Forced Evictions in Guaratiba: Public Housing Life in Cosmos (Part 2/3)

This is Part 2 of a three-part series about one community’s struggle with forced evictions. The series looks at the realities of Rio de Janeiro City government’s removal process, life for residents moved to public housing units, and life for residents who resist.

May 2011—Six months after 190 families from Guaratiba had their lives chaotically uprooted we visited the public housing unit in Cosmos where they were sent. Their greatest complaint is that no one has yet been given title for their new apartments.

“What do I even own? Do I have some kind of document?” asks one resident, bewildered. Further, there are great doubts among residents about who exactly is going to pay for the apartment and worse, how much is to be paid. “We’re not sure if we’re going to have to pay for the apartment, or if City government is going to pay,” says another resident.

For residents who came from Guaratiba, a mostly green, peaceful area where many residents have family and commercial gardens, the switch to condominium life has not been easy.

“Even though this apartment as far as living goes is good, it’s good for people who don’t like to do anything. For people who work the earth, walk on the earth, it’s bad,” says one resident, who confesses to spending more time back in Guaratiba than in her new apartment. “I can’t stay (at the apartment) all the time. My family still lives in Guaratiba. My dad is bedridden, and my sister is blind. There’s no way.” Homes in the public housing units are a fixed boxy 37 square meters, generally smaller than the adaptable favela dwellings residents had spent decades accommodating to their needs.

Dealing with the precarious security situation has been another challenge for residents from Guaratiba.

“At the end of last year, there were gunshots fired from one condominium towards ours,” claims one resident. “There’s noise the whole night. I really miss my piece of land: calm, tranquility, there’s none of that here… Here there’s prostitution, drugs, everything mixed together.”

Unfortunately, confirming militia presence was impossible because residents either refused to speak about it or spoke in only vague terms, though these are pretty strong indicators that indeed, the militia controls the area.

One resident admitted to doubts about where condominium fees go, “I can’t guarantee that we don’t pay for militia. We put money in someone’s hand every month. He says it’s to pay the workers, but we don’t know what he’s doing.”

Residents have had to put up with certain restrictions that have greatly affected their quality of life, like restrictions on small businesses. Families that formerly depended on small businesses out of their homes, a very common survival mechanism among the city’s lower-income residents, can no longer depend on them as a source of income.

We spoke with one woman selling food items out of her home, and she informed us that selling anything out of her home was against condominium rules: “We were already warned that if someone knocks on our door and finds out, we could lose the house.”

Residents have also learned to improvise.  Apartments didn’t come with an area for drying clothes, so they’ve had to use the railings on the outside of the buildings.

We were also told residents were forced to leave behind pets as animals are not permitted in the public housing units.  These animals still roam the demolished area where their masters once lived.

Another restriction with widespread consequences has been the banning of worship in outdoor spaces. Members of a Methodist Church in Guaratiba had worked together over the years to build a church with their own tithes and offerings. The Church was demolished, and no compensation was given, the church having been classified as a business.

Residents are now trying to continue their faith lives in this new environment. “Here we can’t worship outside… so our services take place every Monday at a different member’s apartment. We are going to launch a nearby space for our brothers and sisters who don’t want to leave the Church.”

One churchgoer even wanted to continue in another congregation closer to her previous home, but it’s “just not possible,” she tells us. Even though Cosmos is only about 5km away from Guaratiba, there is no direct transportation, and having to take two different buses or vans is a financial sacrifice for many residents.

Another rumored problem confirmed by the visit was the difficulty with the school system. When they arrived, “there weren’t any schools. Nobody was in school. There are still some children not in school to this day. I couldn’t find slots in Campo Grande,” tells one mom. When she finally did get her daughter into a school, she couldn’t adjust to the different classes. Since it was her last year, her mother did everything she could to get her back in her previous school, even though it is far away.

In spite of all the difficulties, there are evident signs of life and of residents’ attempt to build community in this new environment. Even though there aren’t many recreation areas for children, children and teenagers share the parking lot, where more than half of the parking spaces sit empty, flying kites together. Residents tell us how they organized themselves to collect money for Carnival activities in the condominium.

However, not all residents are adapting and willing to stay. Even though it’s not allowed under condominium regulations, one resident tells us: “there are people selling the apartments. There are people renting out their apartments.”

Click for Part 1 and Part 3 of this series.