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In a favela in Sao Paulo
In a favela in Sao Paulo
Leandro Machado, Emilio Sant'anna

SAO PAULO — João Batista, a 45-year-old builder, has been unemployed since December. Jailson de Lima, 46, is luckier: He still manages to find construction work from time to time but doesn't earn enough to pay rent, which has been on a relentless rise. Cristiane dos Santos, 27, lived in a hostel for some time but eventually gave up.

All three are victims of Brazil's economic downturn. And in the past year, all three moved from their respective parts of São Paulo, the country's largest city, into favelas, as the informal slums are called.

Over the past few weeks, Folha de S. Paulo visited five favelas, including one in the eastern area of Cangaiba that was resurrected in June 2014, four years after it was evacuated and closed because of violent clashes between residents and police. Some 2,000 families live there now.

The Cangaiba favela is where Jailson de Lima now calls home. He'd never lived in a favela before. But at the beginning of this year, unemployed, he told himself, "I can't pay my rent anymore, so I'll build my own shack." He called his sister, who came with her husband and her sons to lend a hand. One of her sons ended up building his own accommodation just next to his uncle's. And that was that.

The area, which covers some 47,000 square meters, had been left empty since the Ministry of Justice ordered its evacuation in 2010. There was supposedly a project in the works to develop affordable housing there, but in four years, not a single wall was built. Now, just over a year after it became a favela again, the site has several small markets, an Internet café and an evangelist church.

Along the gigantic Radial Leste Avenue are two more favelas, one that has grown significantly of late, and another that, like the community in Cangaiba, was rebuilt after the police cleared it. There, we saw about 50 families — men, women, children and elderly — establishing themselves on a patch of land between the avenue and the Bresser flyover that was covered with grass just a month ago.

A fourth slum, in the eastern area of Guaianases, was erected a year ago on land that belongs to local authorities and was destined to receive social housing. The fifth favela we visited, in the western district of Jaguaré, sprung up between apartment buildings.

Troubling signs

There's no official data to show whether the number of favelas in São Paulo has decreased or increased over the past five years. The last study was conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 and showed that there were 1,643 favelas in São Paulo at the time containing more than 2 million people — approximately 11% of the city's total population.

But even without updated data, urban planners, militants and people working in social housing institutions are all positive that the number of people living in what is considered "sub-normal housing" in the city has risen. The reasons, in a megacity where an estimated 230,000 accommodations are lacking, are multiple.

"The only housing policy that exists today is "My House, My Life,"" explains city planner Raquel Rolnik. "But if, for whatever reason, you get evicted today, you'll join the queue of those waiting for another place. And the wait can be five, maybe 10 years. So where do you go in the meantime? Well, there's little choice but to go to a slum."

And with a shrinking Brazilian economy, growing unemployment and rampant inflation, there's little hope the situation is going to improve in the near future. "The first signs of the crisis are there for all to see," says Rolnik. "Unemployment is rising and wages are falling. For whoever lives on a tight budget, anything less makes a difference."

Juliana Avanci, lawyer with Gaspar Garcia Center for Human Rights, which helps homeless people, thinks the real crisis hasn't even started yet. "We've indeed seen a rise among the favela population. But the worst effects of the crisis are still to come," she says. Avanci, 33, faults problems with Brazil's housing policies and the slow rate of new construction.

Organizations fighting for housing access, such as the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), say the biggest problem is skyrocketing rent prices. Data shows that the average rent in São Paulo has gone up 98% since 2008 (despite falling in May and June 2015), while inflation over the same period was 54%.

"Favelas are growing in size, and the makeshift constructions are getting higher, with houses of two or three stories," says Alex Abiko, professor of housing management at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo. "They're unsanitary and have ventilation and lighting problems."

Abiko says public authorities are wrong not to update their data on favelas. "How can they do anything when they don't even know where the slums are, or in what conditions the people are living?"

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