On May 1, an electrical problem started a fire in a large, former police building in Sao Paolo, Brazil.Officials say at least two people died as a result.
The building was home to a group of people who had jobs but could not afford to live in the city’s expensive apartments. Marta Maria Maia da Fonseca and her husband were among them. They escaped the burning building with their 14-year-old daughter. They spent that night in an open area in front of a church with several other families affected by the fire.
The next day, they moved in with a sister and six other relatives in a neighboring city. Da Fonseca and her family had lived in three different abandoned buildings, called squats, in the past 10 years. “We have to start all over again,” said da Fonseca.
The fire has brought a renewed attention to the movement of housing groups that have taken over about 70 abandoned buildings in downtown Sao Paulo.
But the fire has also raised concerns that the buildings could be dangerous. Squatters often create their own connections to electrical power and make any repairs themselves.
Jose de Anchieta Rocha, Jr. is with the Housing Movement in the Fight for Justice. He said, “You can’t say this, that we’re criminals, that we’re vagrants, that we’re invaders. We occupy because there are no housing policies.We occupy because (the buildings were) abandoned, abandoned for decades.”
City officials say they will help the now-homeless squatters. They promise to pay about $340 immediately, then $115 a month for one year. Da Fonseca told the AP she does not think she will get anything. She says her name is not on the city’s list of people living in the building. Others say the amount is not enough to pay for rent or for the cost to replace lost belongings.
Sao Paulo is known as the financial capital of Latin America. And it is home to much of Brazil’s economic wealth.But the city’s center is full of places in poor condition. Museums and theaters remain, but they share the area with old buildings that have no windows. The downtown area is home to most of the city’s homeless population and many illegal drug users.Dozens, if not hundreds, of buildings sit empty.Businesses have long since moved to more modern buildings in new neighborhoods.
So, since the 1990s, groups have been breaking into the empty buildings at night and setting up squats. In many, residents each pay a little money to hire a doorman or a cleaner. Some squats have rules: residents are asked to be quiet, neighborly and observe a curfew. Some have fire-preparation measures, check that wiring is safe and make sure fire alarms are working.
Over the years, the city government has struggled to renew the downtown area. Officials often say they want to bring the area back to life, but some observers fear they want an area without poor and working class people.
Rocha of the housing movement said, “We are a very unequal country, where the wealth of 100 million people is in the hands of six.”
Fernando Chucre is a city housing official. He says that adding low-income housing is an important part of efforts to solve Sao Paulo’s housing shortage.
The city hopes to build new homes by working with the state and federal governments, as well as with private investors.
Following the fire, the mayor’s office ordered city agencies to visit the 70 buildings now occupied by squatters. Chucre said the city government will work with squatters’ leaders to fix any problems. He added that if a building is declared unsafe, officials will help find other housing.
I’m Jonathan Evans.