Fighting speculation and gentrification, one building at a time

Inside Brazil’s Autonomous Housing Movement

Squatters are currently occupying about 60 building in the centre of São Paulo, as low income people fight attempts to relocate them to the outskirts of the city. At the same time, cultural collectives are carrying out actions, such as spontaneous parties in public spaces, to try to regain “ownership” of the city.   The writer Caroline Barrueco, who defines herself as a “civil disobedience enthusiast”, describes what is going on.

Gentrification is usually seen as something that happens when an area inhabited by people on low income is “discovered” by the middle class. But it can also occur when properties increase in value through real estate speculation; this is mostly the case in the centre of São Paulo, where many owners leave their properties empty, expecting the value to rise.

What happens is that the neighbourhood is eventually seen as a place with economic potential; middle class people start moving in and new establishments appear, seeking to fulfill the needs of this wave of new residents. The cost of living, including rents, increases and it becomes impossible for the remaining low income inhabitants to stay. They find themselves compelled to seek new homes, usually on the outskirts of the city. As São Paulo has 17 million inhabitants, life becomes far more difficult, for it usually takes two hours to travel by bus from the outskirts to the centre.

Erminia Maricato, who is Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo (USP), tells Arquitetura da Gentrificação  that what is at stake is a classic conflict between “capital” and “labour”. “The rich in Brazil believe that having poor people living near you decreases the value of your property”, she says. It is outright prejudice, part of Brazil’s legacy from slavery.  “So they want the authorities to pay for the poor to be evicted from the centre”, she adds. But it is important that lower income families stay, she says, not only because they have the right to, but also because they prevent property bubbles: “To this day, from everything I have observed and studied in my life, the most important antidote to real estate speculation is having low income populations nearby.

Housing movements

So what happens if a low-income population can’t afford the higher rents but don’t want to move to a remote area, which almost always has poor transport links and worse infrastructure? They resist. Several movements have emerged to fight against gentrification in what has become known as the Brazilian autonomous housing movement.

The FLM – Frente de Luta por Moradia (Struggle for Housing Front) – was created in 2003 on similar lines to the MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers Movement) – but is  active in urban areas. Today it has about 80,000 members.

The movement basically maps abandoned properties in the downtown area and systematically occupies them. As well as the FLM, there are other autonomous groups which work in the same way, such as the MTST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) – and the MSTC – Movimento Sem-Teto do Centro (Homeless of the Centre Movement).

Hotel Columbia Palace, occupied since 2010, is located in downtown’s famous corner, São João x Ipiranga.

Most members of these movements are people who work in the centre but have been forced to live on the outskirts of the city. In contrast with European squatters, who are largely members of the artistic community or people who have intentionally put themselves in the margins of the capitalist system, Brazilian squatters largely come from families of low-income workers or are immigrants who want to establish themselves in the country.

A few years ago I helped to build cultural centres in some of the occupations in the downtown area. I also took part in an occupation, volunteering to be part of the first group to enter the building. The first 48 hours are crucial: it is when the squatters are most vulnerable, because the police can enter the building to evict them, if they obtain authorisation from the owner. After two days squatters can only be evicted with a court order, which means that the owner has to go to court with a request for the repossession of his or her property; and this is often a lengthy and complex process.

The night we occupied the building, no one seemed to know exactly where we were going or the history of the place we were occupying. In single file, we ran down a dark downtown alley and some people broke down the door; it was only when I was inside that I realised that I had entered this building before.

I took a camera to record the experience. The result is this video.

A few months earlier, I had collaborated with some artists from New York who were staying at the spot we occupied that night. The building, which is owned by an art collector, was used to house art and sporadically to provide housing for artists. But most of the time it was empty. I could not help thinking of the irony of it all. But it was clearly a direct and efficient response to the effects of gentrification.

The “Right to the City” concept, first developed by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his book “Le Droit à la Ville” in 1968, is enshrined in Brazilian law today. So the housing movements are enforcing the law. And they are very careful in the way they do so.

A few hours after entering the building, the movement’s leaders (yes, there is a clear hierarchy within the movement, another difference between the São Paulo and the European squats) organised the collection of all the small objects found in the old hotel and locked them up in a room to make sure no one stole them. There are also rules: in general, you cannot enter an occupied building after 11 pm and alcohol is forbidden. There are rules that, as well as trying to guarantee a good relationship between the squatters, also attempt to legally protect the occupation.

The movements want to quickly resolve the pressing issue of providing the families with a place to live, but they also want to put pressure on public bodies, to get them to create an efficient programme of affordable housing.

