A troublesome mayor in Rio de Janeiro

 Vila Autódromo reveals facets of institutions and officials 

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A house was here. What will be in this spot in 2018?

You’d think the removal of residents in the path of the Olympic Games would be part of a public plan, with a clear and convincing rationale.

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After all, cities everywhere, with a view to the greater good, often need to shift homes and people, for various reasons.

In the case of the West Zone informal settlement Vila Autódromo, mayor Eduardo Paes answered a question from RioRealblog this past January 19 saying that the land would be used for access roads to the Olympic Park. After the Games, he added, he wants to recycle a handball court and set up a school there.

Once housing more than 600 families, Vila Autódromo is home today to a small remnant of a once vibrant and safe community.

Asked if buildings would go up there after the Games, Paes said no. Claiming that Vila Autódromo isn’t in the Parceria Público Privada do Parque Olímpico (Public-Private Partnership for the Olympic Park, a business deal that includes a little-known R$ 7.6 million municipal tax debt owed by the Carvalho Hosken real estate developer), Paes said that this is public land that can’t be built on — and that “the buildings will be just in the area of the [now-demolished] race car track, where they already were –”

The area was never part of the Nelson Piquet Racetrack land, which confusingly changed hands over the years, between city and state. It is however — contrary to the mayor’s claim — part of the Public-Private Partnership, or PPP. Otherwise why would the Municipal Accounting Court be including Vila Autódromo in its comments on the PPP contract, as seen below?

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The blog didn’t have a chance to ask what the mayor meant when he said  “where they already were –“.

Vila Autódromo came into existence in the 1970s as fishermen and construction workers who helped build the racetrack made their homes there. In the 1990s, hundreds of families received, from then-governor Leonel Brizola, a real usage concession for 99 years, renewable for 99 more. Since 2005, part of the Vila constitutes an Área Especial de Interesse Social (Special Social Interest Area), which means that it can only be used for low-income housing.

Interestingly, since the 1990s there have been several attempts to remove Vila Autódromo residents. Brizola was no great ally of then-mayor César Maia, for whom current mayor Paes was vice-mayor for most of the West Zone. One should also remember that real estate prices in the region increased in the last several decades, and gained momentum when it was decided that the Games would take place in this relatively safe, low-density area.

RioRealblog thought it pertinent to ask about City Hall’s plans for the spot where Vila Autódromo sits because it has never publicly presented a project for it. The mayor’s office told the Municipal Accounting Court that there would be a parking lot and an environmentally protected area.

In recent years there has also been mention of, in connection with the removal of Vila Autódromo, widening Embaixador Abelardo Bueno and Salvador Allende Avenues; building the Olympic Media Center; a safety perimeter for the Olympic Park; a “Marginal Protection Strip”; and a connection between two highways under construction (apparently the Transolímpica and the Transcarioca).

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The mayor answers questions at an OsteRio event in January 2016, in Ipanema

The only plan –to upgrade the existing area –was drawn up by university (UFF and UFRJ) specialists, together with residents, and won an award, the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award, with a check of US$ 80,000. Carrying out this project would have cost taxpayers less than what is now being done (removal, expropriation payments, construction of Minha Casa Minha Vida apartaments on land purchased for this purpose), according to a comparison made by critics of City Hall. In October 2013, the award ceremony, set to take place during a cocktail party at the Palácio da Cidade, with the mayor’s participation, was suddenly canceled.

Instead of an upgrade, removal: hundreds of families have left Vila Autódromo in the last three years. They either accepted a nearby apartment or came to a financial agreement with the city.

During the January OsteRio Q and A event, the mayor said that the 30 families still living there are free to stay.

Vila Autódromo is far from Ipanema. Few of those present will have the chance to see with their own eyes what goes on there. Fortunately, the O Globo e Extra newspapers published a piece on it last week (strangely placed in the sports sections). There are also São Paulo newspapersindependent sites and social media. Below, a video made by a resident who wasn’t allowed in to feed his mother’s dogs:

Families who still live in Vila Autódromo aren’t having a comfortable time of it. City Hall usually requires residents to leave right after (in some cases, hours) receiving payment. Then they destroy the unoccupied property. This has led to damage in neighboring homes. Residents say the city and utilities have interrupted power and sewage collection. They complain of intimidation, of aggressive municipal guards, and of being kept away from their homes. They say they’ve have received death threats and that milicianos have appeared among the municipal guards.

