When the maid’s quarters become the living room

Not a good sign at all for full and efficient urban integration

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On last October 16, a humid Sunday, Municipal Housing Secretary Jorge Bittar met with Vila Autódromo residents  beneath a white-and-blue striped tent set up on an empty patch of ground next to their community. On the other side of the avenue an agglomeration of relatively new tall buildings served silent witness.

“I’m not going to do things the way it used to be,” the secretary promised. “At the time of the [2007 Pan-American Games]– that generated a lot of tension. We’re going to change.” Four days earlier, city agents had started an inventory of the vila‘s houses, writing numbers on façades with spray paint. Some frightened residents  shot a video of the encounter.

Vila Autódromo is just one favela–  the most visible– of many that are undergoing the trauma of Rio de Janeiro’s removals due to Olympics-related construction. According to the Municipal Housing Secretariat, 623 families have been relocated to give way to the rapid transit bus corridors starting to crisscross the city. Statistics for families being relocated due to urbanization work that’s part of the Morar Carioca program’s first phase aren’t available, nor is there an official estimate of future relocation.

In some favelas, there is discord, and confusing information regarding the removal of residents who may be living in areas at environmental risk.

Most of the relocated cariocas have no title to their houses nor to the plots they’re built on. But in Vila Autódromo, home to some 537 famílias on the edge of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon, residents received títulos de posse (possession titles) 17 years ago from then-governor Leonel Brizola. There are homes with forty years of history; some are large, with yards and animals.

By the estimate of Plataforma Dhesca Brasil, a UN-supported national grouping of 36 civil society movements and organizations, 5,846 carioca families have recently undergone the experience of removal or the threat of it. A report published in May of this year tallied and described dramatic cases of loss, including of physical and mental health. While Olympic authorities speak proudly of recycled construction materials at their building sites, city hall hasn’t removed the demolition rubble, subjecting those who remain to dengue fever, for example.

The mayor’s office says Vila Autódromo must come down because it sits on the Olympic Park site.

Each family had two choices, Bittar explained that steamy post-rainshower day: they could accept an apartment of about 430 square feet yet to be built on a nearby lot, with easy access to a park with barbecue pits, a health clinic, daycare center and school; or they could accept a payment calculated using a city table, of the cost of the materials used to build the house slated for demolition.

Whatever the numbers, relatively few people are affected by expropriation. Perhaps this is why the Dhesca report,  a letter from Amnesty International to the Olympic Committee,  two (melo)dramatic ESPN television programs, articles in The Guardian,  El País, USA Today,  plus accusations from bloggers, NGOs and a UN representative seem to have had little effect on the way the removals are carried out. Last year, the Rio state Public Defenders Office sent a notification to International Olympic Committee president  Jacques Rogge , with a copy to the Committee’s Ethics Commission, claiming that human rights were being violated.

It could be that dialogue, which the secretary also promised the residents that Sunday, is as yet a fairly unknown exercise in this authoritarian society. The (state, in this case) government doesn’t even listen to the middle class, for example, when it comes to plans for the new metro line.

What will be built where Vila Autódromo lies today? According to the Olympic Park’s winning project, nothing. “Ask the planners,” answered Bittar, when RioRealblog raised the question. At the meeting, a resident shouted out both a suppposition and a suggestion. “Put the builiding [that will be built here] there, where you want to take us.”

At the meeting, concerns were expressed. The apartments are small, in five-story buildings with no elevator. Residents will have to pay a maintenance fee. And, for ten years, they won’t be able to sell the unit, in contrast to the titles they now hold. For those who don’t want the apartment, the payment doesn’t take into account the value of the land to which residents hold title; with the cash the city is offering it will be impossible to buy a lot and build a house, especially in the current boom market (which thickens local newspapers, that tend to avoid relocation stories). And the buildings of the federal Minha Casa Minha Vida housing program, that the apartments will be part of, are notorious for poor construction quality.

For these and other reasons, at least half of the residents prefer to stay where they are, according to Agência Brasil.

In April 2011, in the wake of administrative changes in the Public Defenders’ office, the Housing and Land Nucleus team (that sent the notification to the Olympic Committee) quit in protest. Leonardo Chaves, Justice Vice Attorney General for Human Rights at the state Attorney General’s office, told RioRealblog in an interview that he’s working to persuade the mayor and governor to respect the constitutional rights to housing of residents subject to expropriation. Chaves, who criticized officials during the ESPN program, says he’s working behind the scenes; he showed RioRealblog no official document. “People went to live [in Vila Autódromo] because no one else wanted to. Now it’s a target of greed,” he vented.

At the meeting under the tent, a group demanded that the vila be urbanized, which is exactly what the winning British project proposes– and is also the current trend in urban design, practiced even in Rio, in the Morar Carioca program (strangely lacking a kickoff date for the execution of the winning projects of its second phase), set to urbanize all Rio’s favelas by 2020.

