Six Takeaways from the Popular Council’s Meeting with Rio’s Mayor

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Thursday, May 24 was a breakthrough day for the Popular Council and its fight for housing rights in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Not only were some members present at a meeting with congressional representatives in Brasília, but a group also met with the mayor of Rio, Marcelo Crivella. After months of demonstrations by the Popular Council and months of the City postponing or not scheduling promised meetings, Eliane Oliveira, a lawyer with the Pastoral das Favelas and the archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, received a call from the mayor’s office at 9:30pm on Wednesday, May 23. A meeting was set for 10am the next day. Popular Council members rushed to put together a group to present their recently published manifesto to the mayor. On the following Wednesday, May 27, the Popular Council met to discuss the meeting and communicate the ideas debated. The following are six major takeaways from their demands and the mayor’s responses.

1. Eviction versus resettlement

The first demand in the manifesto calls for the “immediate end to the policy of evictions in favelas,” estimating that over 20,000 families are at risk if the mayor goes forward with his Strategic Plan for the city. Mayor Crivella has long said there will be no evictions under his administration, a sentiment he repeated in the Thursday meeting. However, his comments in response to the first demand raised some confusion. Oliveira recalled: “At this moment, he said there would never be evictions, but there would be resettlement. That’s exactly what he said in relation to eviction.” Popular Council members question the difference between eviction and resettlement, which in their minds essentially mean the same thing. It’s unclear how the mayor differentiates between “eviction” and “resettlement,” which raises concerns that with a simple switch in wording the mayor is reopening space for some form of unwanted removals.

2. Decree 44557

About two weeks after the collapse of a building and housing occupation in the center of São Paulo, on May 1, Crivella signed into law Decree 44557. The decree creates a working group comprised of several municipal bodies with the purpose of addressing “matters related to the resettlement of families living in irregular occupations in public or private units.” Many community leaders and activists are critical and wary of the measure. The decree gives the working group thirty days to come up with policy recommendations and, as of yet, civil society groups have not been invited to participate. The Popular Council asked to be informed about the working group decisions, but members are worried the decree will be another tool used for evictions in favelas and occupied buildings in the city.

3. Promises made

Crivella did convey a couple of concrete plans that some Popular Council members are optimistic about. One of the public defenders for the communities involved in the Popular Council reflected: “I thought it was all very vague, without any commitments. I just heard two concrete things. He is going to try to have a meeting with the communities with problems in federal areas together with the relevant federal government bodies. The other promise related to Barrinha, to create a Special Zone of Social Interest there.” While not in writing, this is good news. First, communities on federal land in Rio were meeting with representatives in Brasília on the same day, so having support from the mayor’s office will only help their cause. And second, recognition and protection for the 51 families of Barrinha will relieve their fear of eviction and allow them to get back to their normal lives.

4. Housing policy

The Popular Council presented several recommendations for progressive housing policy, stressing that many favelas need upgrading projects that follow local demands and ideas and citing community-led initiatives in Laboriaux in Rocinha as an example. The mayor had two main responses. First, that there would be no land regularization in communities that didn’t already have the necessary urban infrastructure. “He said there would only be land titling if there was first urban upgrading [but] there is no money. So he won’t do anything, because this needs to be done first,” stated Oliveira. While the mayor failed to make clear commitments on upgrading projects and land titling for favelas, he did discuss plans to build more housing. The mayor claimed that his promised housing developments, totaling 10,000 units and scheduled to be completed by 2020, will be built in Rio das Pedras on land recently acquired by the City in a trade with the State of Rio de Janeiro.

5. Militia and gang control

One of the most problematic takeaways was the way in which Crivella discussed the barriers to urban development in Rio’s favelas. “He made it clear, ‘we will not do [land titling] in communities with militia.’ He said it many times,” stated Oliveira. Over 2 million people across the Rio metropolitan region are estimated to live in areas controlled by vigilante cop mafias, known locally simply as militias, but Popular Council members felt that Crivella was unfairly focused on militia or gang control in the context of poor neighborhoods. Barrinha resident Jaqueline Andrade said that before each individual started to speak, Crivella would ask whether they were from a community with militia control, and if not, whether drug traffickers were present. The previously cited public defender recounted finding it troubling: “I said, ‘Mayor, just so its recorded, I know many [communities] that don’t have militia or drug trafficking.'” According to the lawyer, Crivella responded “I don’t know of any.” In their meeting the following week, Popular Council members expressed concern that the mayor’s understanding of favelas was severely limited, potentially hindering any meaningful development.

6. The role of civil society

Throughout the meeting, Crivella asked the Popular Council to present him with projects to consider, regarding their manifesto’s demands. The group proposed several specific policy ideas such as eliminating back taxes on abandoned buildings in an effort to encourage development of public housing projects. Yet the mayor appeared to ignore these ideas and continued to ask for concrete projects, “as if he doesn’t have people able to create these projects,” Oliveira noted. This brings into question the role of civil society in Crivella’s Rio. While civil society groups have yet to be called on to participate in working groups such as the one created by Decree 44557, the mayor expressed his desire for them to present ready-to-go policy proposals regarding housing rights. One must ask if the mayor really wants civil society input when the group was given just 12 hours to prepare for the meeting.

The Popular Council’s meeting with Mayor Marcelo Crivella was an important step forward but also left many questions unanswered. What will ‘resettlements’ under his administration look like? What projects will be proposed by the working group of Decree 44557? How will Crivella’s perceptions of militia or gang control affect what kind of upgrading or titling initiatives will be implemented and which communities stand to benefit? Only time will tell, but many on the Popular Council are nonetheless cautiously optimistic. As Jaqueline Andrade from Barrinha stated, “Sometimes they promise a lot and do little. He said that no community would be removed under his administration. From my point of view it was productive, but we have to see if they will really end up following through with what they promised.”