Life after the Olympics: Housing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Isabel Ribeiro considered herself lucky when she learned her home would be removed to accommodate Rio de Janeiro’s new Bus Rapid Transit system. Her small home in the favela, or informal neighborhood, of Rua Ipadu lacked proper sewage and often flooded in heavy rains. The apartment she was offered as compensation was slightly larger and brand new, with a kitchen and regular garbage collection. It was a generous offer and she accepted. In May 2015, Ribeiro and several hundred of her neighbors moved into public housing condominiums in Colônia Juliano Moreira in the West Zone of the city.

Fewer than two years later, Ribeiro stands to be evicted once again, this time by a bank. Bills and threatening letters have piled up on her kitchen table, along with medication to treat a recently developed heart condition that her doctor attributes to stress. “This apartment has destroyed my life,” she said. Approximately one hundred units in the Colônia Juliano Moreira complex have recently been threatened with repossession by Banco do Brasil, after the city government failed to make payments on units awarded to evicted residents.

Isabel Ribeiro with a letter from Banco do Brasil. Photo by author.

Isabel Ribeiro with a letter from Banco do Brasil. Photo by author, June 2016.

Ribeiro is one of 77,000 people removed during preparations for last month’s Olympic Games. The vast majority accepted compensation in the form of public housing units, subsidized by the federal Minha Casa Minha Vida (“My House My Life” or MCMV) program and distributed by the municipal government. Similar to the threats of repossession for Ribeiro’s complex, residents of these new apartments across the city consistently detail insufficient infrastructure, exorbitant utility bills and militia intimidation. The experiences of these residents, removed and relocated for the purposes of impressing international audiences, stand as a central legacy of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This legacy is representative of the enduring social and physical reconfigurations of the city for relatively brief events like the Olympics.

Rio de Janeiro, like many mega event host cities, capitalized on the Olympic Games to push through a new urban revitalization agenda in an effort to create a more appealing image for the global stage. Since winning its bid to host this summer’s Olympic Games in 2009, billions of dollars have been invested in the revitalization of the dilapidated port region, an expansion of the metro, the development of the Bus Rapid Transit and light rail systems, as well as new highways, tunnels and bridges. While criticisms of these preparations have been widespread–ranging from construction delays, exceeded budgets, and entanglements in corruption scandals–the more pernicious consequences of Rio’s $12 billion Olympic makeover have yet to be fully understood.

These infrastructure projects have altered the socio-economic composition of the city, necessitating the relocation of tens of thousands of favela residents in the largest wave of forced removals in the city’s history. The large-scale removals in recent years represent a noteworthy shift in municipal favela policy. Following the dissolution of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985, government interventions in favelas sought to upgrade infrastructure and integrate communities into the formal perimeters of the city. Efforts to upgrade favela infrastructure showed promising results beginning in the 1990s. These changes were especially notable after the election of the left-wing administrations of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2010) and President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), as both funded several large-scale urbanization projects targeting Rio’s favelas. Initial Olympic preparations promised to leave a lasting social legacy that would improve access to the city for the 1.5 million people living in favelas. In 2010 Mayor Eduardo Paes introduced an ambitious $4 billion plan to urbanize Rio’s favelas by 2020. “A city of the future has to be socially integrated,” he said in a 2012 Ted Talk. The delivery of essential urban infrastructure such as sewage and paved roads became the centerpiece of the “social legacy” of the Olympics. Rio’s poorest residents, the mayor insisted, stood to benefit the most from the Games.

The majority of residents in the Parque Carioca complex in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone were forcibly removed during Olympic construction. Photo by author.

The majority of residents in the Parque Carioca complex in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone were forcibly removed during Olympic construction. Photo by author, December 2015.

