthy, and affordable food and workforce development programs to help residents find better employment. Beyond providing a dramatic upgrading of housing for the families who now inhabit these housing projects, San Salvador’s municipal government further improved the neighborhood by constructing an adjoining plaza.7 This holistic approach to enhancing the urban fabric of these projects demonstrates the potential of self-managed housing to improve upon existing neighborhoods.  

By 2013, five cooperatives had established themselves in San Salvador’s historic center. Between ACOVICHSS and ACOVIVAMSE, 61 homes were built across three neighborhood blocks, housing approximately 240 people. More than two-thirds of these were women-headed households, often living on very low incomes and working in the informal economy. By 2017, a total of 13 mutual aid housing cooperatives had formed to facilitate the production of housing in San Salvador’s historic center and FESCOVAM represented 21 housing cooperatives across El Salvador.8

Project Financing

Self-managed and mutual aid cooperatives in El Salvador face myriad challenges in financing the construction of housing. However, FUNDASAL has seen many successes in raising funds in order to provide cooperatives with technical assistance in the design and construction of these projects.9 For instance, it developed a revolving loan system wherein repayments from one project are used to finance the next. ACOVIVAMSE was funded through this method with additional financing from a German government-owned development bank. Catholic organizations and other NGOs further support these projects by contributing funds for research. We Effect, an international NGO providing aid to nations across the world, donated funds to establish educational programs and technical assistance for members of the cooperatives in the construction of their new homes. 

Many of the cooperatives are often funded via a hybrid of these actors, with the most common support deriving from FUNDASAL, international development or aid agencies, the government (both at federal and city levels), and buy-in from future tenants. In 2017, as a testament to the housing cooperatives’ successes thus far, the federal government of El Salvador allocated $10 million USD toward self-managed housing production to provide new homes for approximately 1,300 more people.10 This support, though largely in response to the collective advocacy efforts of the cooperatives and the networks which support them, signals an important step in self-managed cooperatives being conceived of as a legitimate and proven source for safe and perpetually affordable housing.

Finally, and most importantly, these projects rely on the sweat equity of its future tenants: by volunteering 24 hours of labor per week, residents are estimated to save 40% in building costs.11 This contributes to the long term affordability of the housing units by saving on labor costs while promoting a deeper investment in the housing on the part of future tenants.

Self-management and Governance Structure

As with the FUCVAM model, housing cooperatives operating in tandem with FUNDASAL and FESCOVAM are collectively owned and democratically governed. Member-residents oversee all decisions, with committees forming to provide guidance on the design and construction of their homes. Participation in these committees encourages the creation and nourishment of social ties between residents.

FUNDASAL provides technical assistance throughout these processes, while FESCOVAM continues to advocate for the right to housing via self-management, nurturing public support for mutual aid and alternative models of housing more generally.

Enabling Legal and Political Framework

The success of El Salvador’s mutual aid and self-managed housing cooperatives, coupled with the regeneration of San Salvador’s historic center, have undoubtedly brought greater legitimacy to the movement for alternative models of housing. This legitimacy manifests in official policy documents, including the Five-Year Development Plan (2014-2019) and reforms to Articles 7 to 12 of the General Law on Cooperative Associations, which establish the different types of cooperatives (including housing) and outline relevant principles like democratic control and participation.12 Finally, building on the momentum of the successes of the self-managed cooperatives, the Salvadoran government adopted the FUNDASAL-proposed National Policy on Housing and Habitat in 2015, which establishes a framework for producing long term housing solutions.13 This framework was the result of the deliberations of a multi-sector participatory process.


[1] Graciela Fortin-Magaña, “Low-Income Housing in El Salvador,” Harvard Review of Latin America, https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/low-income-housing-el-salvador.
[2] “Housing Poverty in El Salvador,” Habitat for Humanity Great Britain, accessed February 6, 2020: https://www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/country/el-salvador/
[3] “The Regeneration of San Salvador’s Historical Centre,” Urban Sustainability Exchange, accessed February 11, 2020,
[4] FUNDASAL, accessed February 11,2020, https://fundasal.org.sv/vision-mission/
[5]  “How the Community Rescued the Historic Centre of San Salvador,” World Habitat, accessed February 11, 2020, https://www.world-habitat.org/world-habitat-awards/winners-and-finalists/how-the-community-rescued-the-historic-centre-of-san-salvador/#award-content.
[6] Urban Sustainability Exchange, “The Regeneration of San Salvador’s Historical Center,” accessed February 6, 2020, https://use.metropolis.org/case-studies/the-regeneration-of-san-salvadors-historical-centre.
[7] Arquitectura Americana, accessed February 11, 2020, http://www.arquitecturapanamericana.com/rescate-de-la-funcion-habitacional-del-chsscontribuyendo-a-una-ciudad-equitativ/
[8] “How the Community Rescued the Historic Centre of San Salvador.”
[9] “How the Community Rescued the Historic Centre of San Salvador.”
[10] “How the Community Rescued the Historic Centre of San Salvador.”
[11] Jan Bredenoord, “Self-Managed Cooperative Housing by Mutual-Assistance as Introduced in Central America between 2004 and 2016; the Attractiveness of the ‘FUCVAM’ Model of Uruguay,” Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology 6, no. 188 (2017): 3.
[12] Position Description, accessed February 11, 2020, https://coops4dev.coop/sites/default/files/2020-01/Legal%20Framework%20Analysis%20-%20El%20Salvador.pdf
[13] World Urban Campaign, accessed February 11, 2020, https://www.worldurbancampaign.org/national-housing-and-habitat-policy-participatory-policy-formulation-improving-habitat-el-salvador-0.