Building collapse exposes São Paulo’s housing crisis

. May 02, 2018
building collapse Fire causes building collapse in São Paulo. Photo: CBSP
building collapse

Fire causes building collapse in São Paulo. Photo: CBSP

The old headquarters of the Federal Police in São Paulo burned down and collapsed early on Tuesday. By the time of this publication, 44 people have not yet been located, and at least one is believed to be dead. At this point, however, no fatalities have been confirmed by authorities.

The building, which belongs to the federal government, was squatted in by at least 146 families (or 372 people), in an occupation led by the social movement LMD (Luta por Moradia Digna, or “Struggle for Decent Housing”). According to the city’s Fire Department, the building was already subject to prior inspections and reports had confirmed its degrading housing conditions.

The building collapse exposes an ugly side of Brazil’s wealthiest city: its appalling inequality levels. In Sé and Mooca alone, the two districts of São Paulo’s impoverished city center, there are 2,334 hovels registered by the mayor’s office. According to the latest report by the city’s Social Housing Information System, 445,112 homes are located in slums, and 385,080 are officially considered irregular constructions.

</p> <p>While Brazil’s economic recession caused a decline in rent prices, they remain high for the average Brazilian family – especially since unemployment levels have yet to improve. Family “cohabitation” has become a frequent reality for many lower-income families.</p> <p>The number of homeless people has also <a href="">risen</a> in recent years. In 2015, roughly 15,000 people were living on São Paulo’s streets. In three years, that number has gone up to almost 25,000 – and 3 percent of them are children. While São Paulo’s overall population grows, on average, by about 0.7 percent every year, the homeless population grows at a much faster pace: 4.1 percent.</p> <p>A recent survey by the Ministry of Planning shows that at least 483 federally-owned buildings are not being used by the administration – like the building that burned down and collapsed yesterday.</p> <p>Designed by the Syrian-Brazilian architect Roger Zmekhol (1928-1976) in 1961, the building was one of the first in Brazil to use curtain walls, an outer covering of a building in which the outer walls are non-structural, utilized to keep the weather out and the occupants in.</p> <p>With 24 stories and 14,000 square meters of space, it was evaluated at BRL 21.5 million in 2015 when the government tried to auction it off. That attempt fell flat, though, as the cost to reform the site was estimated at over BRL 40 million.</p> <p>The federal government pretends that these empty buildings don’t exist. And mayor’s offices don’t evaluate risks or assess problems.</p> <h3>Building collapse: what do we know so far</h3> <h5>Causes</h5> <p>The building collapse was caused by a fire that started on the 5th floor, around 1:30 a.m. A 21-year-old man <a href="">told</a> <em>O Globo</em> that the fire began after a domestic dispute. According to that eyewitness, a couple was arguing while they were cooking – using liquified alcohol as fuel. While the man was pouring more alcohol into the fire, his wife allegedly pushed him.</p> <p>According to the man, the couple undressed themselves because their clothes caught on fire. Soon afterwards, the fire quickly spread.</p> <p>Between August 2015 and March 2018, the building that collapsed was investigated by São Paulo’s State Prosecution Office after a neighbor reported “visible structural cracks” on the building. On March 16, 2018, however, the city’s Civil Defense unit identified no structural damage.</p> <p>The case was closed two months ago – but has just been reopened after the building collapse.</p> <h5>The damage</h5> <p>Debris hit three neighboring buildings, including São Paulo’s Lutheran Church – which had 90 percent of its structure destroyed. The church was classified as one of São Paulo’s historic and cultural heritage sites. Now, “there’s only the altar and the tower standing,” said Frederico Carlos Ludwig, the church’s minister.</p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-3973" src="" alt="building collapse" width="830" height="625" srcset=" 830w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 830px) 100vw, 830px" /></p> <h5>What authorities say</h5> <p>In short, every authority is sympathetic to the pain of the families. That being said, no institution has claimed responsibility for the tragedy.</p> <p>Embattled President Michel Temer attempted to seem sympathetic, and dropped by the site. He left 10 minutes later, after being cursed at and booed by those present at the scene. The car carrying the president was kicked and hit by objects.</p> <p>São Paulo’s acting governor Márcio França and the city’s acting mayor Bruno Covas went to the site and talked to the press.</p> <p>França stated that “the building didn’t offer decent living conditions to the desperate people living there.” He blamed the justice system for allowing, on some occasions, squatters to remain in abandoned buildings. França has promised for the time being to house families who lived in the building in shelters.</p> <p>Covas also stated that his office bears no responsibility for the city’s housing crisis. “The city’s administration met with the residents on six occasions.” He promised that the Civil Defense team will map all buildings presenting structural risks.</p> <p>Both Covas and França called what happened an “announced tragedy.” Yet, nothing was done to remove those folks from the abandoned building.</p> <p>Now the question is: will the city’s administration use this fire as a reason to remove squatters from other abandoned buildings in São Paulo’s downtown area. The real estate lobby has been dying to do this for quite some time.

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