After tower blaze, little help for São Paulo squatters

São Paulo is currently experiencing a housing crisis. (Reuters pic)

SÃO PAULO; For years, 66-year-old Vera Helena, one of the matriarchs of a squatter community occupying an abandoned tower in downtown São Paulo, has waited for a call to say she won a slot in the city’s coveted public housing lottery.

Never has she been among the lucky few, so she continues to make do with a space on the sixth floor of an abandoned garment factory she began calling home in 2002.

“There was nothing when I arrived,” said Vera, who lives here with her ex-husband and granddaughter. “It was empty, and we started to grab some wood and divide up the space.”

Vera’s family is one of 480 that live in the 22-story tower, Latin America’s largest vertical squat, named Prestes Maia after a nearby avenue with the name of a former mayor.

There are 46,000 families that have taken up residence in São Paulo’s derelict buildings, according to city hall, due to a lack of affordable housing and government resources. Their numbers have surged in recent decades with the growth of the city’s organised homeless movement.

“The movement has a phrase: You pay the rent, you don’t eat. You eat, you don’t pay the rent,” said Benedito Barbosa, a sympathetic lawyer, who works with organisers.

The issue is decades old, but it was thrust back into the spotlight in early May when a 24-story former office building occupied by squatters in a nearby neighbourhood collapsed after bursting into flames, killing at least six people.

At the time, São Paulo Governor Márcio França called it a “tragedy foretold.”

Yet a long-term solution for the city’s homeless seems as distant as ever.

The city is performing safety inspections in all its vertical squats, said Fernando Chucre, housing secretary for the city of São Paulo. He said there has been no decision about what to do when the inspections are complete.

Those displaced by the blaze have been sleeping in tents in a nearby plaza for a month and a half.

Advocates for the squatters say the government is required by Brazil’s constitution to provide housing for those in need. However, government officials say there is simply no money for such a task.

Public-private partnerships offering housing for the poor in São Paulo can only help a select number of applicants per year via a lottery system. Some 191,000 families have signed up, yet the program is due to deliver just 3,600 units by 2020, according to the state government, which runs the program.

Vera is hopeful she will be selected, but many in the movement complain that requirements can be restrictive. Vera’s own son-in-law was rejected for lacking the salary to pay off obligations assumed under the program, she said.

Purely public funding for housing programs is a challenge, said Chucre, who is seeking federal subsidies for more projects in the city’s gritty downtown. Jobs and public services are plentiful there, but housing is scarce while dozens of derelict buildings sit vacant.

In the meantime, Vera remains optimistic. Others in the homeless movement have it much worse, she says.

“Here, it’s not so bad compared to some other occupations,” she said, while cooking at a Mothers’ Day barbecue last month. “We live in a little palace.”