Misusing the City Statute in São Paulo

Mauá Street squat. Source: Julia Chequer/R7

Brazil has become known for innovative urban initiatives, including the noted 2001 Statute of the City, which aimed to affirm the social purpose of space and property and social control of land and development. São Paulo was a pioneer in using the powers granted by this groundbreaking law, becoming the first major city to integrate urban instruments from the statute into its master plan. Promulgated in 2002, the plan designated specific urban areas as “Zonas Especiais de Interesse Social” (ZEIS, or Zones of Special Social Interest), which included some of the city's poorest areas.

Source: Google Maps

Some of the ZEISs were located in São Paulo's 13 central districts. These well-located and transportation-rich neighborhoods suffered from abandonment during the past three decades, as de-industrialization impoverished the working classes, and the middle and upper classes abandoned the areas for newer parts of the city. Many buildings were squatted, as the poor struggled to hang on in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

With pressure constantly mounting on environmentally sensitive areas at the edge of the metropolis, a core idea of the central ZEISs was to encourage public and private investment for financing quality social housing to attract new residents. ZEISs could be built up more densely than other areas in order to attract capital, but as part of the statute’s goals of improving social control over development, deep popular participation in the planning process was required. Over the past few years, real estate developers have become aware of the profit potential of these central districts, and investment is now pouring in beyond the borders of the ZEISs.

Source: Nova Luz Perimeter

One of the most famous and grandiose projects in São Paulo is the city-led redevelopment of “Nova Luz.” The Nova Luz area is well connected to metropolitan transport services, including a new subway line, which — along with cultural spots such as the São Paulo Concert Hall — is part of a wave of public investments designed to spur interest in the area. Under a public-private partnership, the city is looking to "renovate" 45 blocks in the Luz and Santa Ifigênia neighborhoods, also in the name of “compact city” development to alleviate sprawl. To do so, the government is using "urban concession" — a legal instrument that allows the municipality to tender projects to private companies granted they serve a public purpose — to evict residents, demolish old buildings and build new ones. Only a single entity (or pool of companies) will implement the entire Nova Luz project, worth 750 million Brazilian real ($450 million), in five phases. One third of the area will disappear in order to make room for new apartment and office buildings. The Mauá Street occupation, a squat building home 253 families, is one of the buildings that will be demolished.

Drug raid on January 13, 2012. Source: Apu Gomes/FSP

These blocks and its old buildings are places of popular business and have some of the highest population densities in central São Paulo. This is due mainly to the occupation of old, empty buildings by an organized housing movement, responsible for the squatting of 44 buildings to shelter more than nine thousand families since the 1990s. Some of the streets are occupied by hundreds of crack addicts, including many children, a fact that the media has exploited to label the neighborhood "crackland." This problem is used by the government to defend the Nova Luz intervention: In a recent joint operation named “Pain and Suffering,” state and municipal police forces pushed addicts out of the area. Many hostels and tenements are being closed for the same reason, without any solutions for housing affected families.

Urban Concession Area. Source: Nova Luz

Nestled inside the Nova Luz perimeter is a ZEIS. According to the project guidelines, the ZEIS will be used to shelter part of the population evicted from the rest of area. Old buildings and squats will be demolished to clear the area for other (profitable) uses, while the ZEIS — restricted by law to social housing — will help mitigate the impact evictions. However, this scheme doesn’t guarantee that current low-income residents can remain. Many will not be able to afford or qualify for the new housing in the ZEIS. Moreover, many residents dependent on affordable rents are already being displaced, as rents rise in anticipation of the project. Activists and residents have even had to fight for their right to participate in the planning process, even though this is guaranteed by law.

Recently, some residents, local businesses, social housing activists and homeless representatives have come together around housing policy, common heritage, built environment quality, and drug and health policy. They founded a neighborhood association that is catalyzing collaborative initiatives, such as a workshop to inform residents about the five phases of the Nova Luz project, using different colored stickers to mark buildings that will be demolished. There have been some achievements, like the establishment of a ZEIS management council that forces the municipality to negotiate with residents, enhancing a culture of collaborative planning in the city.

Rendering of the ZEIS proposal. Source: Nova Luz

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the ZEIS is being used as a reservoir for the poor, a small island where a few will be allowed to stay while thousands more are evicted and displaced. Even worse, the ZEIS is being used to mitigate the impacts of a massive public-private redevelopment project and thus legitimate mass evictions, an issue that is becoming critical in Brazil's economic boom and redevelopment spurred by the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The recent case of the Pinheirinho settlement is a strong example of this trend.

The City Statute and subsequent São Paolo Master Plan were seen as victories for the housing movement — a means to formulate projects that could change the face of exclusion by which Brazilian cities are known. But the city and state governments of São Paulo, and to a certain extent the federal government, seem to have chosen another way to build the future of our cities. This is a future in which evictions are increasingly part of “progress,” the social function of urban land is again made subservient to the demands of the wealthy, and the purpose of planning is to gentrify the core to the greatest extent possible.

This post is by Patricia Rodrigues Samora, a post-doctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Housing and Human Settlements in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

+ share


  1. Dear Patricia, I learned about ZEIS through Paolo Sandroni's papers.

    This story you tell sounds strange. ZEIS are designed to keep people in their place, not to evict them. To defend them form developers' pressure. Precisely because there is such a pressure, why would you need to use a protection instrument if there was no threat, ZEISs are to eliminate market pressure, to prevent gentrification, although very weakly as you control it indirectly (through allowing for lower standards).

    A typical criticisms of ZEIS is that it is a kind of segregation and that setting low standards cannot really prevent slow gentrification, but not because they can become an instrument of eviction. I was told by one colleague of mine that the actual tool they are using in Nova Luz is the 'urban concession'. This is not properly referred to in your article because it is not listed in the famous law 'The City Statute'.

