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A place to live

Research indicates that urban areas marked as priority for low-income housing only function as complementary measures



Luz, in downtown São Paulo: the region began to decline in the 1970s

Luz, in downtown São Paulo: the region began to decline in the 1970s

Living conditions and housing standards can deteriorate in some regions of major cities, generally due to a lack of investment in urban improvements or to investments in major highway construction projects that alter the surrounding areas. This is what occurred in the New York City borough of the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s; it also occurred in the Luz district in São Paulo, which was home to upper-middle class residents and upscale shopping districts in the 1940s, but which began to decline in the 1970s. In spite of the decline, these places developed shopping districts and maintained some middle-class housing, but also ended up with areas of tenements and slum dwellings, according to urbanist Kazuo Nakano, a professor at the São Paulo Law School of Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV). Without government intervention, this process tends to worsen and perpetuate itself. In Brazil, the 1988 Constitution established a universal right to housing and affirmed that property has a social function. Among other effects, this led to the collection of progressive property tax, expropriation of unused or underused real estate and the push for legalization of property rights for precarious housing. Instruments designed to guide urban policy in this direction began to appear in municipal legislation.

One of these instruments is the Special Low-Income Interest Zone, or ZEIS, which was studied by architect and urbanist Simone Gatti, at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). A ZEIS is an area defined by municipal administrations, which is then legally authorized to build new housing, urbanize shantytowns and irregular subdivisions, promote urban renewal of slum areas, move residents away from at-risk areas, and other actions designed to meet the housing needs of the region’s low-income population, allowing public funds to be used for this purpose, and if necessary, adapting existing urban parameters. There are five types of ZEIS areas in the city of São Paulo. The most commonly used, in terms of area covered in the city, are the ZEIS 1 areas – these are areas occupied by shantytowns and irregular subdivisions. In turn, the ZEIS 3 are underutilized centrally located regions intended for re-urbanization and resettlement of the local population, thus ensuring that the improvements made do not lead to exaggerated increases in land and building prices.

As a case study of one of the two ZEIS 3 areas of the Nova Luz project for reurbanization of the Luz neighborhood in the Santa Ifigênia district of downtown São Paulo, Simone Gatti defended her dissertation entitled “Between permanence and displacement: ZEIS 3 as a tool for maintaining the low-income population in central areas” in April, 2015. As a case study, she used one of the ZEIS 3 areas from the Nova Luz project, in the Luz neighborhood, Santa Ifigênia district, located in the central region of São Paulo, and she is now continuing her research at the post-doctoral level under the theme “Special low-income interest zones: Implementation and performance of public policies to ensure effective use of the instrument.”

The processes to be carried out through implementation of the ZEIS 3 involve complex operations, since these are regions with heterogeneous urban populations and activities, mixed-use real estate, and good quality urban infrastructure. “Twenty-first century Santa Ifigênia,” according to Gatti’s description, “is best described as a hub of appliance stores, a core of historical and cultural buildings in the surrounding area, the presence of a low-income population living in tenements and run-down hotel rooms, and the stigmatized region known as “crackland,” characterized by several city blocks of open air crack cocaine use.”

After analyzing use of the ZEIS 3 over the course of 10 years, from the time of its implementation in São Paulo through the 2002 Strategic Master Plan, Gatti has concluded that this instrument represents an important progress in urban planning regulation, but that alone, it does not constitute an effective reurbanization policy. “The ZEIS 3 areas have become the main incentive for promoting the construction of well-located low-income housing and for repopulating inner city areas,” affirms the urbanist. However, this did not produce good results in the Nova Luz project. In Gatti’s case study, she identified the challenges that the ZEIS 3 areas must meet to actually fulfill their purpose. According to her, one of the main challenges is the adoption of policies that ensure the continued presence of the resettled population.

Buildings in the Luz district: implementation of ZEIS 3 requires highly complex operations

Buildings in the Luz district: implementation of ZEIS 3 requires highly complex operations

In order for the objectives of the ZEIS to be achieved, Gatti indicates three requirements: regulatory revisions governing the need for articulated use with other instruments designed to democratize urban land use, society’s effective participation in decisions to intervene in the designated region, and the establishment of alternative access to housing, such as low-income rentals. She believed the Nova Luz project, announced in 2005, was based on the idea that the government considered mere definition of ZEIS 3 borders as sufficient for granting legitimacy to the project as a social action, without any prior discussions with residents. Urbanist Kazuo Nakano claims, “To this day, no project for the Luz region has moved forward, because there was no ongoing socio-political coordination or democratic process involving popular participation, no detailed study of the public and private places that can and should undergo intervention and urban improvements and regulation of urban housing construction in order to prevent the expulsion of low and middle-income residents.”

