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Photography by Forge Ferreira, Jornal A Verdade

Photography by Forge Ferreira, Jornal A Verdade

Covid-19 and the Intensification of Urban Conflicts in Brazil

In PerspectiveMore than 6,400 families have been evicted from their homes and another 19,000 remain threatened with eviction in Brazil since March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak started in the country. In the state of São Paulo, 1,681 evictions were carried out and up to 5,000 families can be evicted from their homes at any one time. This startling data relates to informal settlements—evictions for non-payment of rent are not included—and numbers may be even higher, as this reflects only the cases identified by popular movements and the organizations participating in the “Zero Eviction” campaign.

Despite the recommendation for people to stay at home, the appropriation of urban space by capital has intensified in violent forms of deterritorialization of the most vulnerable populations. With Covid-19, Bolsonaro’s administration has advanced in the adoption of an urban governance that combines authoritarianism and neoliberalism in favour of the private appropriation of the land. However, the popular movements are resisting, employing solidarity and the organization of campaigns in defense of the city as a right.

Stay at Which Home?

On the morning of 15 May 2020, about 50 families living in tenements in Bela Vista, a neighbourhood in São Paulo’s downtown, woke up with Civil Police vehicles outside their homes, in a very unusual operation. It was a property repossession, which was carried out by the employees of two construction companies interested in building an apartment complex for business executives. The operation was perplexing because it was carried out amid the pandemic and without a court order. Two months earlier, on 18 March, a first instance judge had suspended repossession because of Covid-19’s advance in the city. However, even without authorization from the courts, the companies had the support of the Civil Police—which in Brazil does not have jurisdiction over this kind of operation—to remove residents, who had not even had contact with their lawyers prior to the eviction. In the eviction, each family received around two hundred dollars as compensation and signed a written agreement consenting to the removal, immediately having their house partially demolished, making the return unfeasible even in the case of a judicial ruling against the companies.

That Friday, the largest metropolis in South America registered 186 new deaths due to Covid-19, an increase of six percent in relation to the previous day. Although the main recommendation of the health authorities facing the advance of the disease was to “stay home”, the number of evictions in the city and in the state grew. Between April and June 2020 in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo alone, the Observatory of Evictions, an initiative involving social movements and public universities, identified six repossessions that left at least 1,300 families homeless, twice as many as documented in the previous quarter.

The situation is so serious that new informal residences have emerged, formed by victims of evictions during the pandemic. In Jardim Julieta, in the North Zone of São Paulo, families removed from their homes in different regions erected wooden shacks to at least have a roof over their heads and be able to “stay home”. However, the new housing is also provisional there, not only because of its precariousness, but also because there is a new threat of eviction. On 8 August, the families received a subpoena for repossession, in a lawsuit from the landowner: São Paulo City’s public administration. There was no offer from the municipal management of any housing alternative, not even the provision of emergency resources for payment of rent.

As will be shown in this short article, one of the political and social consequences of Covid-19 in Brazil is the advance of capital’s appropriation of urban space. The processes of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2004) have intensified in the form of authoritarian ways of conducting urban policy. Capital accumulation is produced by a dynamic that combines state, parastatal, and paramilitary violence against the popular classes[1] (i.e. police operations, and judicial and extrajudicial expulsion of vulnerable populations from where they live), with the re-appropriation of land by real estate and financial agents, construction companies, and speculators, among others. With urban governance geared towards private real estate production, for middle- and high-income consumption, the land previously occupied by homeless families becomes an “asset”, due to the permanent linking of interests between the financial sector, real estate developers, private investors, and the State.

The increase in the number of evictions and incidents of state violence is part of a set of measures that aim to favour the accumulation of capital in cities. Apparently isolated cases of police violence, evictions, and criminalization of the popular classes could be explained generally by the market’s interest in the private appropriation of urban space. Proposals for changes in urban legislation in favour of capital are being advanced at the same time that thousands of people are being expelled from their homes, police operations in slums are on the increase, and Covid-19 reaches, above all, the most vulnerable populations of the cities. Hence, popular urban movements are resisting, mainly with occupations of empty buildings and land. The struggle for the right to the city is expressed in the claim of the social function of property, the coordination of public campaigns against evictions, and the shaping of solidarity actions in different areas, such as the defense of employment, and the rights to decent housing, public sanitation, transport, and health services.

