RIO DE JANEIRO – A vast Art Deco residential building in Rio de Janeiro that Brazil's one-time richest man was supposed to transform into a luxury hotel ahead of the 2016 Olympics has been invaded by squatters.
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Around 100 people moved into the building overnight Monday and Tuesday, slipping through a breach in the wrought-iron fence.
The squatters, many recently evicted from another site in downtown Rio, said they were determined to remain in the building until city officials agreed to provide them housing.
"We're only leaving here with a house. If not, we're staying right here," said Alexandre Pereira da Silva, an unemployed father of three, one of several squatters who spoke to reporters across the iron fence, their faces shrouded from cameras by blankets.
Long owned by Rio soccer team Flamengo, the building was part of a deal by a company belonging to former Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista, who pledged to turn it into a hotel in return for paying millions of dollars in back taxes owed on the property. More than 20 stories high, the commanding structure looks over Guanabara Bay as well as the city's two landmarks, Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue.
Former residents of the apartment building were evicted in late 2012, around the time when Batista's oil, mining, logistics and ship-making empire began to crumble. He now is on trial, accused of insider trading.
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The company responsible for the renovation declared bankruptcy, and construction never began. The building remained empty, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes and cockroaches. Residents of the surrounding middle-class neighborhood complain it has attracted vandals, contributing to a surge in muggings nearby.
Local city councilwoman Leila do Flamengo said she thought legal proceedings to expel the squatters soon would be taken.
Affordable housing has become increasingly hard to find as this sprawling seaside city of 12 million people has experienced an economic boom, in part linked to the discovery of huge, offshore oil deposits as well as speculation ahead of last year's World Cup and the upcoming Olympics.
Poor residents have been pushed to distant suburbs or sometimes onto the streets.
Veronica Castro, one of the squatters at the Flamengo building, questioned the government's spending priorities, particularly for the high-profile sporting events.
"That's the only thing that occurs to them to spend money on," said Castro, a mother of four. "They don't provide affordable housing, health care, education or security."
Batista's downfall also has left another renovation project, the nearby Hotel da Gloria, unfinished. Once considered a modern mid-century gem, the hotel was gutted before work ground to a halt. The hotel's shell has remained abandoned for more than a year.
The renovation projects were meant to ease Rio's hotel room shortage, long considered a critical issue heading into the Olympics. When the city won the Olympic bid in 2009, it had just half the 40,000 beds required for the games. While thousands of beds have been added since then, the local Olympic organizing committee recently announced a partnership with the online home-share service AirBnB to help Olympic visitors find lodging in private homes.
Jenny Barchfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jennybarchfield