Land occupation as a solution to Brazil’s housing crisis

Land occupation as a solution to Brazil's housing crisis

Paranoá Parque residential development, under construction as part of the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme. Photo from 29 November 2016.

(Bruno Peres/Ministério das Cidades)

Housing is the most pressing concern for thousands of families affected by a housing bubble exacerbated by mega sports events in Brazil. Between 2008 and 2013, with an average inflation of 39 per cent, rent prices rose by 95 per cent in São Paulo and by 132 per cent in Rio.

The result: the working-classes are steadily pushed out towards areas of the cities ever farther away from their where they work, in metropolises mired by endless traffic jams.

In São Paulo, many workers spend five hours a day travelling to and from work. Many of them reach their limit when, for the umpteenth time, they find themselves having to look for a more affordable neighbourhood even further out on the periphery, and finally decide that the best solution is to squat on unoccupied land.

The scale of the problem is such that the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement, or MTST) has become one of the largest social movements in the country, with a presence in seven states. Over 50,000 families are involved in its activities, and its leader, Guilherme Boulos, is acclaimed as one of the most promising figures on the Brazilian left.

“Real estate capital is the main political force in the country: construction companies financed 55 per cent of the political parties’ campaigns and they are the ones that determine urban policies,” says Boulos.

Between 2008 and 2014, housing prices increased by around 200 per cent a year. Meanwhile, the IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research) estimated the housing deficit at 5.4 million homes, in a country where millions of properties lay empty.

Policies geared towards the market

In 2009, the government of Inácio Lula da Silva responded to the problem with the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme, designed to help families buy their first home. It was kept in place under Dilma Rousseff.

“The programme was set up in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, as a way of resolving the liquidity problem affecting major property developers and to boost their profits, not to resolve the housing deficit, let alone to tackle the segregation problem,” points out Boulos.

Helena Silvestre, founder of the Luta Popular movement and a former MTST activist agrees: “The programme was designed to boost the property market, not to guarantee the right to housing. That’s why 60 per cent of the MCMV houses are designed to subsidise families earning five to ten times the minimum wage, when those most affected by the housing shortage are the poorest families.”

The situation has worsened with the cuts made to the programme by the current president, Michel Temer, which mainly affect the subsidies for low-income families.

The MCMV has not resolved the underlying problem: the direst need of the poorest, such as the eleven million people living in favelas. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) noted that, in 2010, 3.2 million buildings in precarious areas and irregular settlements were exposed to catastrophes, such as the 2010 floods that caused 145 deaths in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

“The state needs to focus on regularising the areas that already exist, such as the favelas; this country has been built on occupations by workers,” says Silvestre.

Cities in a state of apartheid

Mega sports events have added fuel to the fire. The 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro brought with them evictions from the favelas and an acceleration in gentrification processes, pushing up rents, especially in informal communities in highly sought-after areas on the property market, such as Rocinha, with its fabulous views of Rio’s beaches, or Paraisópolis, in the affluent south of São Paulo; all at a time, moreover, when the effects of the economic crisis were starting to be felt and unemployment was on the rise.

Boulos agrees with the view expressed by the Rio deputy, Marcelo Freixo, that these processes have reinforced a logic of segregation that rests on the racism rooted in the colonial era that permeates Brazilian society.

In Rio, this segregation is symbolised by the contrast between the asphalt – the “civilised” city – and the mound, the hills where the favelas lie. But the property market now has its eye on those hillsides, especially those in prized locations, such as those overlooking Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

No less than a third of the almost seven million inhabitants in Río de Janeiro live in the Marvellous City’s thousand favelas. Yet the periphery has never been seen as an integral part of the city in Brazil, since the time when these irregular slum settlements first sprung up, a century ago.

“A third of the population in Rio lives in absolute exclusion, without access to transport, education or health,” explains Freixo, a deputy in the Rio de Janeiro Legislative Assembly and a veteran human rights activist. “The day-to-day lives of the poor population are governed by very different laws than those on paper: Rio lives by a logic of apartheid,” adds Freixo.

And this worrying reality is the foundation for phenomena such as the police brutality and the emergence of paramilitary groups, the so-called militias that have taken control over a large part of the favelas in Rio.

In São Paulo, the largest and most vibrant metropolis in South America, property market interests are also putting pressure on the favelas and trying to push out their inhabitants. Social movements have repeatedly denounced the fact that these interests are behind the fires started intentionally to drive out the poor population. The fact is that there have been more than 1,200 fires in the favelas of São Paulo over the last 20 years, and half of them were concentrated between the years 2008 and 2012.

Social movements have mapped these fires, to show that they mainly affect the most prized areas of the city. The Public Prosecutor’s Office investigated the situation in 2012, after 15 fires were registered within a period of just two months in favelas.

Occupation as a solution

The Luta Popular movement knows what it is to be faced with a fire. They are convinced that the fire at Ocupação Esperança in 2016 was intentional.

“Over half of the area occupied was razed. But within a month it was reconstructed, without the help of the institutions, thanks to a strong solidarity campaign: we were given food, clothing, construction materials, donations to buy a brick-making machine; even voluntary architects came,” recounts Silvestre.

Esperança, in the municipality of Osasco, in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, is home to 1,200 families and is the biggest of the three land occupations led by the Luta Popular movement. The other two are Jardim União, with 600 families, and Cacique Verão, with 320.

The Luta Popular movement emerged in 2011. Silvestre came from the MTST, others came from the environmental or favela movements. It is a diverse group that describes itself as a grassroots movement for land-use planning. Occupation is one of its fundamental tools: they identify land that is unoccupied, and based on the constitutional principle establishing the social function of property, they proceed to occupy it with families.

The next step is the collective process of setting up a school and catering for other needs not covered by the state, through self-management. “The idea is that the occupations should generate collective experiences and provide an education in sociability and organisation,” explains Silvestre.

“The land occupations have become more essential than ever, because increasing numbers of people can no longer afford the rents. The rise in the number of homeless people is patently visible, and the state is only responding with repression: the city looks like it is under siege,” adds Silvestre.

In this context, “the occupations provide many families with a solution”. For the founder of Luta Popular, they also provide “an education in grassroots organisation and self-management. We are discovering, as we go along, that together we are capable of doing many things.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.