A 22-storey high-rise is about to be transformed into social housing for the families who have squatted in it over the last few years. Previously a textile factory, it had been abandoned for more than a decade when it was occupied in 2002.
“It’s wonderful; it’s a big win,” Cleber, who did not provide a last name, tells Al Jazeera. “I came here four or five years ago. It was really good to live here, with the opportunities it brought us. There is really no other alternative.”
Sao Paulo is the de facto financial capital of Brazil, known for its lush architecture, upscale restaurants and exclusive neighbourhoods. But another part of town, hidden in plain sight, reflects the city’s deep housing crisis, along with the systemic racism and social inequality that plague this region. As Latin America’s biggest city, Sao Paulo has failed for decades to solve its severe housing crisis. More than 1.2 million people are in need of adequate housing and, according to figures on the rate of construction provided to Al Jazeera by the city council in 2018, it would take 200 years to have enough social housing for everyone in need. In the last four years, the number of people living in the streets of Sao Paulo has doubled, from 15,000 to more than 31,000, according to figures provided to Al Jazeera by the city council.
Sao Paulo is the most unequal city in Brazil with regards to access to employment close to home, according to a recent study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. “The richer and white population, on average, has more access to opportunities than the poor, Black population,” the study notes, citing an inequitable distribution of transport networks, infrastructure and urban development.
Thousands of people have organised into squatting movements, taking matters into their own hands by occupying dozens of buildings across the city. The Movement for Housing in the Fight for Justice (MMLJ), under the umbrella of a larger group called the Pro-Housing Front (FLM), says it oversees 35 occupations in Sao Paulo that house approximately 4,500 families.
“The lack of social housing options in the centre of the city is the proof of oblivion: that we are a minority, and they don’t care about us”
“Unfortunately, we live in a country with an enslaver mentality, in which Black, poor, northeastern … people remain slaves of a low salary that doesn’t allow them to buy a house, feed themselves, guarantee a dignified life for their family.”
The current minimum wage of 1,212 Brazilian reals ($233) is not enough to cover the costs of living in the city. The average monthly rent in central Sao Paulo has steadily risen over the years, now standing at about 3,500 reals ($665). At the occupied building each family unit pays 220 reals ($41) a month to cover administrative costs.
The aim of such occupation movements is to present evidence to the city council that a building meets the criteria for conversion to social housing. If approved, the state can then finance renovations.