SAO PAULO, Brazil — As shoppers and businessmen pass by the 13-story office tower, a middle-aged man peers through a hole in a thick metal door, pulling back a heavy steel rod to allow in only members of the Movement of Housing for All.
Upstairs, children, low-income workers and a few revolutionary idealists squat in makeshift apartments that boast stunning views but no water or kitchens. Communal bathrooms are available in the middle of the Sao Manuel office building, which has been occupied by the movement for almost a year.
In a large central room, a group of women prepares a cheap, hearty meal and plans out a work schedule for fellow residents. When an 80-year-old woman with diabetes falls ill, others on her floor come together to call paramedics. When she dies in the hallway, the neighbors comfort one another before moving on with their lives.
“I came to Sao Paulo from my small hometown, where there is no work, and ended up staying in this occupation with a friend without knowing anything about it at all,” says Mirla Kelly Firmino da Silva, 22, a freelance beautician who specializes in manicures. “But now I believe completely in the movement. None of us can afford to pay what rent costs here, and we deserve dignified housing.”
Over the last year, the center of South America’s largest city has been markedly transformed, with nearly 50 abandoned buildings occupied by squatters from Brazil’s many sem-teto, or roofless, movements.
The occupation protests at the buildings, where red flags hang from windows, are meant to pressure the government to provide adequate housing and give working families a place to live.
In both rich and poor neighborhoods of Sao Paulo, a metropolis of 11 million, property values have more than doubled in the last four years, leading to increased housing costs for those least able to afford them. In the seedier parts of downtown, a tiny one-bedroom apartment overlooking scenes of drug use and prostitution costs $450 a month; meanwhile, the minimum wage is $310 a month.
At Sao Manuel, known locally as the Marconi occupation after the street that the building is on, 140 families each pay $50 a month and work a few hours per week, manning the front door, cooking or cleaning.
Occupations of long-abandoned buildings began here more than a decade ago, but the rising cost of living and a relatively sympathetic city government have led to a recent surge.
According to the city of Sao Paulo, there are at least 4,000 families living in occupied buildings in the city center alone. The MTST, a larger sem-teto organization, says it has at least 600 additional occupied plots of land in the state and 10,000 people on a waiting list to occupy more.
“There will be an explosion of occupations over the next few years,” predicts Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator for the MTST, who met with President Dilma Rousseff during a wave of economic and social protests in June. “We told her the only way to create a sustainable housing policy in Brazil is to stop the rise in housing prices.”
At the local level in Sao Paulo, the recently installed city government from Rousseff’s ruling Workers’ Party has a complicated relationship with the occupiers.
“It is a legitimate form of social protest,” city Housing Secretary Jose Floriano de Azevedo Marques Neto said at his office a few blocks from the occupation, before conceding that, “Yes, they are illegal.”
When police catch groups breaking into abandoned buildings, they make arrests. But squatters, once inside, can remain until expelled by legal proceedings, and in the meantime can use their position to pressure the government to expropriate the properties from the owners who abandoned them and often owe back taxes. Occupiers often get on the government’s list to receive subsidized housing.
Floriano de Azevedo’s office says it plans to build 55,000 homes, but estimates the city needs at least 230,000 units. According to government estimates, the country as a whole is in need of more than 5 million additional homes, mostly in urban centers.
Many of the occupied buildings were abandoned years ago, long before the economic boom that has transformed Brazilian cities into havens for the rich, as well as increasingly tough places for the poor to survive.
Since many owners of abandoned buildings owe back taxes, they have not returned to clean up and reuse their properties.
Constructing housing for Brazil’s poor is not profitable enough for private firms, says Claudio Bernardes, president of the real estate industry union in Sao Paulo. At the same time, he says, the occupations are illegal, and building owners have turned to the courts to regain their properties. No ruling has yet been made as to when the Sao Manuel protesters would have to leave. We “cannot accept a form of protest that infringes on the rights of others,” says Bernardes.
At a weekly meeting at the Sao Manuel occupation, coordinators announce the names of those who have been expelled from the occupation for improper behavior, and run through lists of costs and legal victories.
To keep order, the occupiers impose rigid discipline and expel residents who break the rules, posting at the entrance the identities of those exiled. No physical threats, alcohol or drug use, or prejudice (including homophobia) is allowed.
“This is like a battlefield. We have to be at full attention, since this is a guerrilla organization. We’re unarmed guerrillas,” says coordinator Manuel Moruzzi.
Residents greet one another cheerfully in the hallways or on the stairs, and pass signs encouraging members to look out for one another as they wait patiently for the bathroom, or trudge up and down the stairs because the elevator is broken.
Many keep to themselves, but some are gregarious, like Habiba of Morocco, who frequently practices her Portuguese in the hallways as she chases around her son, Suleiman. Sergio Kleber da Silva, who looks to be in his 50s, says he couldn’t stand life as an accountant’s assistant and fell on hard luck when his dream of becoming a singer failed — for now, he adds; he is still eager to share his tunes.
Gil Anderson, a 10-year-old obsessed with learning English, plays with toy cars with friend Victor, 9. “I like it much more here than the last place I used to live,” Gil says. “There’s always kids around to play with.”
Moruzzi says most residents enter the occupation without any political goals. “Most people come here because they are in completely desperate circumstances,” he says. “Our job here is to give new entries a place to restructure their lives, and make them aware of the rights they have.”
Few in the sem-teto movements believe their wider goals of rent control and accessible low-income housing will be delivered any time soon. As in the United States, Brazilian politicians are heavily reliant on campaign contributions from major corporate interests, MTST coordinator Boulos says.
“Workers used to live close to where they work. But the elite made a pact with the government to push them out into the periphery and push up the price of land for the rich,” he says. “The occupations are meant to combat the logic of just throwing the poor further and further away.”
At Sao Manuel, the occupiers may be allowed to stay a few more months, or even a few years, pending judicial rulings. In the meantime, squatter Firmino da Silva is trying to get her high school degree in order to study law.
“I’m a part of something here, and am autonomous, making my own money doing manicures,” she says, as a line forms for dinner. “But living here is only temporary.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.