Occupy to survive: Brazilian squatters fight for housing rights
Sao Paulo, Brazil – Four-year-old Miguel jumps from one sofa cushion to another, his dark curly hair bouncing around his face, as his father talks to a neighbour outside their one-room home. A small, boxy television set shows the news, a single window in the corner sits above a double bed.
Miguel and his father, Cleber, are among the last families living in the historic Prestes Maia, an abandoned building in the heart of the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo that has been occupied by housing rights activists since 2002. Today, the 22-storey high-rise is about to be vacated and transformed into social housing for the families who have squatted here over the last few years.
“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.
Against this backdrop, thousands of people have organised into squatting movements, taking matters into their own hands by occupying dozens of buildings across the city, including the Prestes Maia.
The building is run by the Movement for Housing in the Fight for Justice (MMLJ), under the umbrella of a larger group called the Pro-Housing Front (FLM), which says it oversees 35 occupations in Sao Paulo that house approximately 4,500 families.
Prestes Maia, previously a textile factory, had been abandoned for more than a decade when it was occupied in 2002.
“Inside, there was not one electrical wire, one pipe, one toilet,” Manoel del Rio, a lawyer and one of the FLM’s founders, tells Al Jazeera. “A lot of people wanted to give up, but we insisted, and we said it was possible to build a community here.”
Looking around the building – at the halls filled with children’s bicycles, washing machines and clothes-drying racks – del Rio still recalls the day the building was occupied. Activists spent hours cleaning and setting up electrical and water systems for dozens of families, amid pressure from the police who were trying to kick them out.
At the entrance, a woman registers the names of those who enter and monitors security cameras. A sign in the entrance hall reads: “Silence is a prayer, after 10pm it’s mandatory.” Among other rules, violence and drug use are strictly prohibited.
“I usually say to our people inside: If we slip, the society will discriminate against us – it will make us pay. If people outside have to do good, we have to do good tripled,” Ivaneti Araujo, an MMLJ coordinator who runs the Prestes Maia community, tells Al Jazeera.
She knows well the struggles and prejudices that come with this sort of fight. Araujo worked in cotton and sugarcane fields before moving to central Sao Paulo, where she lived under a bridge with her husband and daughters for three months before joining the squatters’ movement. She quickly became a leader and was arrested twice for her activism.
“[Police] called me names. They would say: ‘You are stealing water. It’s a crime.’ And I’d tell them: ‘What you say is a crime, for me is a necessity.’
“We were criminalised many times,” she adds, “because the judicial power does not understand that the government is the one to blame for not guaranteeing a right the families have, but which is violated – so they end up tossing the blame in the movement, in the leadership and in who is fighting.”
Carmen Silva is no stranger to the personal costs of being involved with Brazil’s squatting movements. As a coordinator with the Movement of the Homeless of the Centre (MSTC), she recalls being on the run for 100 days, facing charges after the collapse of an occupied building, and seeing her children arrested. She is still awaiting trial.
“If I talk about the personal side, it’s tough,” Silva tells Al Jazeera. “But if we talk about the political side, we know we are on the right track – that we put a finger in the wounds of the real bandits that are walking around free, that take public money and … leave entire families living in risk areas, in the middle of the street. We are not the bandits.”
Silva fled to Sao Paulo from Bahia in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s to escape an abusive partner. Today, she runs an occupation in 9 de Julho, a building formerly used by the Brazilian Social Security Institute and currently home to more than 400 squatters.
In the kitchen, two women peel and fry plantains in a large pan. Silva oversees the cooking, issuing instructions like an army captain to defrost 50kg (110 pounds) of meat, cook a bechamel sauce, and boil chickpeas and rice, ahead of an open-door lunch that feeds hundreds every Sunday.
Surrounding the building is vibrant street art, a communal garden, a compost area, a clothing store and an art workshop. During the pandemic, the building also became a COVID-19 vaccination centre for children. Social workers, psychologists and family doctors pay frequent visits.
This collaboration with public services and the surrounding community is a major source of pride for Silva: “It’s what stands us apart. Social movements have to understand that we have to have a balance between the movement, the public power and the private power itself.
“A house is not just a place to get in and lock yourself in,” she adds. “Housing is the doorway to other rights: culture, education and health.”
But this type of community outreach hasn’t been easy in a “machista” society like Brazil, Silva says. As a Black woman, sitting at the table with mostly white male government officials has required “breaking some cycles” and smashing glass ceilings along the way.
“Today, I sit at the table with every social class, especially with the government, to try and maintain a dialogue,” she says. “But there is prejudice – there is, there was and there will always be.”
Filipe Figueiredo, who manages the clothing shop on the ground floor, says squatters like himself are often stereotyped as “poor, drug users, lowlives, bandits” – but that’s far from reality.
As he speaks, he sorts through the latest arrivals of second-hand shirts, dresses and trousers. He adjusts the positions of bracelets and necklaces on the store’s shelves, and carefully dresses a mannequin outside.
Figueiredo, a marketing student, says this job is his main source of income. 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 building Silva manages, each family unit pays 220 reals ($41) a month to cover administrative costs.
For Figueiredo, like many low-income workers – so often the essential workers who keep the city running – living on the outskirts is not a viable option.
