Battle for downtown Sao Paulo pits squatters against mayor

In this June 24, 2017 photo, a girl looks out from her window at the former Federal Police headquarters building in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Around 350 families live in The building that originally was the headquarters of the Federal Police, and is among about 15 previously abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo's historic downtown that are "occupied" by the Front for the Fight for Housing and other associated fair housing groups. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 24, 2017 photo, a girl looks out from her window at the former Federal Police headquarters building in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Around 350 families live in the building that originally was the headquarters of the Federal Police. Fair-housing groups now occupy about 80 previously empty properties downtown, some for as long as a decade, according to the city’s Housing Department. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, residents Juliana Antonachi, husband Diego Paula Silva and their four daughters, stand in their apartment at the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Maua, a building that originally was a hotel, is among close to 15 previously abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo's historic downtown that are "occupied" by the Front for the Fight for Housing and other associated fair housing groups. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, resident Tereza Maria Conceicao sits on her bed inside her apartment at the Maua building, a former hotel, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Thousands of people, mostly families, have made their homes in buildings that include hotels, a textile company’s offices and an old federal police headquarters. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this May 22, 2017 photo, Irene Silva waters a garden of herbs and vegetables on the roof of the Cambridge building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The extensive garden of herbs and vegetables ends up in the daily lunches provided for the building's staff. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this May 22, 2017 photo, residents stand in the lobby of the Cambridge building in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Cambridge building houses a playroom with toys and tables at kid height and a bakery and a tailor's shop run by residents. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, resident Francisca Lima holds her daughter as she stands next a sign on the door, that reads "Haircuts, 13 reais" outside her apartment in the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Francisca works as hairdresser as a way of make a living. The cost of a haircut is about 4 dollars. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, resident Francisca Lima stands inside her apartment in the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Maua is unexpectedly tidy and well organized. Around 1,000 people now live in a mid-20th century building, a former hotel, known as the Maua Occupation, with clean hallways, doors shut with padlocks and even a doorman who buzzes visitors in through the entry gate. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, a boy sits on the stairs at the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Maua, a building that originally was a hotel, is among about 15 previously abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo's historic downtown that are "occupied" by the Front for the Fight for Housing and other associated fair housing groups. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, children walk in the aisle at the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The occupations of abandoned buildings like the Maua may have helped encourage a budding return to the old downtown. They’ve spruced up derelict buildings and made the area safer by moving families in. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
This June 17, 2017 photo, shows the facade of the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Over the years, city governments have had different levels of tolerance for squatters like those living in the Maua . Under the previous leftist administration, for example, firefighters visited some buildings to give residents safety courses. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, children play in the lobby at the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Many squatters like those living in the Maua previously lived in far-flung neighborhoods and say that being in the city center gives them greater access to their jobs, services and public transportation. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 24, 2017 photo, residents look out from their window at the former Federal Police headquarters building downtown in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Fair-housing groups now occupy about 80 previously empty properties downtown like the former Federal Police building. some for as long as a decade, according to the city’s Housing Department. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 24, 2017 photo, a resident stands in the entrance of the former Federal Police headquarters building in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city’s new mayor, Joao Doria, dreams of a gleaming, largely privately financed renewal that will draw businesses and residents back to the city’s historic heart. Housing rights activists, on the other hand, fear a downtown cleansed of the poor with fewer public parks and plazas. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 22, 2017 photo, squatters attend a protest against Mayor Joao Doria's privatization plan, which they fear could lead to evictions, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. But mayors of Sao Paulo have been promising to revitalize the Centro district almost since it began emptying out in the 1970s and ‘80s as businesses and residents sought more space and more modern buildings elsewhere. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
In this June 17, 2017 photo, children pose for a photo at the Maua building, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Most of the empty buildings downtown are privately owned, presumably awaiting a turnaround in the market to make renovation worthwhile. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

SAO PAULO — It was around midnight when eight young men with crowbars tried to force open the large gray metal double doors of a building on a tree-lined street in Sao Paulo's dilapidated downtown.

About 100 people gathered around, some shouting advice: "Pull up now! Try lower! Lower!"

But before the doors could give way, the police arrived, launching tear gas at the group who responded by throwing rocks, leading to an hour of cat-and-mouse confrontations before the crowd finally dispersed.

