Brazil | Other Homes

The government’s flawed housing programme leaves many lives in disarray

Built as part of an ambitious government housing programme, Condominium Coimbra in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone has since fallen under the control of armed militia. MIRKO CECCHI
01 November, 2013

ONE AFTERNOON IN AUGUST LAST YEAR, Maria Neuma’s neighbours called her at work and warned her not to return home. Since June, 47-year-old Neuma had been a resident of Rio de Janeiro’s Condominium Coimbra, a residential complex in the city’s West Zone, built by the government as part of its Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life) programme. The project, which aims to provide housing to millions of Brazilians who live in poverty across the country, has been beset by problems since its inception. Though it was supposed to address concerns of sanitation, and law and order which plague the favelas that dot every city in Brazil, many of the new complexes in Rio had fallen under the control of informal armed militia. Now, the militia of Condominium Coimbra had threatened violence to Neuma’s family, which drove her neighbours to call her and warn her to stay away.

“It is better if you do not come back, we heard that they want to kill you,” Neuma recalled her neighbours telling her when I met her in August this year. “I was terrified and immediately warned my partner and my children to leave everything as it was and come away without being noticed.” When the family approached the prefecture—the city municipality—for help, they were offered accommodation in a homeless shelter; turning this down, they returned to the favela of Caju where they had lived previously.

The Minha Casa, Minha Vida programme was launched in 2009 by Brazil’s then president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. A sum of 34 billion reales (more than 10 billion US dollars) was sanctioned for the construction of one million housing units across the country by 2011. According to the city’s Municipal Secretary of Housing, since 2009, 13,677 properties have been delivered to occupants in Rio, 12,167—or 90 percent of them—in the West Zone of the city, where Coimbra is located.

“It was an important and far-sighted operation that not only tried to give an answer to the housing deficit but also activated the economy by giving employment to hundreds of companies, allowing Brazil to not be overwhelmed by the international crisis,” said Adaulto Cardoso, a professor at the Metropolitan Observatory, a research centre that is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “But the problem, especially in Rio de Janeiro, is that most of these condos were built in remote areas where the cost of land is lower, often without access to essential services. They are not a solution, but a new problem.”

Neuma left her home in Caju four years ago to escape an abusive husband, against whom she could do little because of the lawlessness within the favela. “Even if I had reported him to the police, he would not have been arrested because the place is run by traffickers, and the police do not enter,” she said. Neuma first moved to a six-storey building in the district of Estacio, near the Central Station, owned by the Bank of Brazil, occupied by 140 families squatting on the premises. In time, she became a prominent member of the squatters’ group, serving as a leader and spokesperson. In June 2012, when they were threatened with eviction, the occupants agreed to move, many of them eager to secure accommodation in the new Minha Casa, Minha Vida settlements.

The Condominium Coimbra, to which Neuma was assigned, is a series of identical blocks of buildings located on the Avenida Palmares, a country road surrounded by nothing, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, a distant, poorly connected area more than an hour’s journey from Rio’s centres of commerce and culture. It is populated by around 1,400 people distributed in 28 buildings of four floors each. The apartments are identical in design: a hall, a kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms over a total of around 450 square feet.

“When I arrived, I immediately realised that the situation was troubled,” Neuma said. “There were people coming from favelas who in the past had been ruled by rival criminal gangs, and still nursed old grudges.” With the municipality neglecting many of its responsibilities, the society was under the control of the informal neighbourhood militia, among them corrupt ex-policemen, firefighters, and even convicted criminals. This group oversaw law and order in Coimbra, and operated with impunity, resorting to threats and even violence in order to maintain control.

Neuma found that there was little coordination among society members, and that residents were unwilling to take on administrative responsibilities. The area also lacked sufficient schools to support the population. When she raised this issue with the municipality, they sped up construction on a school complex, but in the two months that it took to complete work, many families lost the aid that the government provided to poor families who enroll their children in school. Coimbra also offered few employment opportunities—though Santa Cruz is an important industrial centre, uneducated new residents lacked the specialised qualifications that the work required.

Neuma grew convinced that the Coimbra project had been an attempt by Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes to woo voters ahead of the elections in October last year, by capitalising on the poor’s “dream of owning their own home”, but without providing the infrastructure necessary for a healthy society. “Not Minha Casa, Minha Vida, I call it Minha Casa, Minho Inferno, (my home, my hell),” she said vehemently.

Others agree that the government’s motivations aren’t purely to offer citizens a better life. “The prefecture pretends to care about people, but it just wants to clean up some areas of the city,” said Renato Cosentino, a spokesperson of the Popular Committee Against the Cup and the Olympics, an organisation resisting the government’s moves to redevelop neighbourhoods ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. “The poor are moved and hidden in the extreme outskirts, like the West Zone.” Many favelas that the government declared “at risk” in order to clear them and relocate residents are situated “in strategic zones for future sporting events”, he pointed out. “Although it would be easier to repair them in order to give the residents a dignified life, the state government prefers to eliminate them and sell the land to property companies.”

One month after moving there, Neuma was elected administrator of Coimbra; the militia approached her immediately. “They came to welcome me,” she said. “The man in charge was an ex-cop they called Barack Obama—he was murdered recently.” The “welcome” visit had a more sinister purpose. “They wanted us to pay to ensure the safety of the neighbourhood,” Neuma said. Even if she had been willing to, she said, “in those days Coimbra was only partly inhabited, so it was impossible for me to collect all the money they asked for.”

The militia resorted to brutal methods to punish those who didn’t follow their rules, she said. “I was there from June to August, and during that short period of time, four people disappeared and seven were expelled. All of them had something to do with drugs—pushers or drug addicts, who are not tolerated by the militia.” The militia began to threaten Neuma with violence if she did not pay them as they had demanded. She approached Rio’s Human Rights Commission and the Department of Repression Against Organised Crime to seek help in dealing with the group. “But in the end I had to give up and give in to the threats, which were becoming more insistent,” she said.

When I visited Coimbra in August this year, I found residents reluctant to address the issue of the militia and violence. Only Gabriel Augusto, a young university student, confirmed what Neuma had said. “Every family has to give the militia a fee per month, typically 20-30 reales ($10),” he said. “They are like private security guards, but if we do not pay, they threaten us with death. The rules are: no drugs, no domestic violence and no thefts. We are forced to ask them for gas cylinders and cable television, and if we want to go somewhere, we have to take the buses owned by them. We have no alternative because the official transport of the municipality does not come up here, and to reach the main road on foot it takes more than half an hour.” By Augusto’s estimation, around 50 percent of people who had moved to Coimbra have since rented out their homes, or sold them at very low prices.

Coimbra’s new administrator is 31-year-old Leandro Ferreira, who is married and has six children. Ferreira used to live in the favela known as the City of God. “We lived in a shack in a zone of the favela that we called ‘the graveyard’ because the traffickers threw murdered people there,” he said. Ferreira himself was involved in violence and drug-use during his time there—now, in Coimbra, he is eager to engage productively with those around him. “I believe that what the government has done for us is a good thing, but it’s not enough,” he said. He is attempting to push the prefecture into completing a medical centre for the region, and also build a training centre to “give people the opportunity to finish their studies and find a decent job,” he said. As administrator, he performs the difficult task of mediating between the needs of the inhabitants and the rules imposed by the militia, without openly denouncing them. All he will say is: “Every place has its own sheriff.”