In the last two decades of the 20th century, cultural initiatives to “requalify” the region were unsuccessful. These included the 1999 inauguration of the São Paulo Salon, intended as a classical music venue, occupying part of the facilities at the Júlio Prestes railway station. “The Nova Luz project established new paths for transforming the city center,” says Gatti. “Massive demolition was planned for existing buildings, with reconstruction of part of the Santa Ifigênia district.” According to her, while this project was in effect, some sites in one of the two ZEIS 3 areas were demolished.

Gatti served on the ZEIS Managing Board as representative of the Amoaluz residents’ association, which was created in 2011. A study she conducted, now in the files of the Municipal Housing Office Slum Program, “found that dozens of families were being expelled from their homes, without any housing assistance, to make room for the Nova Luz project works.” In 2012, the project was cancelled in response to a civil action filed by the Public Defender’s Office of the state of São Paulo for violating the principle of democratic city management.

One of the limitations that hindered attempts to serve the poorest population in the ZEIS areas during the 10 years of implementation was how the real estate market used properties. The percentage of construction intended for income ranges covered by the Land Occupation and Use Act was close to the maximum. “The housing units offered by the market targeted the population earning between five and six minimum monthly wage amounts, and there was almost no housing that targeted the very low-income segments, from zero to five times the minimum monthly wage amounts,” affirms Gatti. However, the registry of residents in the ZEIS under study, which was located within the perimeter of the Nova Luz project, indicated that 85.27% of the families had incomes of less than three times the minimum monthly wage amounts.

Retention of residents who benefitted from the regulation and ZEIS settlement policies constitute an inherent problem to processes designed for urban renewal – an increase in real estate prices pushes lower income residents away. “The greatest challenge to making the ZEIS effective is the impact it causes on the socio-economic conditions of the area, and the consequent pressure residents feel to sell their homes and leave the region,” affirms Nakano. “In the case of a ZEIS 3 located inside an area where a large urban project is planned, this change is even more violent and swift: the simple announcement of the project already causes property prices to rise, which leads to speculation.” According to Nakano, urban improvements, the arrival of middle-class residents, and regulatory overhaul and real estate renovation, all result in an increased cost of living in the area.

One of the solutions for preserving access to real estate for residents is the low-income rental system, adopted in several European countries. Under this mechanism, the government is the owner of the real estate, which is rented out at prices lower than those charged by the market, thus enabling the government to mitigate the effects of market speculation.

Fishing port in the Brasília Teimosa district in Recife; this was the inspiration for the ZEIS

Fishing port in the Brasília Teimosa district in Recife; this was the inspiration for the ZEIS

Brasília teimosa
The ZEIS areas first appeared in Recife, as part of the municipal land use law of 1983. “The idea was to serve regions with precarious housing in order to retain residents, legalize property titles and promote integration into the urban network,” says urbanist Amélia Reynaldo, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Pernambuco, who coordinated the preparation of the Urbanization Plan for the Nova Luz ZEIS. According to her, this project was the response to pressure from social movements, the Church and academics against the expulsion of low-income residents from their homes.

The ZEIS only became subject to regulation in 1987, with formation of the Recife Urbanization Company. “The area that best demonstrates the effectiveness of this instrument is the district of Brasília Teimosa,” says Reynaldo. This region, located along Boa Viagem Beach, occupies an area with beautiful views, and was highly sought after by the real estate market, as well as being the object of reoccupation proposals by the government. The success of this settlement helped to disseminate the concept of the ZEIS throughout Brazil. This instrument was incorporated into federal law with the City Act, which was approved by Congress in 2001, and which requires municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants to have master plans and lay out ZEIS areas. According to Gatti, until 2011 only 30% of the master plans had established ZEIS areas outside of precarious housing zones, in empty or underutilized areas, to reserve well-located land for low-income housing.

Between permanence and displacement: ZEIS 3 as a tool for maintaining the low-income population in central areas (the case of ZEIS 3 C 016 (Sé) inserted into the perimeter of the Nova Luz Project) (nº 2011/18364-3); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Fast-track Doctorate; Principal Investigator Nabil Bonduki (FAU-USP); Grantee Simone Ferreira Gatti (FAU-USP); Investment R$ 116,700.47.

Scientific article
GATTI, S. F. Housing policies for ZEIS 3 territories in São Paulo: Financiarización y las limitaciones para el acesso a la vivienda para los más pobres. In: Contested Cities International Congress: From Urban Conflict to the Construction of Alternatives – Critical Dialogues. Autonomous University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain, 2016. Available at:

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