They fear the city will carry out demolitions during Carnival, when most people’s attention is taken up with partying.

A recent court decision requires the city to remove rubble without delay and to take care of dangerous puddles. A fine was set for non-compliance.

Citizen hardship isn’t always  — nor should it be — a determining factor when it comes to making public policy. Government officials weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. In the case of Vila Autódromo, it’s unclear exactly who or what benefits from residents’ removal, while the disadvantages surely are theirs.

So it’s a good thing that institutions exist to make a contribution to the fair exercise of power. Up to 2013, the Subprocuradoria de Justiça, Direitos Humanos e Terceiro Setor (state attorney general’s office for justice, human rights and the third sector), principally assistant attorney general Leonardo Chaves, was keeping watch over City Hall. That year, he was transferred to another post. Nevertheless, Chaves wrote an opinion in 2014, in favor of residents’ full right to stay in their homes.

Today, Chaves told RioRealblog, “the Subprocuradoria [de Justiça, Direitos Humanos e Terceiro Setor] exists in name only”.

At the state Public Defenders office, the Núcleo de Terras e Habitação (housing and land nucleus) underwent a strange internal battle that same year. Defenders had filed the Brazilian equivalent of a class action suit to nullify the city’s demolition license for the homes, but their nucleus Coordinator claimed that demolition was “an essential condition for a change in housing, whether by the express will of titled residents, or indispensable to avoid illegal occupation by third parties, creating future problems for the city.”

Despite the threat to the defenders’ constitutional autonomy, they stayed in their jobs and today continue to represent those who want to stay in Vila Autódromo.

In comparison to other Brazilian states, Rio de Janeiro is equipped with strong institutions to defend citizens’ rights. Both the state attorney general’s office and the state public defender’s office bring a wide variety of issues to the judiciary’s attention. Not infrequently, the courts take decisions that penalize the legislative and executive branches of local government.

Yet there is a problem, according to José Augusto Garcia, UERJ law professor and general director of the state Public Defender’s office’s Center of Legal Studies. “Compliance with a court decision is more difficult than getting a decision,” he told RioRealblog, mentioning as an example a recent decision to ban manual body searches of women visitors to state prisons. “The judiciary’s power to enforce its own decisions is weak.”

As is the case with many land issues in Brazil, Vila Autódromo’s legal history is a confusing tangle of decisions and documents. Public defender Adriana Bevilaqua took over an hour to explain it to RioRealblog last week.

Legally, she says, the mayor cannot expropriate by decree (as he did in March 2015) homes that lie in the part of Vila Autódromo denominated a Special Social Interest Area, which includes the neighborhood association’s building and the home of community leader Maria da Penha. A new law would be necessary, according to Bevilaqua.

The end of this story, still in the courts, is yet to come.

Meanwhile, life goes on and the Carvalho Hosken, Andrade Gutierrez and Odebrecht construction companies are carrying out their parts as specified in (with some provisos from the Municipal Accounting Court) the Olympic Park Public-Private Partnership.

“How can you put poor people there?” asked Carvalho Hosken owner Carlos Carvalho in mid-2015, in an interview with BBC reporter Jefferson Puff. He was referring to his post-Games real estate development in the Olympic Park. “A poor person has to live nearby because he lends a service and earns money from those who can pay, but you should only put those who can pay there, otherwise you spoil everything, you throw money out the window.”

In Carvalho Hosken’s plans for Vila Autódromo, according to the report, there will be a green area in front of “upscale condominiums.”

Years will pass before we know what will be where Vila Autódromo now lies. One thing is certain, however: if all its residents leave, as the city would like, its story will be just one more in metropolitan Rio’s real estate saga, where the treatment of different social groups is sadly unequal.

*  *  *  *  *

Read Rioonwatch’s reporting on resident intimidation here .

Read a 2013 opinion from engineers, architects and university experts here .

Read a 2015 report in The Guardian here .

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About Rio real

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

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