Families occupy buildings in São Paulo as housing costs soar

Over the last five years, rising real estate speculation in central São Paulo has created a deficit of affordable housing. In response, left wing housing movements seize abandoned buildings, transforming them into housing units for poor and vulnerable families. From São Paulo, Sam Cowie reports.


Occupation Rua Martins Fontes is a six story former government building in downtown São Paulo, about half a mile from the city’s financial district.

Abandoned for 15 years, the building was occupied in 2011 by Movimento de Moradia do Centro (MMC) – one of São Paulo’s several housing movements.

Today, Martins Fontes is home to some 50 families – around 150 people – including students, office cleaners, cooks, teachers, restaurant workers and several children.

GeGe (a pseudonym) is the leader of the MMC and is responsible for two other occupied buildings in central São Paulo. “We want to live with dignity in central São Paulo,” he says. “For example, to live in an apartment with two rooms and a living room and a service area. We don’t want to live badly or far away from our jobs. This is our collective wish.” He says the buildings have a strict set of rules – no alcohol, no drugs, no violence. All residents must respect each other. Anyone caught breaking the rules is expelled.

São Paulo is the biggest city in South America. Sheer size coupled with horrendous traffic conditions mean those who live on the city’s outskirts usually spend up to four hours in transit each day. Since 2008, real estate prices in São Paulo have shot up by nearly 200%, which has led to a rise in housing occupations. According to local government data –  around 50 occupied buildings in central São Paulo house some 4000 families.

The makeshift, partitioned rooms at Occupation Martins Fontes are given to families whose combined total income is less than the equivalent of around 800 dollars a month.

Jose Manoel, one of the building’s unofficial leaders, says that the majority of residents choose to live in the building so that they are close to amenities and don’t have to spend hours in traffic. Manoel was one of the first to enter the building to commence a clean-up operation shortly after it had been vacated by crack addicts. He explains that when they first occupied the building, “it was filthy, an absolute mess, full of rubbish and old furniture. It stank of urine. There were human feces and lots of rats.”

Monica Perreia do Santos is a former government employee, now studying social assistance at a nearby university. She lives on the third floor with her husband, who is also a student, in a small room with a bed, a TV, a laptop and a small stove. Like the rest of the rooms in the occupied building, she doesn’t have running water.

The building only has two working toilets and showers, both on the first floor. Electricity in the building doesn’t come on until 7:30pm. Yet for Monica, the building’s central location is more important. “I don’t have to pay for public transport to go to college,” she explains. “Everything we need here is close by for us. Here, I don’t need to get up early and catch packed buses. My classes start at 8am. Here, I can get up at 7:15. Where I used to live I would get up at 5am. It’s a big difference.”

As well as the convenience of living in the center of the city, many residents at Martin Fontes speak of the benefits of communal living: helping and sharing.

Single mother Lucia Soares lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Natalia, on the fourth floor. She says there is always somebody to look after her young daughter while she is at work. Natalia says that she always has other children to play with.

Soares adds that while the pros outweigh the cons, living in such close quarters with so many people inevitably leads to arguments. “Everyone has their opinion,” says Soares. “You want to do something one way, the other person the other. Sometimes we work it out, but it’s difficult.”

According to the Brazilian Centre for Planning and Analysis, Brazil’s house prices are the highest rising in the Americas.

The number of occupied buildings in São Paulo continues to rise. Earlier this month, six more buildings were occupied by the LWF, another housing movement. LWF leader Helô Soares told local media that the wave of occupations is part of a national campaign and said that the similar actions were happening in other states.

It’s not always tolerated. Last Friday in Rio de Janeiro, police forcibly removed around 6000 people from a former telecoms building that had been empty for 20 years. Many of the former occupants are now camping outside of city hall, demanding a housing alternative.

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