It was a small battle in a broader struggle for the future of downtown Sao Paulo, where squatters occupy abandoned buildings to press for more affordable housing, and the city's new mayor, Joao Doria, dreams of a gleaming, largely privately financed renewal that will draw businesses and residents back to the city's historic heart.

The young men and the crowd that cheered them on were organized by the Front for the Fight for Housing, a group that argues that the landlords of vacant and deteriorating abandoned structures are breaking a law that requires buildings to serve a "social function." They say those buildings could offer quality housing in a prime location well connected by public transport to people who are often forced to live on the city's periphery.

Fair-housing groups now occupy about 80 previously empty properties downtown, according to the city's Housing Department. Thousands of people, mostly families, have made their homes in buildings that include hotels, a textile company's offices and an old federal police headquarters.

Previous administrations pledged to purchase some of the occupied buildings, and plans are underway to renovate them for legal, subsidized housing.

The battle goes to the heart of competing visions for the megacity. On the one hand, Sao Paulo is the engine of Brazil's economy and a leading financial center. Doria, who has called the condition of the city "garbage," talks about making it a "global city," including by selling off publicly owned stadiums and privatizing the management of city bus terminals and parks in an effort to right city finances and attract new investment and business.

Housing rights activists, on the other hand, fear a downtown cleansed of the poor with fewer public parks and plazas.

Doria, whose name is often floated as a potential 2018 presidential candidate, paints himself an alternative to traditional politicians, a millionaire businessman who will use private sector-style management to solve public problems.

But mayors of Sao Paulo have been promising to revitalize the Centro district almost since it began emptying out in the 1970s and '80s as businesses and residents sought more space and more modern buildings elsewhere.

The Centro spreads out from the Se Cathedral and includes some of the oldest parts of the city, though most buildings date to the 19th or 20th century, when Sao Paulo boomed on the back of coffee production. It is home to major cultural institutions and much of the city government, but decaying storefronts now stand in the shadow of mid-century landmarks like Oscar Niemeyer's sinuous Copan Building.

These days, the neighborhood is on the cusp of a comeback, equal parts dilapidated and edgy. Everything can change in a block. One street might have a hip bar or a coffee shop. Another might have a series of buildings with the windows blown out. On nearly every street, homeless people sleep in doorways. Most of the empty buildings downtown are privately owned, presumably awaiting a turnaround in the market to make renovation worthwhile.

Doria has already launched a campaign to beautify downtown plazas and avenues, targeting graffiti and breaking up "Crackland," a several-block area where drug users and dealers operated for years with near impunity.

Fernando Chucre, Doria's secretary of housing, says the administration hopes to provide around 25,000 units of subsidized housing over its four-year mandate, including 4,000 to 5,000 in the city center. But Doria has publicly taken a tough line on squatters.

"Where there are invaded buildings — with help from, first, negotiation, then if necessary, the judicial system — they will be emptied, they will be taken back," he told reporters recently.

The occupied properties are unexpectedly tidy and well organized. Around 1,000 people now live in a mid-20th century building, a former hotel known as the Maua Occupation, with clean hallways, doors shut with padlocks and even a doorman who buzzes visitors in through the entry gate.

At another former hotel, known as the Cambridge, one resident maintains a rooftop garden of herbs and vegetables that end up in lunches of the building's staff. There's a playroom with toys and tables at kid height, and a bakery and a tailor shop run by residents.

In both, families pay about $60 a month toward building maintenance.

"A family that is in the occupation has the ability to pay" for housing, said Helo Regina, a Front coordinator. "What it cannot do is commit all of the family's income to paying rent and not have anything (left over) to invest in other things."

Many squatters previously lived in far-flung neighborhoods and say that being in the city center gives them greater access to their jobs, services and public transportation.

Over the years, city governments have had different levels of tolerance for the squats. Under the previous leftist administration, for example, firefighters visited some buildings to give residents safety courses.

The occupations themselves may have helped encourage a budding return to the Centro. They've spruced up derelict buildings and made the area safer by moving families in.

"I'm not saying it's right that we occupy or take (buildings) by force," said Maria das Neves, a 61-year-old seamstress who lives in the Cambridge. "But it was empty, full of trash and rats!"

___

Follow Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sdilorenzo

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