SAO PAULO – A 22-story abandoned building in a formerly luxurious district of downtown Sao Paulo is the site of Latin America’s largest squatter occupation.
Located close to Sao Paulo’s emblematic Luz train station the Prestes Maia – as the building is known – has become the poster child for the urban housing crisis, as it is home to some 478 squatting families.
Officially occupied since 2010 and Latin America’s second-largest squatter building, the highrise moved up to first place in 2015 when the Venezuelan government cleared the residents out of Caracas’ Torre de David, a 45-story skyscraper that had been occupied by squatters for years.
Life inside the Prestes Maia is quiet just before noon, when most residents are at work, but energy flows inside these concrete walls, home to some 2,000 people distributed across two tower blocks.
Sivirina Ana de Conceicao, 51, lives in a 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) room on the first floor, a few steps away from a common courtyard, where graffiti urges residents not to litter.
“We are here because we have to be,” she said of the occupation, organized by the Movimiento Moradia na Luta por Justica, Sao Paulo’s main squatter movement. “We are workers, not bums. Everybody wants an opportunity and I had mine.”
Living in the building is not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, as moisture has eaten away at the walls, the windows are covered with wooden boards and the showers – which have to be shared by the residents – are torn to pieces, but the occupants are grateful to at least have a roof over their heads.
According to official figures, Sao Paulo has a housing deficit of 358,000 units, while some 830,000 families live in “precarious settlements.”
Since 2010, the Prestes Maia has been the icon of squatter occupations in Brazil, a country whose housing problem is evident and where some 206 buildings have been taken over by low-income families.
Recently, however, squatting has come under scrutiny by the authorities following a May 1 blaze that ravaged a 24-story occupied building leaving at least two people dead and four missing.