Death as Profit

São Paulo’s urban development expresses distinct patterns of capital accumulation that prevailed in the different historical contexts. During the industrialization period (1950–80s), there was a dynamic of attracting labour from the countryside to the city, with a peripheral pattern of urban growth. The city expanded significantly, with industrial concentration in the peripheries, and occupations of surrounding areas by the popular classes (Pasternak, 2003). At the end of the 1980s, the neoliberal advance promoted a progressive deindustrialization and the shaping of a “services economy”, accompanied by a change in the pattern of urban development. Intensive and concentrated appropriation of land prevailed, with its transformation into a financial asset (Fix, 2011). Due to the concentration of services and high-income consumption, the city centre was widely valued, and this accentuated the conflicts over the use and occupation of the area (Bonduki, 2009). The map below shows the result of this historic process, with employment and income concentrated in the downtown area. In addition, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths is also directly related to the city’s economic-spatial organization.

Alternative text is missing.

Deaths in São Paulo attributed to COVID-19. Data from São Paulo Inequality Map, adapted by the author

The patterns of infections and deaths by Covid-19 in São Paulo are related to the social inequality that constitutes the city. A study conducted by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) and the State Health Department of São Paulo, among other institutions, showed that the spread of the pandemic in the poorest regions of the São Paulo capital was 2.5 times greater in comparison to the middle- and high-income regions. The “Rede Nossa São Paulo”, an organization that annually publishes the Map of Inequality in São Paulo, pointed out the positive correlation between the number of households in favelas in the city’s districts and the incidence of deaths from the pandemic. In June 2020, in the two São Paulo districts with the most deaths due to Covid-19, the percentage of households in favelas was three times higher than the city average.

Besides the historical differences between centre and periphery, the downtown area itself reproduces, internally, the general dynamic of inequality. In it, the districts that concentrate the highest mortality rates are precisely the poorest, with the highest numbers of precarious housing, tenements, and homelessness. The State, however, instead of promoting public policies to improve housing conditions and access to health services, accelerated the process of expelling the most vulnerable population from the area. Over the past 15 years, municipal and state public administrations have created different proposals for urban intervention in partnership with the private sector to build high-income housing in the central neighbourhoods. The pandemic context accelerated this ongoing process, with the combination of three authoritarian ways of conducting neoliberal urban policy: i) increasing the number of evictions; ii) increasing violence against the popular classes; iii) and advancing legal proposals in favour of the real estate market.

Increased Evictions

The processes of „accumulation by dispossession“ are based, at first, on the expulsion of the most vulnerable populations from their territories, and the reappropriation of land by capital. This dynamic was intensified in the pandemic context.

In May 2020, the company A.S.H. Empreendimentos, Participações e Negócios-LTDA obtained a preliminary favourable injunction to the request for repossession of the “Ocupação Rio Branco, 701”, where 21 families live. The company claimed to own the property and asked the court to deal with it as an urgent matter. Even without presenting evidence, it was served an injunction for repossession issued by a presiding judge. The suit was improperly placed under a legal confidentiality order, which prevented families from having immediate access to the relevant records.

This is just one example of the 51 areas threatened with eviction in the state of São Paulo. It should be noted that in one area there may be several repossession warrants—the number varies according to the number of buildings and houses in the area. Therefore, there are more than five thousand families threatened in the state. Among all the evictions carried out during the pandemic in the country, more than 45 percent took place in São Paulo. And these already staggering numbers are likely to be undercounted, as there is no official data about this issue.

In addition to São Paulo, evictions have also been recorded in other capitals, medium-sized cities, and rural areas across the country. The attacks on the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) camps are examples: in August, 450 families resisted eviction by military police in Campo do Meio in the state of Minas Gerais for almost 60 hours; in July, an attack by farmers destroyed crops of 50 MST families in Quinta do Sol, Paraná. The food production would be destined for donations to the city’s population who were economically affected by the pandemic. These and other cases presented below reveal how, with the combination of authoritarianism and neoliberalism, the violence is a political form of pursuing market interests.

