Relocating homes and lives in Rio’s Olympic city

Brazil is currently embedded in vast and complex processes of national growth and change that are reinforcing deep and existing socio-spatial inequalities while producing new fronts for social, economic and policy action. Amongst these numerous transformations, the relations between urban spaces, homes and city dwellers in cities like Rio de Janeiro are shifting profoundly and rapidly. In this city, famous for its dramatic topographical mixes of the natural and urban, the onus for mega-event development secured by unprecedented levels of foreign capital and investment, has led to hurried levels of extensive urban (re) development activity including a major port revitalisation project, far-reaching road works and Olympic infrastructure construction. While, improving the look and feel of the city to attract business investment and tourism in the run-up to and its aftermath (or ‘legacy’) of sporting mega-events has become one of these spectacles’ defining features, the municipal mechanisms involved in achieving such goals can vary widely from place to place.

In Rio, the desire to contain and ‘clean up’ the image of a Latin American city well-known for its highly visible socio-economic inequality – where formality and informality, abundance and scarcity, old and new, wood and cement live side by side – has led to sweeping controversial measures including the eviction and relocation of large swathes of the urban poor from their former precarious but relatively central homes to the periphery. The main reasons given for these relocations are the construction of new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines; sports venue installations and upgrades; tourism-related infrastructure development and relocation from areas recently reclassified as geotechnically unsafe or environmentally dangerous. These market-driven transfigurations seen as necessary in producing a competitive ‘world-class city’, are generating new geographies of inequality and exclusion supported by an official discourse of social inclusion, participation and development – a contradiction that demonstrates both the voracity of present entrepreneurial city-visions and the enduring histories of interventionist pasts.

When urban favelas first appeared, approaches towards their presence shifted between elimination and rehabilitation. This dualistic mode was made official during the early 1960’s when, on the one hand, their large-scale removal and resettlement to distant low-cost housing complexes (conjuntos habitacionales) was promoted, and on the other, their permanence through resident participation, individual subsidies and provision of basic infrastructure was sought out. Until the late 1990’s, the housing units built were few and mainly destined to the middle classes. They were also located in the city’s periphery, with little consideration paid to transport modes, costs or travel time. Over time, these pushes towards opposing policy directions, underpinned as they were by strong electoral political interests, scarce (or badly managed/distributed) resources, and the forceful crushing of what had once been a strong and robust anti-resettlement sentiment led to relative (albeit, shifting) levels of mainstream cultural tolerance towards favela existence and proliferation. Following a long period of disinvestment, urban reform gained ground in the national agenda during the 1980’s and a significant number of housing programmes were instituted during the 1990’s, culminating in the model 2001 ‘City Statute’ which, amongst others, establishes the need for effective participatory mechanisms in urban planning, development, housing management and institutionalisation. Despite the significant policy advances made during this period, including the strengthening of decentralisation, the explicit links to social inclusion and strengthening of a rights-based language, these developments did not prevent the recent contemporary revival in old favela ‘extinction’ efforts and methods.

In Rio de Janeiro, up to thirty-seven communities and at least eleven thousand families have already been affected by evictions (or their threat) directly or indirectly linked to mega-event developments. Many more (up to 30,000) face similar consequences or are underway with the support of the flagship low-income housing project called Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV) – a federal construction programme devised by the Ministry of Cities under the 2008 federal Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC) to generate economic activity and increase the workforce. Resembling the mass modernist post-war public housing projects of the United States, this enormous project was planned in partnership with the federal states, local municipalities and private sector to accommodate means-tested families through owner-occupation. Its first two years (2009-11) saw the construction of 338,000 homes across Brazil with US$ 53M of investment and the creation of 665,000 jobs. The second phase (2011-14) hopes to construct 2 million units, 60% of which will be destined for low-income families.

Like the early dichotomous approach to favelas, the resettlements supported by this programme and pursued as an inevitable consequence of housing need (estimated by the National Housing Plan – PlanHab to be around 7.9 million homes until 2023) are taking place alongside other ‘in-situ rehabilitation’ programmes like Morar Carioca, and urbanisation and legal regularisation programmes. In Rio de Janeiro, this ‘Orwellian doublethink’, similar to how Ananya Roy labelled similarly opposed urban interventions in India, framed within the discourse of ‘holistic’ Olympic legacy, is at once committed to the improvement and formalisation of all of the City’s favelas by 2020 while engaging in removal practices that tear at the seams of their established socio-economic networks, thereby unsettling the livelihoods of those that both leave and remain. This is particularly true when we take into account that 53.7% of employed Brazilians (in 2010) work in the informal sector. With women figuring as the larger percentage of this low-waged and precarious sector (mainly in domestic work) while continuing to bear the greatest burden of unpaid carework, their protection from arbitrary evictions and proximity to employment or income-earning opportunities become crucial.

