SÃO PAULO — Inside a makeshift tent of plastic sheets and timber, lying with the debris of unkempt bedding and a wooden chair, was a motorcycle helmet. It was the only sign of any kind of mobility for 21-year-old Fernando da Nunciação and his girlfriend, Juliana Perreira da Silva.
Like many young couples, they would like a place of their own, but instead they are living like refugees with 8,000 other families in a camp known as New Palestine in southwest São Paulo.
“There is no help — rent is just so expensive,” Juliana said. “We lived with our families and couldn’t afford our own place.”
Here, in the biggest city in South America, spiraling real estate prices, low salaries and a growing population have produced a drastic housing deficit. While the government is spending $243 million on road works for the World Cup in the city that will host the opening match on June 12, there is a statewide shortage of more than 1 million dwellings — a figure that has remained steady in the past five years. An estimated $12 billion is expected to be spent around the country on hosting the tournament.
São Paulo state has the greatest deficit in the country, where almost all other states have seen a reduction in housing shortfalls, according to figures from Brazilian research institute IPEA. There have been efforts to address the chronic shortage through the federal house-building program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), which aims to build affordable homes with 60 percent for low-income families, including those earning less than about 1,600 Brazilian reals (about $700) a month. The program was launched in 2009 and achieved contracts for 1 million homes within a year.
But in São Paulo, there was still a marginal increase in the number of homes needed in 2012. In a sign of the growing desperation, the New Palestine occupation organized by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MTST) swelled from 2,000 families to 8,000 in just a month. Protesters set up the encampment on the roughly 247-acre site, visible from a main road, to draw attention to the lack of housing while regularly organizing demonstrations in the city.
Photos: Life Inside New Palestine
On March 26, the movement claimed a victory after pressuring City Hall to overturn a decree that listed nearby land as a protected public park. After a two-hour meeting with authorities, Mayor Fernando Haddad announced that the site would instead be marked as a “special zone of social interest,” allowing affordable housing to be built. The new status means up to 30 percent of the land can be used for residential purposes.
“The agreement balances the two legitimate demands on the land — on one hand the environmentalists, and on the other the population that wants its share for housing,” Haddad said in a press release.
It was a significant U-turn for the city government after the occupation began in November.
Families were organized into plots with a letter and a number crudely painted on the side of their tents constructed from garbage bags, tarpaulin and wood, while each division of the occupation had a communal kitchen, serving food provided by donations.
The invasion sprawled over the hillside near the woodland, becoming perilous whenever rains came. For one family, a total of nine slept on two tabletop beds inside an open tent with a flimsy roof. The mayor’s decision felt like a victory for some, but campaigners said they would stay at least until municipal authorities approved the proposed changes.
“For me, it’s a necessity,” said Fernando da Nunciação, a civil construction assistant. “We can’t buy a home, so we came here to try our luck. We’ll stay as long as a year.
“The cost of living here is absurd. Salaries increase, but taxes increase as well. We just hope the government will listen.”
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), São Paulo is the 57th-most-expensive city in the world. The metropolis comes behind only Caracas, Venezuela, and level with Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia, as the most expensive city in Latin America.
Last year, the average salary increased by 7.7 percent while average rent increased by 8.5 percent, according to the housing union Secovi. Seven percent of the population lives in favelas, while almost a quarter of homes were in precarious geographic areas considered at risk of severe damage due to landslides during heavy rains in the metropolitan area of São Paulo.
“There’s a great social inequality. There’s a lack of housing policies to serve the population that most needs it,” said Margareth Uemura, an urban planner and former UNESCO consultant. “Historically, migration to larger cities has been a factor in the housing deficit, but now there is also very high appreciation of land, and the World Cup accentuates this.”
The New Palestine occupation, which has been described as a “tent city,” is an even starker testament to social inequality than the neighboring favela. Black-and-blue plastic sheets ripple up and down the hillside in cascades of itinerant structures. On a recent day, a woman seven months pregnant used a makeshift washing line between two trees to hang out her laundry.
Photos: The Dwellings of the New Palestine Camp
For Solange Jesu Ribeiro, 43, this city of 11 million people was supposed to offer her a better life.
“I’m from Bahia, and I arrived in São Paulo 20 years ago,” she said. “I worked in a family home, but for two months I’ve been unemployed. My boyfriend and I are looking for apartments, but rent is very expensive here and salaries are really low. Once you pay your rent, you’re left with nothing, you go hungry.”
According to city officials, there are 890,000 families living in informal settlements like favelas, living with some kind of inadequacy, who do not legally own their properties or are living in areas of geographic risk. The number of new homes required is around 230,000, according to official estimates.
Some steps are being taken to address the problem. On March 20, São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin launched a pledge to build more than 35,000 affordable homes via the Casa Paulista program. The state housing department aims to build 150,000 dwellings by 2015, and the city’s program aims to build 55,000 houses in the city by 2016 — with 15,000 already under construction.
But despite progress, the red flag of the Landless Workers’ Movement waves on at New Palestine.
“Life here is quite precarious,” said 26-year-old Natalia Szermeta, one of the coordinators, who has two young daughters with her on the site. “The future is uncertain; it depends on political will. But the victory was very good. The plan to occupy was to call on the government to treat people with dignity.”