Activists in Brazil have been occupying land and abandoned buildings for more than 20 years. With real estate prices in the country’s urban centers skyrocketing –  prices grew 97% in São Paulo since 2008, almost triple the rate of inflation – the need for affordable housing has perhaps never been greater.

Residents and activists work hard to make the occupations affordable, livable, and safe, and participate in organizing, cleaning, and staying politically engaged in the housing struggle. This includes legal action to try to win legal deeds to land and property and pressing the government on the right to housing for all.

However, until these challenges are won, the threat of eviction remains constant. One resident noted, “We may have to leave tomorrow. When you get used to this reality, you don’t get attached to a place easily.”

The following photos and text are by Brazilian journalist Gustavo Basso. They feature residents of the Prestas Maia 911 occupation, one of the largest urban occupations in Latin America, home to nearly 1,500 residents, and the Hotel Cambridge occupation. Both are in São Paulo.

Children play on the patio between the two buildings of the Prestes Maia 911 occupation. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Children play on the patio between the two buildings of the Prestes Maia 911 occupation. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Two office buildings make up the Prestas Maia, which were originally the headquarters of the Cia. Nacional de Tecidos (National Fabric Company) who owned the buildings from 1945 until 1970, when it filed for bankruptcy. In the nearly 25-year period between 1970 and 1994, when the buildings were  purchased by the businessman Jorge Nacle Hamuche, they remained vacant, accumulating over R$ 2.5 million (around U$ 1.1 million) in unpaid taxes.

Groups of residents alternate in the weekly cleaning of the Prestes Maia common areas. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Groups of residents alternate in the weekly cleaning of the Prestes Maia common areas. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

In 2007, the city of São Paulo signed an agreement to relocate the 478 families living there, just months before they would have won the legal right to continue living in the building.  (Brazilian law guarantees legal possession of land after five years of continuous, uncontested, occupation). A new community has occupied the Prestas Maia buildings since October 2010.

Resident Jhenny Rodriguez cleans the stairwells in Prestas Maia. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Resident Jhenny Rodriguez cleans the stairwells in Prestas Maia. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Residents organize weekly a “mutirão,” (or a collective pitching-in to achieve a specific purpose), to clean the entire 31 stories of both buildings. Neither building has functioning elevators, and cleaning involves removing all garbage via the stairwells.

Jhenny Rodriguez, 35, (above) is responsible for organizing the mutirão in the biggest building. Every Sunday she wakes up at 7AM to clean all 22 floors, which involves the arduous task of spreading powdered soap in the floor, splashing it with water, brushing the floors rigorously with a broom, and pushing the mix with a squeegee all way to the 1st floor. Each resident cleans 10 floors per month, and those who neglect those responsibilities can be fined or asked to leave the occupation.

Eliane Stefani holds her 3-year-old son, Eduardo, while Jade, 2, sleeps. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Eliane Stefani holds her 3-year-old son, Eduardo, while Jade, 2, sleeps. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Eliane Stefani is a recipient of economic assistance programs provided by the state and federal government. The Workers’ Party, in power nationally since 2002, and in São Paulo since 2012, expanded direct cash transfer programs, such as Bolsa Família, that distributes money to poor families. Opposition parties criticize the program as simply a way for officials to chase votes, but they still recognize the program’s need and promise to keep it in place if elected. Brazil holds its next presidential election this October.

Jade Stefani, 2, is cared for by a neighbor while her mother Eliane works. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Jade Stefani, 2, is cared for by a neighbor while her mother Eliane works. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Eliane Stefani, 35, who makes São Paulo state’s minimum wage, receives supplements to her monthly R$ 810 salary (approx. US $365). Eliane grew up in an orphanage, from which she ran away while still very young. She never went to school and resorted to petty crimes to earn a living for which she spent time in a correctional facility, and later spent five years in prison.

Jade, Eliane’s 2-year-old daughter was born in the Prestes Maia occupation, but her older brother Eduardo, almost four, knows what it is like to live on the streets. Now, they have a small home – just  15 m2, consisting of one bed, an oven, and furniture that was given to them. Their father is in prison.

Cintia Rodgrigues Sousa’s son looks out the window Prestes Maia 7th floor early in the morning. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Cintia Rodgrigues Sousa’s son looks out the window Prestes Maia 7th floor early in the morning. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

At 5AM, Eliane leaves the kids with a neighbor, Cintia Rodrigues Sousa, 26, who showers them, feeds them cookies and milk for breakfast, and then walks her children and Eduardo through an area dubbed  “Cracolândia,” with high rates of poverty and drug use, on the way to kindergarten. Cintia’s daughter has a scholarship at a near-by private school, which she also arranged for Eliane’s children to receive.

Tania Alves Pereira working in her small grocery store. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Tania Alves Pereira working in her small grocery store. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Tania Alves Pereira, 37, owns a grocery store in her apartment in the Prestas Maia and enjoys working at home. But the entrepreneur from São Luis do Maranhão, Brazil’s poorest state, says it is far from perfect. Twice a day – six hours each day – Tania closes the store to accompany her daughter, Emily, 10, who has epilepsy and mental disabilities to and from school.  São Paulo’s government offers special transportation for those with physical, but not mental, disabilities. The lost business hours are a significant financial burden.

Vera Lucia dos Santos cares for her neighbors three children at the Hotel Cambridge occupation. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Vera Lucia dos Santos cares for her neighbors three children at the Hotel Cambridge occupation. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Formerly a resident of three other occupations, Vera Lúcia dos Santos, 47, now lives in the Hotel Cambridge occupation. As the name indicates, the occupation was a hotel until 2004. Unlike many other occupations, it is situated in a safe neighborhood close to subway and bus stations.

Vera who is currently unemployed, takes care of her neighbor Marineide de Jesus’ three children in the mornings while Marineide works as a taxi driver. She also helps a niece who recently gave birth.

Vera dos Santos’ niece bathes her newborn son at her aunt’s house. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS
Vera dos Santos’ niece bathes her newborn son at her aunt’s house. (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS

Vera, who has lived in three different occupations, says, “Occupation serves two purposes: one is to give those who have no home a home; the other is to press the government to act on behalf of the poorest. We don’t want anything free. We just want to pay a fair price.” This, according to Vera, differentiates occupations from squatting. Guilherme Boulos, from MTST (literally, the Roofless Workers’ Movement), says that seven million Brazilians lack housing while there are six million empty housing spaces available.

In response to protests and activism by organizations such as MTST  and FLM (Fight for Housing Front), São Paulo’s mayor announced a plan last month to transform 41 buildings in the city center into low income housing – including Prestes Maia and Hotel Cambridge. He also pledged to build 2,000 new homes in another occupation just kilometers from the city’s World Cup stadium. It will cost the federal government an estimated R$ 220 million (around USD $90 million). Some say these measures were taken to appease the social movements on the eve of the 2014 soccer tournament.

More information on the occupation movement in Brazil

Two excellent documentaries are available (in Portuguese only) on this topic. One is Atrás da Porta, made by WITNESS ally Vladimir Seixas. You can view the trailer here and find the full film on YouTube. The other is Dia de Festa by filmmaker Toni Ventura.

[Featured image, Tania Alves Pereira looks out from her balcony at the Prestas Maia 911 occupation, (c) Gustavo Basso/WITNESS]

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Gustavo Basso holds a degree in journalism from the University of Sao Paolo. As a photojournalist he has covered social issues and unrest and sporting events such as the World Cup in his native Brazil. He looks for untold stories to document and share with the world and he believes journalism can be a tool for change. See more of his work here and follow him on Instagram.  

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