São Paulo Squat

By Barbara Lynch

A highlight of the Planner’s Network trip to Brazil was our December 11 visit to a squat on a lively commercial street in São Paulo’s downtown, close to the streets where mass demonstrations assembled in the 1980s to help bring down the military government. The squat is just one Brazilian manifestation of a growing global social movement which challenges municipal and national governments to provide their citizens with secure and adequate housing.

A group of 87 families affiliated with the Integrated Participatory Project for Tenement Rehabilitation (Proyecto Integral y Participativo para la Recalificacion del Cortiço) invaded this unoccupied office building in December 1998. Until the early 1990s, the building housed the Secretariat of Culture for the State of São Paulo, and its abandoned files contained valuable documentation of media history.  The squatters set aside a small portion of the building for the preservation of these documents and moved families into the remaining space.

In the building we met with planners and architects who had conducted a workshop to assist with the residential conversion of the building after the occupation. The nine-day workshop involved the building’s residents and 130 professionals from four regional universities, ten NGOs, and an engineering institute, in the elaboration of a multi-dimensional project for the building. The workshop addressed housing, social, employment, and legal issues. It began with three days of data collection on the condition of the building, the socioeconomic status and needs of its residents and a diagnostic analysis of the squatter’s situation.  Residents and project participants then broke into small groups to discuss issues related to infrastructure, architecture, finance, and legal status. They identified long-range projects, but started by tackling immediate more easily soluble problems, such as overcrowding and maldistribution of space, the lack of light and ventilation, and the lack of sanitary facilities. While the building enjoyed access to electricity and water, as an office building it only had one bathroom on each of its thirteen floors, and very few windows. With no outside funding, students and residents were working together to plan and execute changes to make the building more suitable for residential use.

Discipline within the squat is strict. Order is maintained by resident committees that organize maintenance and social activities. Cleanup rules are enforced to keep rodent populations down, and drinking and drug use are prohibited within the building. Residents are not permitted to enter the building if they show signs of drunkenness. Vigilance appears to be working since the building was clean and welcoming.

Veteran leader of the squatters movement Xe Xe offered the Planners Network group an overview of the movement and its place within the broader context of Brazilian social struggles over land and housing.  The squatters movement in São Paulo can be traced back to the 1970s. At that time, the movement made only limited claims-controlled prices for water and electricity and tax caps-and met with a reasonable degree of success.  In the twenty years that followed, according to Xe Xe, the movement progressed to focus squarely on ownership issues: “the owners of the cake made the decisions, and residents had no input.” Government provision of housing lagged. Even the Workers Party municipal administration, an administration committed to housing provision, built only 82 units downtown and 45 nearby. So in 1997, resident groups got together to plan a campaign and formulate a new strategy, the first part of which would be to occupy abandoned buildings in the center of the city.

Xe Xe estimated the present strength of the movement for slum rehabilitation in São Paulo at about 3500 supporters, of whom some 1200 are active participants. Some come from the favelas, some from the city’s cortiços or tenements; many movement families are living on the street. Movement adherents have occupied 16 downtown buildings. Most of these are government-owned; all have been vacant for at least seven or eight years. Invasions are carefully planned and carried out not only by those seeking to occupy the building, but by large numbers of supporters from student and activist circles. The first occupations took place without resistance, but as the number of invasions increased, the police intervened, blocking entry and throwing tear gas into occupied buildings. The government stance toward the occupations appears to be a quiet tolerance that implies neither a legitimation of the movement nor a recognition of squatters rights to adequate housing. According to Xe Xe, the invasions will continue in order to raise public awareness of housing issues and to force the government to deal squarely with housing needs. The day before we met, groups from the city and its periphery launched a new campaign asserting the right of every household to a roof over its head.

The downtown squatter’s movement is one of myriad similar movements of residents living throughout São Paulo’s metropolitan area. Other groups are focused on peripheral communities, favelas, and risky areas within the cities. These groups are united under an umbrella orgranization: the Union de Movimiento de Moradías en São Paulo (UMM), and at a national level the Union Nacional de Moradía Popular. The group also collaborates with the widely known rural landless organization, the Movimento Sim Terra.  Despite its growing numbers, the movement’s impact on partisan politics is still modest. Xe Xe noted that of the 32 political parties in Brazil, only three-the PT, the Brazilian Communist Party, and the Socialist Party–have shown support for the movement and concern about its issues.

The broader planning question raised by the downtown squatter’s movement is the future of São Paulo’s city center. Originally the center of government and finance, the old downtown has declined as banking, financial and corporate headquarters have moved to neighborhoods like Morumbi, to the south. At present, about 60,000 apartments, many of which are in tenements, are still occupied by downtown residents. Vacant buildings, most of which are public property, could house an additional 100,000 families.  Converting these properties to residential use for the poor and homeless would significantly change the character of the neighborhood. On the left, even within the PT, planners question whether such a shift in downtown land use would serve the public interest better than restoration of the vacant buildings for use as government buildings and cultural centers. The jury is still out, but São Paulo’s progressive planners are engaged in a lively and thoughtful discussion of this issue. Whatever the fate of São Paulo’s downtown, it is clear that because of the eradication of central city favelas and the increase in urban transprot problems, São Paulo municipal administrators will need to be far more responsive to the claims of the squatters movement and invest in affordable housing on a much more massive scale than they have in the past.

Barbara Lynch is Director of the Program in International Studies in Planning at Cornell University.

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