How a Group of Squatters Convinced Brazilian Authorities to Seize a Vacant Building for Public Housing

The building was unoccupied for 20 years before being expropriated. Photo: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

The building was unoccupied for 20 years before being expropriated. Photo: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

In the heart of Porto Alegre in Brazil, about two dozen families squatted in an empty building for ten months until their stay came to an end early this summer. Not with police intervention, as past occupations in the same building have, but with a legal decree on July 4 expropriating the property for public housing. Their mobilization was credited with “sensitizing the power of the state government” to declare the building of social importance.  

As well as being a residence for the families, the building had also been transformed into a cultural space in downtown Porto Alegre. The movement, called the Saraí Occupation, used Facebook to raise awareness and connect with squats in other parts of the country; YouTube to show life within their community; and the hashtag #OcupaSaraiEuApoio (#ISupportOccupySarai) to allow users to follow along on Twitter. An online petition supporting the occupation of the property was also created.

With 60 days remaining before the state government would decide whether to sign the expropriation, a video circulated explaining the reasons for the Saraí squat. Among them were the fact that the building was initially created to serve as housing for 40 families, but stayed vacant for nearly ten years, “not fulfilling any social function”. The video tried to create awareness of the situation of people living inside the squat and how public support could help their cause. 

Além de residência, edifício virou espaço cultural no centro de Porto Alegre. Foto: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

One of the children who lives at the squat participates in a public protest, promoted by Saraí's residents. Photo: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

The story of a building nobody lived in

Built to serve as affordable housing with funds from the National Housing Bank — a defunct Brazilian state firm which financed real estate ventures — the building was never used for its intended purpose. After being used to house the offices of Brazilian public bank Caixa Econômica Federal, it remained abandoned for almost two decades without purpose.

According to a special report by the local independent newspaper Jornal Tabaré, in the early 2000s a large real estate company bought the building from the bank for the price of 600,000 reals (around 271,000 US dollars). About two years after making the purchase, having found no use for the property, the company re-sold it for the sum of 1.2 million reals (450,000 dollars), double the value of the initial purchase, to a man who served as a front for the largest criminal organization in Brazil, the PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) faction. 

The group is based in São Paulo, but maintains branches in every state of Brazil as well as in Paraguay and Bolivia. In the abandoned building in Porto Alegre, the members of the faction intended to dig a tunnel leading to the headquarters of a bank a few meters away. According to the Tabaré report, as a result of the scandal generated by the case, “the building returned to the control of the [real estate] company, in spite of the fact that the building's registration was never officially transferred to the Caixa Econômica Federal”.

Of the occupations organized by the Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia (MNLM) (National Movement to Fight for Housing) since 2005: 

Photo: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

Corner of the building were Occupy Saraí is located, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Photo: Ocupação Saraí/Facebook

Duas delas foram ações de denúncia pela situação do prédio, com duração de um ou dois dias. A ocupação de moradia que mais durou teve 4 meses, de 20 de novembro de 2006 a 23 de março de 2007. A maneira como foram removidos também é simbólica – mas da repressão.

Two of them were protests to denounce the situation of the building, and lasted for one or two days. The longest occupation of the building lasted for four months, from November 20, 2006, to March 23, 2007. The manner in which the occupiers were removed is also symbolic — but because of the repression.

In August 2013, families from the MNLM once again occupied the unused, empty building in the city centre. In September, military police intervened one morning. While they were fixing a pipe problem at the building, some residents claimed to be harassed and beaten up by police officers who were passing by. The company itself went as far as to recognize the “irregularity” of the intervention

But Saraí resisted. Ten months would pass until the state's decision. The notion of property, strongly debated and analyzed among the squatters, was explained in another a video by Gloria Maria, a girl who saw Saraí as her home for the last months. She called it the “right of owning”. After listing a number of things that one may own, Gloria Maria linked property to the “right of owning” a citizenship, which she calls “a temporary place”. 

The logic of the market 

The right to decent housing is stated in the Brazilian Constitution. Even so, according to the report released by the United Nations Human Settlements Program, in Brazil 33 million people do not have anywhere to live. According to data from the census carried out by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, or IBGE):

Existem hoje no Brasil, segundo o censo, pouco mais de 6,07 milhões de domicílios vagos, incluindo os que estão em construção. O número não leva em conta as moradias de ocupação ocasional (de veraneio, por exemplo) nem casas cujos moradores estavam temporariamente ausentes durante a pesquisa. Mesmo assim, essa quantidade supera em cerca de 200 mil o número de habitações que precisariam ser construídas para que todas as famílias brasileiras vivessem em locais considerados adequados: 5,8 milhões.

According to the census, today in Brazil there are around 6.07 million empty homes, including those under construction. This number does not include dwellings of occasional occupation (holiday homes, for example) nor houses whose inhabitants were temporarily absent during the survey. Even so, this figure exceeds by around 200,000 the number of dwellings which would need to be built so that all Brazilian families could live in houses considered adequate: 5.8 million.

At the end of April this year, a meeting was called between the occupiers and the owners of the property in an attempt to mediate the situation. After saying that he would sell the building and reject the sum offered by the state government of Rio Grande do Sul for the property — 1.9 million reals (452,000 dollars) — the owner reneged, claiming that he was thinking of using the address as the headquarters of his business. He had already asked for 4.5 million reals for the building (1.8 million dollars).

In another video from Saraí, architect Claudia Favaro argues that “the logic of increasingly removing poor people from urban centres creates a controversy in the issue of the expansion of equipment. It is a lot more expensive to take equipment and infrastructure to the places where people are being taken”. But it happens, all the same.

How Saraí brought the block to the streets 

While the residents of Saraí were continuing their struggle, the headlines of the local mass media found no space to report on their efforts. The movement therefore found a way to continue on the margins. A series of public events, from leafleting to artistic performances and protests in front of the Government Palace, to clandestine parties held inside the building, began to be organized and publicized through the Saraí Facebook page

The occupation attracted more and more sympathizers and supporters each day. People discovered the story of the families through social networks, shared from one timeline to another.

The online mobilization by the members of Saraí became an example of the impact social movements can have through social media. The Internet does not work without action in the real world: the real world, in turn, organizes and debates on the Internet. Achieving a balance between these two points has been the key factor in the success (or failure) of many of the so-called new social movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Saraí. 

The families currently occupying the Saraí have until the end of the month to vacate the building, so that the state can begin the legal process of taking public possession of the property. Not all of the 70 people currently resident in the building will be the recipients of the apartments which, it is estimated, will be finished in two years. The state government needs to consider the people already registered on the waiting list for accommodation. But while bureaucracy assumes its role, in the building on Rua Caldas Júnior, the victory is being celebrated:

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