    I know that evictions are happening in Rio, using the World Cup as an excuse, but not in Sao Paulo. The drug dealing issue makes things more complicated, trying to do something about it in poor neighborhoods can always shoot back, what to do (except from long term policies such as education and employment)?

    The actual ZEIS in Nova Luz according to the map looks very small compared to the overall redevelopment area, so why is ZEIS so central to the discussion? I think you may be misreading the use of ZEIS by insinuating they may be an instrument of eviction.

    1. Please, see my reply at the next comment.

  2. Dear Veronica,

    Thank you for your comments and for issues and concerns you raise.
    I've worked with Paulo Sandroni last year during the development of Campina's Municipal Housing Plan. He is a very important reference to me.

    Due to the post limited size, I could not go further on the differences between ZEIS for central areas to informal areas. So, when you say "ZEIS are designed to keep people in their place", it is true when the ZEIS area is already occupied, as in the favelas, for example.

    According to the Sao Paulo's Master Plan, there are 4 types of ZEIS. Two of them are related to informal areas and the other two are related to empty or neglected areas, either in central areas (ZEIS 3) or in suburban areas (ZEIS 2). This post is about a ZEIS 3 located inside the perimeter of the Nova Luz urban concession area.

    The ZEIS 3 were planned to increase the housing stock in central areas were the price of land tend to be higher. The idea is to benefit tenements households but also to alleviate the pressure for housing in the borders of the city, where the price of land is low. In the areas remarked as ZEIS 3, any plot of land higher than 500 sq. meters should be developed mainly for housing (80% of the overall built area) and can be built 4 times its previous area. The idea is simple: as the price of land is high, the developer can build more than other areas to make affordable housing. More important, the ZEIS should be developed after the establishment of a council composed by representatives of government, local households and owners and the approval of a ZEIS Master Plan.

    The Nova Luz Project will demolish 1/3 of the built area, removing old housing and office buildings used today by low and medium classes. Most of the users are there for decades. In its place, new flats and offices for upper classes will be developed. The traditional users cannot afford to living in the new buildings. Many of them are not owners so they will not receive any compensation. They will be evicted.

    Despite of the (meaningful) fact that the urban project for the ZEIS where conceived before the establishment of the ZEIS council, the ZEIS in this project will not be used to improve social housing as established by law. It will be used to shelter part of the families evicted by the project. Families that, so far, were not considered as housing deficit. The new housing units will be used as compensation for the owners removed or for those who can afford the mortgage.

    I didn't say or insinuated that the ZEIS is an instrument of eviction. I said that Nova Luz project would be. What I said is: "the ZEIS will be used to shelter part of the population evicted from the rest of area". Also, I said: "the ZEIS is being used to mitigate the impacts of a massive public-private redevelopment". To my point of view, this is a misuse of the ZEIS.

    To finish, I don't know why you mention that eviction is not happening in Sao Paulo. This month 230 families were forced to move from and old building in the central area. Last December, other evictions occurred. The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, is highlighting it here: http://direitoamoradia.org/?p=10545&lang=en

  3. Veronica, please see this text in which the Sao Paulo's ZEIS are fully described. Look at page 100, table 3, :

    Jessica Budds, Paulo Teixeira, and SEHAB

    "Ensuring the right to the city: pro-poor housing, urban development and tenure legalization in São Paulo, Brazil"
    Environment and Urbanization April 2005 17: 89-114, doi:10.1177/095624780501700105

    Download it here:

  4. Sorry it took me so long to reply. Thanks for your lengthy explanation Patricia! So this is a ZEIS 3 project for vacant/neglected land, but on this land happens to live an established community. Now I see what is happening.

    Here they want to maximize the value of central land by increasing the floor area ratio that developers are allowed to build (as you say "4 times its previous area"). I didn't know that ZEIS could be 'adapted' according to the type of location. This means that not all type of ZEIS then are meant to keep people in place. Increasing the floor space of a centrally located house will drive mortgage prices up, so ZEIS 3 is not about keeping people in place but about creating housing mobility opportunities to those who can afford it. I'll go read the paper you suggest!

    When you say "The new housing units will be used as compensation for the owners removed or for those who can afford the mortgage", where will these housing units be installed? Who compensates for the higher costs/inconvenience of living further from their working activities?

    1. Dear Veronica,

      if you look at the picture above showing the urban concession area, you will see many plots shaded in yellow. Those plots will be demolished in order to put the new buildings in the area. In this picture, you also can see a pink line defining an small perimeter inside the concession area. That's the ZEIS area where the new housing will be installed.

      Those who cannot afford to live in the area after the intervention won't receive any compesation to leave the area. These families will be evicted.

      Since I told this case in this blog, other events occurred:

      First, the municipality decided to vote the ZEIS urban project, which was being developed by a ZEIS managing council, composed by government, owners and residents. Since the government are 50% of the voters, they decided to vote a draft version of the project. The result is that the civil society gave up the process, arguing that they are being disrespected by the government. The government, in turn, considered the ZEIS project approved and the community will ask to the Justice to appreciate the case.

      Second, the Justice decided that Mauá Squat will be evicted, benefiting the former owner who is in debt with the municipality (his debt is higher than the price of the building) and the families have until July to leave the building.

      The idea of the ZEIS 3 is to increase the number of well located social housing units benefiting mainly the local residents who are living in tenements or squats and also to attract new residents who already work in the area. In this case, the ZEIS, as I said, will shelter families evicted from the concession area. Most of them, so far, were not being considered as housing defict by the fact that they are living in old but formal and proper housing. That's one of the reasons that this project is misusing the ZEIS, the Sao Paulo Master Plan and the City Statute