Thousands of Brazilians Living Like Refugees as World Cup Nears

October 19, 2016

In the largest city in South America, more than 8,000 families are living in temporary tents consisting of plastic sheets and timber. The families, who are living like refugees in southwest São Paulo, have dubbed the camp “New Palestine.” The housing shortage has amplified because of soaring real estate prices, low salaries and steep population growth.1 São Paulo also has not been a city of booming development; cranes are rarely seen across the skyline.2 The statewide housing shortage has remained at 1 million dwellings for the past five years and with the Brazilian government spending $243 million on road projects for the World Cup beginning on June 12th, residents of New Palestine are regularly protesting. It is estimated that $12 billion will be spent across Brazil in anticipation of the world’s most popular soccer tournament.

The state of São Paulo has experienced the greatest deficit. Throughout the country, other states have been able to reduce the shortage of housing, according to research from the Brazilian Research Institute. The federal housing program has also attempted to quell the shortages. The program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (translates to My House, My Life), aims to construct affordable homes for 60 percent of low-income families, those who earn less than 1,600 Brazilian reals ($700 USD) per month. Launched in 2009, the progressive program attained deals for 1 million homes within the first year.1 However, in São Paulo, the number of homes needed is still slowly increasing. When the New Palestine occupation, planned by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), increased from 2,000 families to 8,000 families in just one month, the problem could no longer be ignored. The MST protesters set up the encampment on a 247-acre site close to a main road in an effort to bring attention to the lack of housing. MST was founded 30 years ago and has been fighting for land rights since then.3 The group also regularly organizes demonstrations in the city.

Last month, on March 26, the movement won a small victory with the help of the São Paulo government. Following pressure from the MST, City Hall reversed a decree that registered nearby land as a protected public park. Following the extensive meeting, Mayor Fernando Haddad made the announcement that the site would now be listed as a “special zone of social interest.” This will allow for up to 30 percent of the land to be used for residents and plans to begin construction of affordable housing are taking place. In his announcement of the plan Haddad said: “The agreement balances the two legitimate demands on the land — on one hand the environmentalists, and on the other the population that wants its share for housing.”1  This decision marks a significant change in the attitude of the city government since the encampment organized in November.

Within the New Palestine development, conditions are less than comfortable. Families are organized on small plots of land and mark their houses with a letter and number painted on the side of their tents. Their tent houses are often construction with tarps, garbage bags, and wood. Every division of the encampment has a communal kitchen and serves food from donations received. The tent city is positioned on a hillside close to the woods, making it a dangerous residence when rain comes. One family interviewed reported that all 9 family members slept on two tabletop beds within one tent. While the decision by the mayor is a small victory, many protesters say they will remain in New Palestine until all housing proposals are approved. “For me, it’s a necessity. We can’t buy a home, so we came here to try our luck. We’ll stay as long as a year […] The cost of living here is absurd. Salaries increase, but taxes increase as well. We just hope the government will listen,” said Fernando da Nunciação, a civil construction assistant and a resident of the camps.

Currently São Paulo is listed as the 57th most expensive city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). In relation to the rest of Latin America, only Caracas, Venezuela is more expensive and São Paulo is about equal to Mexico City and Bogota when it comes to the cost of living 1. According to the housing union in Secovi, in 2013 the average salary of a Paulista increased by 7.7 percent but rental rates increased by 8.5 percent. More than seven percent of the overall population resides in favelas. Furthermore, a quarter of houses were within a dangerous geographic area that is at a high risk of sustaining severe damage from landslides after heavy rain in São Paulo. Margareth Uemura, an urban planner and former UNESCO consultant said of the ongoing issues: “There’s a great social inequality. There’s a lack of housing policies to serve the population that most needs it […] Historically, migration to larger cities has been a factor in the housing deficit, but now there is also very high appreciation of land, and the World Cup accentuates this.” The tent city has also showed the stark contrast between the favelas and New Palestine. When seen side-by-side, favelas appear to be the more desirable living space.

For many residents of São Paulo, the booming city represented a better life with many promising opportunities. After moving to the city, many are finding these visions are not realistic. Solange Jesu Ribeiro said: “I’m from Bahia, and I arrived in São Paulo 20 years ago. I worked in a family home, but for two months I’ve been unemployed. My boyfriend and I are looking for apartments, but rent is very expensive here and salaries are really low. Once you pay your rent, you’re left with nothing, you go hungry.” City official numbers report that 890,000 families are currently living in informal settings such as favelas, in a residence with a significant inadequacy, do not legally own their property, or are living in a home with a significant geographical risk 1. Officials also estimate that 230,000 new affordable homes are required to end these housing issues. A few measures are being taken to tackle these growing problems.

On March 20, the governor of São Paulo promised to build 35,000 affordable homes and established the Casa Paulista program. The government-housing department is aiming to build 150,000 residences by 2015 and to build 55,000 houses by 2016.1An estimated 15,000 of these homes are already under construction. However, despite these small victories, the Landless Workers’ Movement residents in New Palestine continue to be a prominent worrying symbol of continued housing issues.

Brazil shows no signs of slowing down developmentally and São Paulo is one the fastest growing cities in the world. World attention will soon turn to Brazil with the beginning of the World Cup and these housing issues with receive more attention, and possibly more support. Regardless of international support, these housing issues must be solved in São Paulo before more residents become homeless.



1.     Bowater, Donna. “Housing Shortage Grips São Paulo as Brazil Spends Billions on World Cup.” Al Jazeera America. April 13, 2014. Pg 1-10. Web. April 14, 2014.

2.     Rapoza, Kenneth. “On Housing, Are Brazilians Over Their Heads?” Forbes. August 2, 2013. Pg. 1-4. Web. April 14, 2014.

3.     Watts, Jonathan. “Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement renews protest on 30th anniversary.” The Guardian. February 13, 2014. Pg 1-6. Web. April 14, 2014.

4. Economist Intelligence Unit. "Brazil Economy, Politics and GDP Growth Summary." The Economist. April 15, 2014. 


About Author(s)

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Kelcey Hadden-Leggett
Kelcey Hadden-Leggett is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in Spanish, a Certificate in Latin American Studies, and a related area Certificate in Portuguese. She recently completed the Pitt in Ecuador program in the Amazon.