In Rio de Janeiro one hears nothing of contractors being required to build low-income housing in return for city permission to construct upscale projects, as is the case in other countries. The closest requirement is that the Olympic Park’s winning construction bidder will implant “the infrastructure (water and sewage systems, paving and lighting) […] of the lot on Estrada dos Bandeirantes where the families removed from Vila Autódromo will be relocated”.

The quote is from the call for bids published a week ago; this Monday a protest is planned in front of Rio’s city hall, against human rights violations related to upcoming mega-events.

Dan Epstein, Sustainability Director for the London Olympic Games, explained to RioRealblog, after a recent seminar organized by the Extra and  O Globo newspapers, that an independent real estate appraisal system exists in London, to determine payment in expropriation cases. But even in London, where very few people had to leave what would become the Olympic Park, there are complaints of injustice. The Chinese and their hutongs can’t be forgotten; and a comparison of the housing provided in South Africa for those removed because of the 2010 World Soccer Cup with the Minha Casa Minha Vida apartments makes the latter look palatial.

The PowerPoint presentation of the new housing for Vila Autódromo began late because of anInternet glitch, and it wasn’t easy to see anyway, because the sun shone so brightly. But it’s become irrelevant, at least for a while. Ten days before the meeting, the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper had revealed that the city of Rio was buying a lot to relocate Vila Autódromo residents, for US$ 11.7 million equivalent, from a construction company that had made 2008 campaign donations to mayor Eduardo Paes and his chief of staff.

“Three developments of the companies (two by Rossi and one by PDG)”, the São Paulo paper reported, “are next to Vila Autódromo and are likely to increase in value after the shacks are removed”. Fou days after this news, the mayor canceled the purchase. He now awaits a judicial opinion.

The history of Rio de Janeiro can be told as one episode after another of coming into the living room and finding someone who should be in the servants’ quarters sitting on the sofa. With a few exceptions, the living room keeps moving. “From 1962 to 1975, 140,000 people were removed,” says Rafael Gonçalves, a lawyer, historian PUC-Rio professor and author of Les favelas de Rio de Janeiro – histoire et droit, XIXe et XXe siècles.

About 17% of the city’s population live in favelas. This is a little less than one in five  people– and it’s more, when you take consider the entire metropolitan region.

Now, with the Olympics, the West Zone has become the living room. It happens in the best cities… and usually, the answer of the richer to the complaints of the poorer is “they shouldn’t have built their homes there to begin with”. The people who did this knew very well that it was an at-risk area, that they would never get title, or that the land could interest others, later.

But what about the integration of Rio, which is also happening because of the mega-events? The motto, repeated constantly by government officials, is  treat the favela or informal city the same as the formal city. Same services, same laws and responsibilities.

We’re in a time of transition, from a situation where people liked to park on the sidewalk, to one where tow trucks and municipal guards are circulating, buildings remove barriers, and pedestrians at last have free passage. We’re moving from a situation where people built their homes as best they could in last-resort locations, and even so, they created deep ties with their neighbors, to a situation where.. ? It’s not clear.

The state of affairs is reminiscent of Liquid Paper, the stuff in a bottle used to wipe out the old-fashioned typographical error. When you use Liquid Paper, it’s almost impossible not to end up either with a sticky white blob, or an illegible mixture of the wrong letter with the correct one.

And the lack of clarity regarding the issue of how people are treated who live in the path of the city’s transformation brings to light a worrisome ambivalence, on the part of government authorities. If by 2016 the transformation of Rio ends up being partial, or if it comes up against a political obstacle, this ambivalence will be the cause.

And the only solution to ambivalence is sure-handed, efficient, accountable and transparent leadership.

Here is a video and here is a print report on this subject, by the New York Times.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brasil, Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When the maid’s quarters become the living room

  1. I’ve been scratching my head about the AECOM plan for Vila Autodromo, where part of the community is left intact but sits walled off up in a corner. First off, I doubt many people actually believe that this is how it will actually happen. Second, even if it does go down this way, as far as urban design, it looks terrible. You have a community that’s historically oriented toward the lake, cut off from the lake. In fact, it’s cut off from everything – it looks like a compound surrounded by major thoroughfares. It sort of defeats the purpose of preserving the community in the first place. I do not think this is a serious plan. A serious plan would integrate the community into long term plans for the Olympic Park – spatially, institutionally, economically. Not likely, I know. But it would be a chance for true innovation in mega-project planning.

  2. Rio real says:

    Thanks, Jake, this is totally new information.

  3. This is a tardy response. I must say it is stellar journalism. You have dared to go to the roots of the issues involved in social justice, bypassing the political rhetoric and the mainstream media’s bloated self importance. Your work actually uncovers the tragic layers of neglect in an environment that only responds to banal narratives. I appreciate the level of diligence involved in your covering this issue and respect your dedication. You challenge Rio’s smug culture with facts and personal investigation. I look forward to more stories from you about Rio’s transformation. The city’s transformation will only be as successful as the idealists who make it their dream.

  4. Rio real says:

    Thank you, Michael

  5. Great blog Julia! Really comprehensive and informative. Thank you!

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