“Crackland” and the Increase in Violence Against the Popular Classes

Also in the context of a pandemic, an eviction warrant was issued by the city administration against families living in Luz, another downtown neighbourhood in São Paulo. The eviction was justified as expropriation, “part of a set of actions by the city to recover that region and assist people in situations of vulnerability”, and to crack down on abuse of alcohol and other drugs. For the Municipality, the pandemic makes urgent “the reduction of agglomeration”, which would justify evictions against the hundreds of families living in the occupied buildings and tenements.

The case is emblematic of the relationship between the interests of the real estate market and public security policy. The area is known as “Crackland” due to the high incidence of drug use and drug trafficking. There is a permanent combination of police operations and the private appropriation of land for its subsequent use in real estate development. More than 400 families in that area are under threat of removal in two entire blocks, known as “Quadra 37” and “Quadra 38”, which may be demolished to give rise to a large real estate project.

Another downtown area constantly facing the twin threats of eviction and police violence is the Favela do Moinho. In early July, at the time of the greatest increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in the city, a police action justified as “combatting drugs” resulted in a child and a teenager getting injured. The Military Police invaded the favela with sniffer dogs, supposedly in search of drugs, and one of them bit the arm of a ten-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Moinho is the only favela still existing in downtown São Paulo, and has been under threat of removal for years, as it is of interest to the real estate market. At the beginning of the current municipal administration, then-mayor João Doria announced his intention to remove the 500 families from there, based on the assumption that Moinho would be the main distribution point for drugs in the city centre. In the surrounding area, new high-income properties are built each year, and the pressure on Moinho also increases.

Such cases reveal another consequence of the pandemic in urban conflicts. There was an intensification of the criminalization of the poor population, especially the black youth who live in occupied buildings and slums. In the first half of 2020, the state of São Paulo set a new record for police lethality: from January to June, 514 people were killed by police in São Paulo state. It is the largest number since 2001, when the current historical series measured by the São Paulo government began, representing a 20 percent growth in comparison to the same period in 2019. In April alone, after the social distancing measures came into effect, 116 people were murdered by the police in the state, the second-highest monthly number ever recorded, and an increase of 55 percent compared to 2019. In Brazil, the number also grew with the pandemic: at least 3,148 people were killed by the police in the first half of 2020, seven percent more than in 2019. According to a report by the Rede de Observatórios da Segurança (Network of Security Observers), in 2019, 75 percent of the people killed by the police in Brazil were black.

Legal Changes in Favour of Capital

In all cases, it is possible to identify coordination between market interests and the actions of public administrations, security forces, and the judiciary. In addition to the judicial and extrajudicial actions that led to the increase in evictions, it is also important to point out the promotion of market interests in the institutional sphere. In São Paulo, the Bill 397-2018, rejected in a public hearing that year, returned to the City Hall agenda during the pandemic, with the justification of stimulating the economic recovery. The proposal reduces payment amounts by construction companies for the “Certificate of Additional Construction Potential (CEPAC)”. If approved, companies will be able to build real estate projects that exceed existing legal limits on the size of  floorplan and building length, without paying social contributions.

At the state and national levels, it is no different. With the justification of reducing the financial impacts of Covid-19, in August Governor João Doria submitted a bill to the Legislative Assembly that aims to dissolve ten public companies and foundations by the beginning of 2021. Among them is the Housing and Urban Development Company (CDHU), a state agency responsible for public construction of popular housing. If approved, the State will not have any public housing agency which serves the popular classes. Bolsonaro took the same approach and, at the end of August, dissolved the main social housing production policy, “Minha Casa Minha Vida” (my house, my life). In its place, he created the “Casa Verde Amarela” programme, to subsidize construction companies for the production of middle-income houses, and to encourage the creation of financial assets in the processes of land regularization.

The Advance of Capital and Popular Resistance

Covid-19 exposes the struggle for land as inherent to the conflicts between capital and labour in Brazil, in addition to accentuating the link between authoritarianism and neoliberalism. Unemployment, discouragement and the high incidence of infection and deaths from the pandemic resulted in a sociopolitical dislocation of the popular classes, and in view of this, the market advanced its own interests over that of society. Bolsonaro’s absurd and shocking statements are the surface of a profound process of capital advance. In the cities, the government consolidates an authoritarian urbanism that displaces the popular classes from their territories by state and paramilitary violence, intensifies conflicts over land, and permanently promotes “accumulation by dispossession”. The pattern of capital accumulation by urban governance in its neoliberal and authoritarian form combines the production of differential land income through state investment in areas previously occupied by homeless families, with its subsequent use for private and financialized real estate development (Aalbers et al, 2020). The association between state violence and capitalist property is the predominant form of urban space production, in a process that spatially segregates the popular classes, already economically and socially segregated by overexploitation. Thus, the urban “social drama” in Brazil is recreated in a pandemic context. The financialization trend is due to stimulus of private financial intermediary agencies in housing production, the promotion of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and private concessions for urban operation, and the issuance of public bonds to obtain housing loans in the national and international markets (Arantes, 2006; Fix, 2011). State action in cities, growing violent, is also increasingly financialized, with the combination of neoliberalism and authoritarianism used as a way of promoting the market above all spheres of urban life.