“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,” he tells Al Jazeera.
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.
A number of occupations in Sao Paolo have led to incremental progress. In recent years, the famous Hotel Cambridge occupation led to its conversion into social housing, while activists occupying the abandoned Lord Palace Hotel eventually won the right to live there legally.
FLM coordinator Osmar Borges remembers the day the Lord Palace was occupied: Families carrying their belongings queued to enter, as volunteers handed out cups of coffee. Everyone fell silent in the abandoned building as police drove by on the street outside.
Today, he proudly shows Al Jazeera the benefits of years of fighting. Construction workers push wheelbarrows, the buzz of chainsaws echoes through empty hallways, and electrical cords hang from ceilings, awaiting lightbulbs for more than 170 apartments.
“We won the battle,” Borges says.
The aim of such occupation movements, he says, 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. For the Lord Palace Hotel, the government paid nearly 22 million reals ($4.2m) to buy and renovate the building, Borges says.
Sao Paulo’s housing secretary declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, but a spokesperson said via email that the city council had given 33,000 homes to needy residents over the past five years, with another 13,000 currently under construction. The city has “amplified the tools to answer the vulnerable population in order to reduce the housing deficit”, including through the building of social housing and the acquisition of properties for low-income families.
At the same time, the spokesperson said, the city is working to identify and register the residents of 51 occupied downtown buildings “to start a study in order to find alternatives to de-occupy and help the families”.
In the case of the Lord Palace Hotel, once the work is complete and people move back in, each family unit will pay 10 percent of their income as rent for a decade, after which the city council will grant them official ownership, Borges says.
“The conquest of a building in the centre of the city is very symbolic,” he says. “It represents the fall of taboos, prejudice, discrimination, the resistance to having poor people living closer to the middle class.
“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.”
Araujo cannot wait for the Prestes Maia to be renovated, and to see the families she helped over the years re-enter as proud homeowners.
“It’s a relief knowing that everything we planted, we are now harvesting,” she says.
But the fight must continue with more occupations, she adds: “If you don’t fight, you are dead. Rights don’t come to those who sleep,” she says with a smile.
During the 20 years of the Prestes Maia occupation, about 600 families that lived there have since found homes, Araujo says. In 2010, the 460 families living there at the time received social housing or credits to buy a house from the government, she adds.
One of them was the family of Kethelem Rodrigues, who moved into the Prestes Maia when she was nine. They previously lived in precarious conditions on the city’s outskirts, relying on the help of neighbours to eat and survive – a memory that still brings tears to Rodrigues’s eyes.
“If we hadn’t met the movement, I don’t even know if we would be alive – and if we were, we would be living on the streets, hungry,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Her mother became a strong housing rights advocate, and after she died in 2020, Rodrigues followed in her footsteps: In November 2021, she led the occupation of an old Itaquaquecetuba factory on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, giving dozens of families a place to live.
“It’s the only thing we know how to do – to help people in this situation, because it’s what we learned since we were little,” she says.
Many residents are Black, single mothers. “People say: ‘Go to work.’ But they don’t understand the situation,” she adds. “How will a person work with a bunch of kids, without having food at home? They get evicted and end up in the streets. How will you find a job without an address?
“I’m the daughter of a Black woman,” Rodrigues says. “The movement opens these doors for women, especially Black women.”
Today, she says, the need for adequate housing is more urgent than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many people jobless, hungry and unhoused. 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.
Stefanie, 30, lives in the occupied factory with her four children and five nephews. She worked as a waitress before the pandemic shut down the service sector. Today, she spends her days sewing hundreds of purses, which sell for $0.50 apiece. She requested government housing more than 10 years ago, but amid soaring demand, her request remains unanswered.
“If I depended on the government, I’d be on the streets,” Stefanie, who did not provide a last name, tells Al Jazeera.
Ana Paula de Almeida, 33, also lives with her family in a shed in a corner of the old factory. Inside, there’s a stove, some boxes with their belongings, and a double mattress where she and her husband sleep with their three children.
“We used to live in a flat, but we either ate or paid the rent,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Ana Paula fights back tears as she remembers her family sleeping on the streets during the pandemic – the “worst days” of her life.
“This [occupation] is the best thing that happened in my life, because now my kids have breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “I never thought I’d go through this, but now I’m proud of these people. They saved our lives.”
Her eight-year-old son, Joao Vitor, already understands the struggle his family is facing.
“It’s good to live here,” he says, holding his baby brother. “It’s better than going hungry.”
Just as Rodrigues’ mother inspired her to become an activist, she is now trying to inspire others, including young Joao Vitor, to do the same.
“When I grow up, I want to be like the leaders of the movement, because I want to help others,” the young boy says with a smile. “Because helping others is quite cool, right?”
His words resonate deeply with Rodrigues.
“It’s heartbreaking … but there are no housing policies; people are forgotten, and not just in Sao Paulo,” she says. “Everyone has a sad story, but you have to get up and run after change. If you don’t, you will live and die this way, because no one will help you except the movement which [helped] my family and is now helping other people here too.
“The people have to wake up. Change has to come from the bottom up,” she adds. “It’s always from the bottom up – never from the top down.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Kim Wall Memorial Fund.