The collapse of a building in Rio das Pedras, west of Rio de Janeiro, with the death of a two-year-old child and his father and several injured, reveals one of the dimensions of the housing problem, a kaleidoscope of multiple facets. It is a drama that began long before the militias and that goes far beyond them.
When, in 2019, two buildings built by the militia collapsed in Muzema, killing 24 people, the debate, of course, focused on the growing presence of crime in the informal housing market.
Muzema and Rio das Pedras are controlled by the militia, which charges fees to provide “security” to residents and merchants and demands payment for essential services such as gas and public transport.
More recently, it entered the “real estate business”, with the construction, occupation and sale or rent of irregular houses and, mainly, with land grabbing, land subdivision and sale of lots.
They produce what neither the State nor the formal market is capable of delivering: affordable housing and conditions for the poorest, even if precarious.
It’s nothing new in the criminal world. The Italian and American mafias, as well as the cartels in Mexico, have always been active in the lucrative real estate market, which still lends itself to money laundering. This needs to be denounced and rigorously fought, especially now that it has allies in several government palaces.
That fact, however, cannot obscure that this week’s tragedy has nothing to do with militias or organized crime. It results from the traditional process of self-enterprise or self-construction of a home, a expedient that, since the 1940s, has been the main way in which low-income workers “solve” their housing problem, in the absence of a housing policy.
This commonplace process gained names and characters, in a story that could be happy but ended in tragedy. Genivan Gomes Macedo, 57 years old, father of Natan, 30 years old and grandfather of Maitê, two years old, the victims of the collapse, was responsible for building the building that collapsed. He could be a hero who guaranteed a home for the whole family, but became the culprit in a gear where personal effort vanishes for lack of public policies.
Genivan struggled for 25 years to secure a home for his extended family and a place for his son to work. A migrant from Paraíba, Genivan bought land in an irregular subdivision in 1996 (not approved by the city hall) and never received the deed.
As he declared to the police, “the house was built little by little, in stages, as he was getting money, with no plans and no qualified professionals”. City hall inspectors never showed up. Public technical assistance, which could advise him on construction, never existed.
The building reached the 4th floor, but the work was never completed. On the ground floor, there was the LAN house of his son Nathan, who lived on the 1st floor with his wife and daughter. On the 3rd, her other daughter, Nathaniela lives with her husband Jonas. On the 4th, his ex-wife, Antônia, lives with their daughter Tatiana from another marriage.
Genivan no longer lived in the house and wanted to return to Paraíba. After separating, Antônia was responsible for the building and no further works were carried out on the site. For this reason, the 2nd floor was empty, unfinished, with exposed brick. According to his testimony, the building was occupied only by family members, it was never rented.
The vertical construction of Genivan is frequent in poor communities in metropolises such as Rio and São Paulo. After the intense process of horizontal expansion of these cities, in the second half of the 20th century, in recent decades the precarious settlements have been undergoing a strong process of densification and verticalization, which, in most cases, is promoted by the residents themselves to shelter the family or for informal rent.
Research on the informal market in favelas, carried out in 2018 by Professor Pedro Abramo, from IPPUR/UFRJ, revealed that although the number of favelas has not grown significantly, in the recent period, in Rio de Janeiro, they have been intensely densified. Verticalization is very expressive: 45% of the buildings have more than three floors.
With no space for a horizontal expansion of the house, the solution has been to grow upwards, slab on slab, to expand the building area. With the lack of land, the sale or rental of slabs became common and a profitable business. According to Abramo, the average rent for three rooms in a favela reaches almost R$500.
Building a one-story house without a project and a qualified professional presents low risk, although it does not guarantee living conditions. The construction of a multi-storey building, on the other hand, without prior planning, foundation and structural design and technical assistance, as is being done in precarious settlements, brings obvious risks to life.
In a country where about 75% of the houses were built in a precarious way, the creation of public programs of technical assistance in housing is essential to face problems such as occurred in Rio das Pedras.
For decades, professional organizations in architecture and urbanism have struggled in this perspective. In 2008, the national law 11,888/2008 was enacted, which provides low-income families with free technical assistance for the construction and renovation of social interest housing. But, due to the lack of public initiatives, the experiences carried out are still punctual and isolated, the result of the militancy of those who defend social urbanism.
One of the most successful public examples was carried out in the Federal District as of 2016. The Federal District Housing Development Company (Codhab-DF) created a program that had ten housing assistance posts in poor communities on the periphery, that develop projects and support the execution of works to improve or rebuild homes. To date, around 500 families have been assisted, with expressive results. It’s still little, but it shows that it’s possible.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes (DEM), said that “we are not going to allow any more irregular constructions in the city (…) We are leaving a very clear message for the population, this story of so much irregular construction is over” .
Mere bravado. Buildings like Genivan’s are part of the survival strategy of the poorest and will not cease to exist. Instead of threatening the population with statements that they cannot fulfill, Paes needs to formulate a broad and massive program of technical assistance in housing to avoid a tragedy like the one in Rio das Pedras.
Perhaps it can be inspired by initiatives carried out in Rio de Janeiro itself, such as the Urban and Social Guidance Post (Pouso), an initiative of the IAB-RJ, which in the past decade carried out an important, albeit limited, technical assistance work in Rio de Janeiro slums. .