SAO PAULO – It was around midnight when eight young men with crowbars tried to force open the large gray metal double doors of a building on a tree-lined street in Sao Paulo's dilapidated downtown.
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About 100 people gathered around, some shouting advice: "Pull up now! Try lower! Lower!"
But before the doors could give way, the police arrived, launching tear gas at the group who responded by throwing rocks, leading to an hour of cat-and-mouse confrontations before the crowd finally dispersed.
It was a small battle in a broader struggle for the future of downtown Sao Paulo, where squatters occupy abandoned buildings to press for more affordable housing, and the city's new mayor, Joao Doria, dreams of a gleaming, largely privately financed renewal that will draw businesses and residents back to the city's historic heart.
The young men and the crowd that cheered them on were organized by the Front for the Fight for Housing, a group that argues that the landlords of vacant and deteriorating abandoned structures are breaking a law that requires buildings to serve a "social function." They say those buildings could offer quality housing in a prime location well connected by public transport to people who are often forced to live on the city's periphery.
Fair-housing groups now occupy about 80 previously empty properties downtown, according to the city's Housing Department. Thousands of people, mostly families, have made their homes in buildings that include hotels, a textile company's offices and an old federal police headquarters.
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Previous administrations pledged to purchase some of the occupied buildings, and plans are underway to renovate them for legal, subsidized housing.
The battle goes to the heart of competing visions for the megacity. On the one hand, Sao Paulo is the engine of Brazil's economy and a leading financial center. Doria, who has called the condition of the city "garbage," talks about making it a "global city," including by selling off publicly owned stadiums and privatizing the management of city bus terminals and parks in an effort to right city finances and attract new investment and business.
Housing rights activists, on the other hand, fear a downtown cleansed of the poor with fewer public parks and plazas.
Doria, whose name is often floated as a potential 2018 presidential candidate, paints himself an alternative to traditional politicians, a millionaire businessman who will use private sector-style management to solve public problems.
But mayors of Sao Paulo have been promising to revitalize the Centro district almost since it began emptying out in the 1970s and '80s as businesses and residents sought more space and more modern buildings elsewhere.
The Centro spreads out from the Se Cathedral and includes some of the oldest parts of the city, though most buildings date to the 19th or 20th century, when Sao Paulo boomed on the back of coffee production. It is home to major cultural institutions and much of the city government, but decaying storefronts now stand in the shadow of mid-century landmarks like Oscar Niemeyer's sinuous Copan Building.
These days, the neighborhood is on the cusp of a comeback, equal parts dilapidated and edgy. Everything can change in a block. One street might have a hip bar or a coffee shop. Another might have a series of buildings with the windows blown out. On nearly every street, homeless people sleep in doorways. Most of the empty buildings downtown are privately owned, presumably awaiting a turnaround in the market to make renovation worthwhile.
Doria has already launched a campaign to beautify downtown plazas and avenues, targeting graffiti and breaking up "Crackland," a several-block area where drug users and dealers operated for years with near impunity.
Fernando Chucre, Doria's secretary of housing, says the administration hopes to provide around 25,000 units of subsidized housing over its four-year mandate, including 4,000 to 5,000 in the city center. But Doria has publicly taken a tough line on squatters.
"Where there are invaded buildings — with help from, first, negotiation, then if necessary, the judicial system — they will be emptied, they will be taken back," he told reporters recently.
The occupied properties are unexpectedly tidy and well organized. Around 1,000 people now live in a mid-20th century building, a former hotel known as the Maua Occupation, with clean hallways, doors shut with padlocks and even a doorman who buzzes visitors in through the entry gate.
At another former hotel, known as the Cambridge, one resident maintains a rooftop garden of herbs and vegetables that end up in lunches of the building's staff. There's a playroom with toys and tables at kid height, and a bakery and a tailor shop run by residents.
In both, families pay about $60 a month toward building maintenance.
"A family that is in the occupation has the ability to pay" for housing, said Helo Regina, a Front coordinator. "What it cannot do is commit all of the family's income to paying rent and not have anything (left over) to invest in other things."
Many squatters previously lived in far-flung neighborhoods and say that being in the city center gives them greater access to their jobs, services and public transportation.
Over the years, city governments have had different levels of tolerance for the squats. Under the previous leftist administration, for example, firefighters visited some buildings to give residents safety courses.
The occupations themselves may have helped encourage a budding return to the Centro. They've spruced up derelict buildings and made the area safer by moving families in.
"I'm not saying it's right that we occupy or take (buildings) by force," said Maria das Neves, a 61-year-old seamstress who lives in the Cambridge. "But it was empty, full of trash and rats!"
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