The negative housing impacts of mega-events have been widely debated amongst scholars and practitioners in relation to the South African World Cup and the Vancouver, Beijing and London Olympics. In Brazil, the legality, processes and results of evictions have been amply denounced by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, on the national organisation ‘Comitês Populares da Copa’ and on other residents, local and international groups monitoring human rights violations associated to mega-events and the (in)action of their institutional and corporate sponsors. One of the main critiques levelled against the way resettlements are taking place in Rio today is that, despite the Municipal Law’s (Lei Orgânica) statute that prohibits moving urban dwellers beyond a 7 km distance from their original homes, most though not all of these housing complexes are located as far as 50 km away in the Zona Oeste (West Zone). This region is an ever-expanding ‘sub-central’ frontier where cheap land can be quickly found, acquired and built on. Here, location is not just incidental, but central to the way the city is being imagined, elaborated and contested.

The design of new BRT corridors appear to privilege access from the Zona Sul (South Zone) to ‘high value’ southwestern areas like Barra de Tijuca where many Olympic facilities are located and middle and upper classes are increasingly flocking to, while the problem of collective transport between the poorer resettlements and downtown remains unattended. The dire lack of urban infrastructure surrounding or connecting them can have a detrimental impact on residents’ livelihoods, exacerbating the already existing imbalance between employment and housing opportunities. Such lack of infrastructure can also have negative implications for the municipality, as they carry the financial onus of urbanising the previously barren land. Moreover, lack of tenure or income mix may exacerbate social problems. The only distinguishable variations amongst new inhabitants are the places they came from and their reasons for arrival. And if rivalry existed in their places of origin, this could translate into new and violent territorial conflicts. Lack of established networks can also lead to the power vacuum filled by the control of militias and corrupt management practices at the expense of the residents. All of these factors, combined with poor financial modelling, basic and inflexible design, and lack of appropriate urban planning and integration are beginning to be highlighted.

Such a case study where these coinciding mechanisms play out is Morro da Providência, a historic and primarily Afro-Brazilian favela facing on-going demolitions, relocations (692 announced) and in-situ upgrading as the large-scale Porto Maravilha revitalisation project takes place nearby. Modelled on international examples such as London’s Docklands and Argentina’s Puerto Madero and within the Olympic Games legacy plan, this grand-scale modernisation project intervenes in a 5 million sq. metre-area in the low and middle-class districts of Santo Cristo, Gamboa and Saúde to ‘increase the city centre attractiveness as a whole and enhance Rio’s competitiveness position in the global economy’. Its opponents asked why residents are relocated far from the site when the municipality owns 75% of the central lands and buildings. They argue that the currently underutilised structures can serve the need for affordable housing, especially as the site is already home to generations of poor working class populations. The construction of a cable car and a ‘samba centre’ connecting this hillside favela to two major tourist spots, led to the eviction of 140 families whose final destinations are unknown. Mainly, when the period preceding evictions is long and the future uncertain, this fearful waiting time that is often characterised by multiple pressures and coercion can lead to changes in residents’ positions from actively resistant to cooperative. In these ‘voluntary’ resettlements, the element of ‘free’ choice becomes questionable. More precisely, it is about how the legitimate uses and users of newly valued central city spaces are being re-defined and delimited in a context of competing (and highly unequal) interests.

When established territories are being disbanded, re-organised and relocated, a financial, social, but also an emotional void remains as lives and livelihoods are uprooted. While it is true that both the Ministry of Cities and Rio’s municipal housing agency are evaluating their programmes to improve their functioning, if people’s experiences and needs are not communicated into new formulations, the city runs the risk of perpetuating a disconnected, top-down form of planning that, in the short and long term, obviates the city’s rich diversity. There is, at the moment, a conflict between ‘the right to the city’ and commercial purposes in the favour of the latter, as political will and financial pressures combine to the detriment of informal urban workers and dwellers. If delivering ‘public good’, in a phase of modernist upgrade, follows a voracious market-driven land policy, the city may run the risk of alleviating a social and economic segregation which will limit the much-needed access to decent and affordable housing.

Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia is a Research Officer at LSE London and a lecturer in Birkbeck’s ‘Culture Diaspora Ethnicity’ MA.