November 23, 2017
Friday, July 14, 2017

Battle for downtown São Paulo pits squatters against mayor

By Sarah Dilorenzo

Buildings in historic downtown occupied by poor face eviction

SÃO PAULO — It was around midnight when eight young men with crowbars tried to force open the large gray metal double doors of a building on a tree-lined street in São Paulo’s dilapidated downtown.

About 100 people gathered around, some shouting advice: “Pull up now! Try lower! Lower!” But before the doors could give way, the police arrived, launching tear gas at the group who responded by throwing rocks, leading to an hour of cat-and-mouse confrontations before the crowd finally dispersed.

It was a small battle in a broader struggle for the future of downtown São Paulo, where squatters occupy abandoned buildings to press for more affordable housing, and the city’s new mayor, João Doria, dreams of a gleaming, largely privately financed renewal that will draw businesses and residents back to the city’s historic heart.

The young men and the crowd that cheered them on were organised by the Front for the Fight for Housing, a group that argues that the landlords of vacant and deteriorating abandoned structures are breaking a law that requires buildings to serve a “social function.” They say those buildings could offer quality housing in a prime location well connected by public transport to people who are often forced to live on the city’s periphery.

Fair-housing groups now occupy about 80 previously empty properties downtown, according to the city’s Housing Department. Thousands of people, mostly families, have made their homes in buildings that include hotels, a textile company’s offices and an old federal police headquarters. Previous administrations pledged to purchase some of the occupied buildings, and plans are underway to renovate them for legal, subsidised housing.

The battle goes to the heart of competing visions for the megacity. On the one hand, São Paulo is the engine of Brazil’s economy and a leading financial centre. Doria, who has called the condition of the city “garbage,” talks about making it a “global city,” including by selling off publicly owned stadiums and privatising the management of city bus terminals and parks in an effort to right city finances and attract new investment and business. Housing activists, on the other hand, fear a downtown cleansed of the poor.

Doria, whose name is often floated as a potential 2018 presidential candidate, paints himself as an alternative to traditional politicians, a millionaire businessman who will use private sector-style management to solve public problems. But mayors of São Paulo have been promising to revitalise the Centro district almost since it began emptying out in the 1970s and 1980s as businesses and residents sought more space and more modern buildings elsewhere. Doria has already launched a campaign to beautify downtown plazas and avenues, targeting graffiti and breaking up ‘”Crackland,” a several-block area where drug users and dealers operated for years. Fernando Chucre, Doria’s secretary of housing, says the administration hopes to provide around 25,000 units of subsidised housing over its four-year mandate, including 4,000 to 5,000 in the city centre. But Doria has publicly taken a tough line on squatters. “Where there are invaded buildings — with help from, first, negotiation, then if necessary, the judicial system — they will be emptied, they will be taken back,” he told reporters recently.

The occupied properties are unexpectedly tidy and well-organised. Around 1,000 people now live in one mid-20th century building, a former hotel, with clean hallways, doors with padlocks and even a doorman. “I’m not saying it’s right,” said resident Maria das Neves, 61. “But it was empty, full of trash and rats!”



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