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How the Pandemic Exposes the Housing Crisis in Brazil

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This is our latest article on Covid-19 and its impacts on the favelas. For the original article published in Portuguese by Juliana Domingos de Lima published by Nexo, click here

Repossessions were not suspended and residents of low-income neighborhoods are more vulnerable to Covid-19. The housing situation of the poorest that is highlighted by the health crisis calls for a multifaceted solution, according to a researcher.

Around 900 families were evicted from a plot of land in Guaianases, in the East Zone of the city of São Paulo, in a repossession carried out by the Military Police on June 16. The judicial order arose based on a request from the landowner.

According to São Paulo city officials, 4,000 subsidized housing units linked to the Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House, My Life) housing  program are planned for construction on the land and are pending release of funds from the federal government.

On June 16, when the repossession order was carried out, the city of São Paulo recorded more than 105,000 confirmed cases and 5,722 deaths due to Covid-19. The city government said in a statement that a team of social workers visited the occupation in early June to offer shelter to the families, but none accepted. On the day of the repossession, families who were on the land said they had nowhere to go.

200,755 

is the number of families registered on the housing waitlist of the city of São Paulo, according to the city government

Evictions During the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the health crisis, organizations and researchers have been calling for a suspension in repossessions, evictions, and forced removals to prevent further exposure to coronavirus. Such suspension was even included in federal bills, but as yet has not been approved, largely because the bills have not advanced through the legislature. 

The argument is that the housing conditions of the poorest segment of the population are already characterized by density and cohabitation, which places individuals with different degrees of vulnerability to the virus in a shared, reduced area where it is difficult to self-isolate. In this context, the removal of entire families expands the chain of contagion by the virus.

São Paulo University (USP) School of Architecture and Urbanism professor Karina Leitão told Nexo that “this is definitely not the time for repossessions.” She pointed out that a suspension of these types of orders has become an important topic around the world during the pandemic.

According to data collected by the Evictions Observatory, a project created by research labs at USP and the Federal University of ABC, over 1,900 families were affected in at least ten evictions that took place across the state of São Paulo since March 2020, the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The irregular occupations are only one of the symptoms of the poorest population’s demand for housing in Brazilian cities. The way in which the new coronavirus has spread in urban areas reveals inequalities—including inequality of access to adequate housing. Residents of tenements and favelas as well as the homeless and street population are among those most affected by Covid-19.

The Impact of Covid-19 on Favelas

In Brazil, there are at least 5.1 million homes in precarious conditions, according to data shared by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in May.

They are located in what IBGE classifies as “subnormal agglomerations,” or favelas, areas characterized, according to the institute’s definition, by irregular urbanistic standards, insufficient essential public services, and located in areas with occupation restrictions. 7.8% of Brazilian homes are found in these areas.

The preliminary estimate of subnormal agglomerations was calculated to assist in the collection of data for the Demographic Census, which was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. This survey was released early in order to help in the fight against the virus.

Also based on this mapping, nearly all Brazilian states with the highest rates of infection from the new coronavirus also showed the highest percentages of precarious housing, as highlighted by an article in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo

Precarious housing conditions are not limited to urban peripheries. In São Paulo, the poor areas of central neighborhoods that concentrate tenements, boarding houses, and vertical occupations have some of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the city, exceeding 80 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to a report by the channel Globo News in late May.

Past Disputes on the Topic

Even though housing congestion (the large number of units in an area) makes it difficult to self-isolate at home, professor Karina Leitão claims that settlements such as favelas should not be perceived as propagators of the virus. According to her, when the impact of Covid-19 in these areas is discussed, the focus should be on poverty and precariousness.  

“The working classes’ way of life is not the cause of the problem,” she said. “On the contrary, in an unequal system, it’s the solution. Density is just one problem associated with precarious labor conditions and the lack of access to quality public services, such as health and transportation.” 

The professor calls attention to the history of health policies in Brazil, which she classifies as “eviction and blame-based” for the poor. They entailed the same inversion of logic into which we now risk falling: attributing the spread of diseases to the way the poorest live, and not to the multiple fragilities to which residents are subjected on account of poverty.

The way of life of those who are unable to access the formal housing market in Brazil has been predominantly characterized by self-build—the production of units by residents themselves. Leitão explains that “in the absence of a government solution, income, and access to an affordable housing market, this has been the predominant form of creating space in the country.”

The Housing Problem Today

The high cost of land in the better located, infrastructure-rich areas in cities has made housing inaccessible to the poorest classes of Brazil.

Throughout the 20th century and in the early 2000s, there was public investment in housing programs generally geared toward the construction of large-scale buildings. The most recent of them—the federal program Minha Casa Minha Vida—has undergone budget cuts since the recession that began in 2014.

USP School of Architecture and Urbanism professor Raquel Rolnik told UOL’s Ecoa platform that, despite criticism of the program, it has been, for years, the only housing policy in effect in the country. The absence of government-proposed alternatives, in conjunction with the economic crisis, has exacerbated the housing problem. According to Rolnik, the significant growth in the homeless population, as well as the over-occupation of self-built areas, such as favelas, are results of this. 

This exacerbation, however, will likely not be overcome by mass construction of new units alone.

“The idea of a housing deficit glosses over the actual housing needs in the country,” professor Karina Leitão told Nexo. “Guaranteeing the right to housing today in Brazil involves addressing a complex and multifaceted reality. It involves public policy that is permanent and respectful towards the efforts undertaken by residents to build their neighborhoods, their cities.”

Leitão explains that the numbers expressed by the deficit do not correspond to the number of housing units that need to be built to meet the population’s demand.

She bases this statement on the aforementioned mapping of subnormal agglomerations by IBGE—in other words, it includes people who already live in favelas, in occupations, or who have to forgo a very significant portion of their income on rent. 

For these cases, policies that address these needs, such as reforms, infrastructure provision, and rent vouchers would be better solutions than the mass production of housing units, which, in turn, has historically resulted in low-quality housing.


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