The city mayor, Fernando Haddad, has indeed listened to their demands, and in October of last year passed an amendment to the property tax (Emenda do IPTU Progressivo) with the aim of transforming abandoned buildings in the city centre into affordable housing. This is how it works: the owners of properties in which more than 60% of the area is not used, are notified by the city. If within a year the property still has no “social function”, the tax levied on the property begins to increase gradually until, by the seventh year, the tax amount is equivalent to the cost of the property and it can finally be “bought” by the city council to be transformed into housing.

The urban planner Raquel Rolnik gave details of the programme in her blog: “The plan aims to repopulate the area around Avenida São João [in the centre of São Paulo], where there are certainly many empty buildings which are not fulfilling any social function, and 24 of the 78 properties against which action was undertaken in the first wave, are located there. Unhappy owners can attempt to fight the action in court. From their perspective, even if they may be using their properties in such a way that has an adverse effect on the city, the expectation of future profits – or what is called “speculation” – is what matters.”

The amendment may well bring results, but I am sure that the housing movements will not stop squatting while they wait for the results. Occupations will go on.

Enjoy the city

Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” does not just entail the right to housing, but also the right to live in the city and enjoy it: “The need for security and freedom, the need for certainty and adventure, the need for organisation at work and at play, the need for the predictable and the unpredictable, for similarity and difference, for insulation and openness … the human being has the need to accumulate energies and to spend them” (Henri Lefebvre – The Right to The City).

Currently the centre of Sao Paulo is not exactly an “enjoyable” area. With virtually no public places to hang out in, and a total absence of squares and wooded areas, it is difficult to use the city as a place to exchange experiences.

Some government policies are trying to change that by, for example, encouraging the construction of “parklets” – living areas that occupy the place of one or two car parking slots. But it is not easy, for living in public spaces is not yet part of the culture or lives of the residents of the centre.

For around five years now, some collectives such as Voodoohop, Parque Augusta and Anhangabahoots have Parque Augusta Movement - outside a piece of land that used to be a park but recently was sold to become a major residential building.been encouraging temporary occupations, such as parties in public spaces and inside squats. These parties have attracted many people, bringing attention to abandoned parks or previously unknown places.

With that, people are starting to feel like the city is theirs, and maybe even to feel that they responsible for it:  “We are reactivating the spontaneous potential to occupy the city, the idea of the party as a meeting of all the arts, of living experience, not as a repetition of a formula”, says Laura Diaz, producer of Mamba Negra, an off-shoot party from the Voodoohop collective, whose events usually happens within squats.

“When we choose a public space it is because we see artistic qualities in it, greater freedom and the opportunity for new experiences with others. But we also want to put under the spotlight on important key issues about the city”, explains architect Carolina Schutzer, one of the producers of Voodoohop. “This movement of people back to squares and public spaces in areas they previously had a degraded image of, is a gain for the city. The problem is that soon the market takes it over and transforms everything into brands and consumption.”

Indeed, from this new demand that the city is creating, private initiatives are filling the gap left by the city management, such as the Citybikes in São Paulo, which are run by corporations. And these brands are aimed at potential customers from the middle-classes, again marginalizing other residents.

Pita Uchoa, one of the organizers of the party Calefação Tropicaos, used to produce events in the city centre, but recently started to move to the outer boroughs. “The town is taken over by corporate brands; that’s what we have to fight“, he said.

Voodoohop party inside an old cinema, now squatted. (photo: Luciano Spinelli )So people organising the occupations in the city are experiencing these kind of issues, learning how to be an itinerant movement and to develop the possibility of recreating the city as a spontaneous meeting point, without seeing it as a product and without starting a gentrification movement that eventually drives the residents out of their own neighborhoods.

“We need to take advantage of the loopholes left by private initiatives to make the occupation of our city feel normal in our culture, to the point where people will no longer find it acceptable to live in a city where they are not really free to have fun. We need to put pressure on the authorities to help”, comments Pita.

These issues are quite complex and we cannot be sure of the consequences of our choices. To be open to meetings and to know where one is and to what is going on in that place, is the non-transferable responsibility of each of us.

Cities are constantly changing, and we can all be agents of change.

The housing movements are helping to turn São Paulo into a more “livable” city, one that is almost pleasant, and they also putting pressure on the government. This has begun to change things: after about four years of holding free parties in the centre completely autonomously, Voodoohop has since 2013 begun a partnership with the city government to produce SP NA RUA (https://vimeo.com/86607917 ), a festival that happens over one night, and brings together over 15 party collectives, to provide a completely open and free festival in the streets of the old city.

When people show themselves it gets harder to ignore them.

São Paulo has a clear message: if rents are expensive, we occupy abandoned buildings; if we do not have parks, we picnic on the asphalt.

This is an edited version of an article published in Brasil Wire

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