This paper examines the use of a discourse of citizenship by the leaders and members of the São Paulo housing movement, the Uniao de Movimentos de Moradia, and illustrates how they ‘see the state’ (Corbridge et al. 2005) and mobilize their members. This will involve an examination of how they conceptualise their collective relationship with the organs of the government and bureaucracy, and how they adopt and operationalise concepts of citizenship to frame their demands on the state for housing. This paper therefore outlines the movement’s philosophy in terms of its stated rationale for the way it behaves which includes both the use of formal channels for engagement with the state and extra-institutional channels through the practice of building occupations .This paper will seek to explain how and why it takes up these seemingly contradictory attitudes towards the state. It shows how the movement’s stance towards the state is tied up with its own perceived status as a ‘democratic’ organization, and a legalistic view of how government should work within a democracy that is continually challenged by the reality of the failure of the government to abide by its own laws. The relationship is further problematised by the fact that the movement is dependent on the state for the funding and implementation of housing policy. This paper will argue that the movement approaches these impasses by drawing on the ‘politics of rights’ (Scheingold 2004). This rests upon the careful construction of a discourse that posits housing as a core citizenship right and the evocation of the 1988 Constitution. The movement is able to use a rhetoric of rights to critique the Brazilian state for failing to ensure the full citizenship of its poorer populations. However, this leads to highly combative positioning on the part of the movement, which influences the ways in which it engages with the state in practice.