The transition from Saturday night to Sunday morning has become a brutal scene in downtown São Paulo over the last two months, as the new mayor, João Doria, has embarked on an aggressive effort to clear out an open-air drug market. On several weekends in the wee hours of Sunday morning, hundreds of police have descended on cracolândia (crackland). The roving fair offers marijuana, cocaine and crack and shifts homes amid a few-block radius of downtown, just a stone’s throw from the elegant São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.
Life in cracolândia is far from rosy: Addicts desperately try to flip whatever meager possessions they have for one more crack rock, stepping over others passed out on the sidewalk. But Doria’s heavy-handed tactics, which have prompted widespread complaints of excessive use of force and plans by activists to formally petition the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are more than just a zealous hardline approach to the war on drugs from a conservative mayor. They’re also an attempt to clean up the area and cash in on lucrative downtown real estate — and not for the first time.
But this go around, Brazil’s progressive urban planning legislation might actually thwart wholesale gentrification without affordable housing for the city’s poorest.
“For as long as I’m mayor, cracolândia won’t exist,” said Doria on one of his Sunday morning strolls through the aftermath of Operation Redemption efforts, during which police descend, batons drawn, to scatter users, arrest dealers, confiscate drugs and money, and destroy the makeshift stalls that populate the market. “Now it’s Nova Luz.”
The rebranding name comes with years of baggage in a hotly contested corner of South America’s largest city, an area that has been a ping-pong ball in alternating liberal and conservative mayoral administrations. When government and corporate offices departed from there in the ’70s and ’80s, the section of downtown declined, and then was slowly repopulated by the working class. The area, known traditionally as the neighborhoods of Santa Ifigênia and Luz (without the Nova or “New”), is home to a thriving Peruvian immigrant community and profitable clusters of auto parts and electronics stores.
In 2013, then Mayor Gilberto Kassab initiated the first effort to remake the neighborhood with his Projeto Nova Luz. He hired global engineering firm AECOM to prepare a master plan that would demolish large swaths of a 45-block section of downtown and spruce it up into a contemporary stylish neighborhood. Comparisons were made to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.
But there was a problem: One of Kassab’s predecessors, a leftist mayor, signed off on legislation in 2001 establishing a new zoning category, Special Zones of Social Interest (ZEIS in Portuguese). The ZEIS would privilege the extremely low-income population — of which there are plenty. São Paulo, a city of some 12 million, has a 19 percent poverty rate.
The area slated to become Nova Luz has been under ZEIS zoning ever since, but Kassab seemed ready to steamroll its ambitious provisions that 60 percent of housing be reserved for people earning up to three times the minimum wage — roughly $11,037 U.S. per year for formal sector workers.
At the time, housing activists lamented that the ZEIS was becoming just another law that sounded good on paper but was toothless in practice. Luckily for them, another leftist mayor, Fernando Haddad, was elected and he promptly shelved Projeto Nova Luz.
Haddad was enamored of urban planning as a tool for leveraging social equity, and prepared a new strategic master plan for the city that sought to upend the patterns that have made São Paulo a city of savage inequalities. He was also determined to make the ZEIS legislation work, and he more than doubled the amount of the city under ZEIS provisions even as he knew his days were numbered amid a national political scandal.
Enter the conservative João Doria, who took office in January and has undone as much of Haddad’s progressive actions — from bike lanes to reducing speed limits to treating drug addiction as a public health matter rather than a criminal one — as he could in his first six months in office. But in resurrecting Nova Luz, he has stumbled headlong into Haddad’s new master plan and ZEIS.
Earlier this month, the city began demolishing allegedly blighted buildings to pave the way for Nova Luz. When a bulldozer knocked down the wall of a tenement where people were still living — injuring three — the courts reacted, halting further demos. On June 2, the state public prosecutor’s office formally requested that any urban renewal plan in Nova Luz be halted for violations of the city’s master plan. For starters, the Doria administration had failed to form a community council, which would allow affected residents to have a voice in City Hall.
More egregiously, initial plans for the new housing to be erected over the rubble did not conform to the ZEIS’ aggressive mandates for affordable housing. Doria, together with the conservative state government, prepared a public-private partnership to build in Nova Luz. According to Brazilian weekly magazine Carta Capital (Portuguese only), the results would consist of 2,260 units for families earning up to five times the minimum wage (maximum $18,395 U.S. per year) and another 1,423 units of middle-income housing for families earning between six and 10 times ($22,074 to $36,790 U.S. per year). This housing plan, however, has not been formally presented to the neighborhood.
Raquel Rolnik, a planning professor at the University of São Paulo and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, argued that the ZEIS zoning and the public-private partnership are fundamentally “incompatible.”
“The residents of these blocks, who for the most part live precariously in tenements and SROs, are in no way taken into consideration by the PPP,” she told Carta Capital. “It doesn’t address the housing need in this neighborhood, which means this project will create a homeless population without offering them an alternative.”
She views Doria’s housing plan as a pretext to wholesale gentrification in the neighborhood, with remaining parcels sold to market-rate developers who would capitalize on the cracolândia cleanup to rent or sell to more affluent São Paulo residents.
While the Doria administration has been fairly tight-lipped, it did say in a statement that “any urban redevelopment project to be implemented in this area will follow existing legislation.”
That’s not good enough for the state’s legal minds, which have also seen the public defender’s office join the case against Doria’s urban renewal scheme.
“Not following these requirements makes the project illegal,” said Public Defender Rafael de Paula Eduardo Faber. “Urban planning norms exist in order to guarantee public participation in building the city, allowing for inclusive and democratic debate.”
The police raids in cracolândia continue, but if equity-minded urban planners and their legal allies have their way, Doria’s gentrified vision for downtown will not come to pass on their watch.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.