In this context, popular movements are resisting. Since the spread of the coronavirus in Brazil intensified and deepened the economic and social crises, urban popular movements have coordinated themselves to promote solidarity actions and the fight for rights. At the end of March, the Popular Movements Against Covid-19 campaign was launched, and carried out several initiatives, including but not limited to: production and distribution of masks, hand sanitizer, and hygiene materials; campaigns to donate grocery hampers to the most vulnerable families; and organization of demonstrations for rights and democracy. The coordination between urban and peasant movements also guaranteed the distribution of thousands of tonnes of food produced by agrarian reform camps.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the movements have also been fighting for the suspension of home repossession to avoid aggravating the population’s exposure to Covid-19. In view of the increase in the number of evictions, the “Zero Eviction” campaign was launched, with different methods of calling those responsible to account, as well as resistance actions. A document was sent in June to the United Nations to expose the serious violations of rights in Brazilian cities. In July, the UN Special Rapporteur for the right to housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, responded publicly, stating that the evictions were a violation of human rights and must be suspended immediately.

This legal provision was in fact achieved, with the ban on the eviction of tenants until 30 October 2020. The proposal was included in Law 14.010/20, approved on 10 June 2020, but was vetoed by Bolsonaro. After intense pressure, the president’s veto was overturned by Congress on 20 August, with a consequent re-inclusion in the aforementioned law of the item that prohibits evictions during the pandemic. Even so, days later, on 24 August, two evictions were observed in occupied buildings in São Paulo.

Therefore, the movements are seeking to advance the popular struggle. Among the flags is the expansion of the concept of eviction, to incorporate all conflicts over land. Another immediate objective is to denounce city halls and governments that sponsor extrajudicial evictions. The struggle involves coordination among civil society entities and universities, and the organization of the Zero Eviction campaign internationally, to expose all rights violations. Resistance strategies are also being organized in at-risk territories, with permanent mapping of the eviction threats, specific struggles for access to public services, and the creation of solidarity networks. Between March and August, the actions were carried out on virtual platforms, except for the organization of support groups in the favelas, in occupied buildings, and also self-managed joint efforts. At the moment, there has been a resumption of street demonstrations. Despite the unfavourable context, the popular movements are resisting and conceiving new ways of confronting the forces of capital through solidarity and collective struggle.


Aalbers, M. B., R. Rolnik, M. Krijnen (2020), “The Financialization of Housing in Capitalism’s Peripheries”, Housing Policy Debate, vol. 30, issue 4.

Arantes, P. F. (2006), “O ajuste urbano: as políticas do Banco Mundial e do BID para as cidades”, Pós: Revista Do Programa De Pós-Graduação Em Arquitetura E Urbanismo Da FAUUSP, vol. 20, pp. 60–75, Last accessed on 25 September 2020.

Bonduki, N. (2009), “La lucha por la vivienda social en las áreas centrales: el caso de São Paulo”, Ecuador Debate, no. 76, pp. 133–146.

Fix, M.A.B. (2011), Financeirização e transformações recentes no circuito imobiliário no Brasil, Thesis, University of Campinas, São Paulo.

Harvey, D. (2004), “The ‚New‘ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession”, Socialist Register, vol. 40. Last accessed on 25 September 2020.

Pasternak, S. (2003), “Um Olhar sobre Habitação em São Paulo”, Cadernos Metrópole, issue 9, pp. 81–117.

[1] This term, from “classes populares”, will be used often in this article, and is inclusive of the working class whose salary does not provide them with sufficient means to ensure the normal reproduction of their workforce, as well as peasants, the unemployed  and potentially also the lower-middle class.

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