The trajectory of Rio’s Olympic preparations has, in fact, been far from socially inclusive. This inequity is perhaps best represented by the distribution of Minha Casa Minha Vida housing units in the city. Established by President Lula in 2009 to stimulate economic growth and reduce the national housing deficit, MCMV has since subsidized the construction of 2.6 million low-income housing units throughout the country. The program has been wildly popular nationwide. During her last-minute bid to stave off impeachment, President Dilma Rousseff traveled to MCMV housing across the country, tethering her administration’s social policy to the program’s popularity. Left-leaning members of Congress referenced the program in their final votes against impeachment, noting the important strides made in securing quality housing for Brazil’s poorest citizens, while national commentators credited it with improving the infrastructure of entire rural communities at a remarkable pace.

In Rio, however, rather than providing housing for the poorest residents of the city, the MCMV program has instead facilitated the removal of families from their homes. The city government, which administers the program, allocated tens of thousands of units for residents removed during Olympic construction. While some removed residents, such as Isabel Ribeiro, were satisfied with the compensation, others refused the city’s offers, contending that their homes were larger and of better quality than the new apartments. Many people who refused initial compensation were eventually offered multiple apartments so the city could get them out of their houses and move forward with demolitions. In many cases, these families would not otherwise qualify for MCMV, thereby displacing qualified families who voluntarily joined the waitlist for the program. The city’s manipulation of MCMV to accommodate Olympic construction represented an overt contradiction of the program’s purpose, ultimately cheating thousands of residents out of a program from which they were entitled.

The spatial distribution of these complexes in the city also raises questions of the efficacy of the initiative. The majority of MCMV housing units are concentrated in the far West Zone of the city, upwards of 25 miles from some of the removed communities. Developers who win contracts to build the complexes are afforded nearly full autonomy to construct the units where they choose, leading most to build where land is cheapest. Mono-functional housing blocks with no formal commercial space and limited public transportation links have left residents stranded in isolated swaths of suburbs. The physical isolation of these housing units restricts access to public services, employment, and commercial activity, directly contradicting the city’s previously articulated objectives of improving integration between favelas and the formal city. Over the course of the last four years, militias serving as de facto vigilante police mafias have gained control over most MCMV developments, charging residents monthly fees and in some cases controlling access to the gates that surround the developments. The failure to integrate these housing developments with the urban fabric could prove detrimental to the social mobility of residents, as evidenced by the city’s previous experiences with public housing programs in the 1960s; the evolution over the last fifty years of two of the city’s largest favelas, Cidade de Deus and Vila Kennedy, from isolated and underserviced public housing lots into intricate informal districts is well understood to be one of the city’s greatest urban planning failures.

A family in Vila Autódromo watches a demolition. All of the homes on their street had been demolished two weeks earlier. Photo by author.

A family in Vila Autódromo watches a demolition. All of the homes on their street had been demolished two weeks earlier. Photo by author, February 2016.

Rio’s housing initiatives during the pre-Olympic period represent a missed opportunity to integrate favelas into the formal city and accelerate upward mobility for millions of low-income residents. The government promised that the urbanization of the city’s favelas would be the principal social legacy of the 2016 Olympic Games. Instead, efforts to fund on-site participatory upgrades, such as improved sewage infrastructure and access to public services, were promptly defunded while resources were redirected to compensate evicted families. The “state of exception” imposed by Olympic preparations afforded real estate developers the agency to dictate where tens of thousands of residents would live without constraints of integrating the units into existing urban infrastructure. The appropriation of a low-income housing initiative like MCMV to accommodate real estate interests and remove favela residents stands in contradiction to both the intentions of the program and the city’s previously articulated priorities for favelas.

The transformation of Rio’s physical and social landscapes therefore stands as remarkably uneven, serving the tourists and urban elite very well in the newly manicured streets of the Port Zone while pushing favela residents like Isabel Ribeiro further into the periphery. Rio may have hosted a successful Olympics, but while the athletes and tourists have all but left the city, residents will live with the consequences of these social reconfigurations for years to come.

Featured Image: Brian, age 2, watches as his home in Vila Autódromo, Rio de Janeiro, is demolished. Photo by author, February 2016.

Meg Healy is an urban policy researcher who focuses on affordable housing and community organizing in Rio de Janeiro. Contact

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