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When the clock strikes six in the evening, the Carioca subway station in Rio de Janeiro’s financial center is packed with people walking in one direction. Everyone rushes down the stairs looking for the cars that will take them home. Hardly anyone makes it to the center of Rio when night falls. Everyone leaves. In a few hours, the scenario will be that of a ghost town. The streets, where thousands of office workers roamed during the day, will remain empty until the next morning when the tide of workers returns.
The center of Rio de Janeiro brings together most of the metropolitan area’s GDP and more than 800,000 jobs, in addition to much of the city’s historical and cultural heritage. But if the entire metropolis has more than 12 million inhabitants, the center is barely 41,000 people, divided into small nuclei that are almost like a “Gallic village” that defends itself against the zombie city around it outside of working hours. In order to remedy this, the city council launched the program last year Resuscitation Center (Resuscitation Center)with strong incentives for housing construction.
“Downtown Rio is mostly offices. It has never made the transition that other cities have made to have more downtown residents. And the pandemic has shown how problematic this model is. Everyone depends on a single use, and when that use fails, everything collapses,” explains Rio’s Minister of Urban Planning, Washington Fajardo, the project’s ideologue, to EL PAÍS, inspired mostly by the restoration of Rio Melbourne’s run-down center.
The center of Rio was already suffering from several problems. Some date back to the 1960s, when the city lost the status of the country’s capital to Brasilia, leaving vast empty administrative buildings and an identity crisis yet to be resolved. Others are more mundane, like dirt or a sense of insecurity, but the pandemic has hit the Achilles’ heel: dependence on government agencies. With the advent of remote work, many employees stopped stepping foot on the street and stopped consuming in restaurants and stores that now feature hundreds of shuttered windows. A double economic crisis.
change the laws
Now the city government’s project is giving developers tax incentives to encourage them to invest in the centre. In addition to not having to pay some taxes, those building apartments or remodeling old office buildings gain building potential to build more profitable properties in the most desirable and already very densely populated areas of the city. Since the new law came into force a year ago, the construction of more than 1,700 new homes has already been approved, more than in the entire previous decade. A residential building is being built on Presidente Vargas Avenue, the widest in the city, for the first time in 77 years. Something begins to move, although it is not easy to break the inertia. Until 1994 there was even a house building ban in this region. The goal now is to increase the supply of housing by 15% by 2024.
But until the cranes appear, the challenge is to capture the minds of the cariocas, for whom the center is a place to work or have fun, not live. The middle and upper classes still dream of living in front of the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon, or even further from the center in Barra da Tijuca, a sort of Miami of sprawling urbanity where everything is done by car. However, Fajardo believes that the idea that living in the center improves the quality of life will gradually prevail. In order to convince the pioneers, the city administration is already working with a special credit line for civil servants who are willing to move. With the arrival of the first neighbors, a virtuous cycle is expected to begin attracting more and more people.
For UN Habitat Brazil representative Rayne Moraes, the benefits go beyond restoring the city’s central area, as thousands of evictions and the resulting carbon emissions would be avoided. Cariocas spend an average of 67 minutes a day on public transit and 11% spend more than two hours, according to a recent study by the Moovit App. It is the third city in the world where its residents spend more time stuck in traffic, behind only Jakarta and Istanbul.
A new settlement in the old town and the creation of further central areas in the city would prevent commuting, Moraes points out, who nevertheless believes that the most important thing is that the city council dictate the rules of the game and not private initiative. “There has to be subsidized housing, social rent and various alternatives of size and value, because if we don’t do that, we will go back to the original process where only the rich can return to this posh neighborhood of the city,” he warns.
For now, the city government is promising 600 apartments for those earning less than 3,600 reais a month (about $662). It’s practically symbolic in a city where nearly a quarter of the population lives in favelas, in many cases in situations of extreme social vulnerability, but in Brazil public housing policies are very precarious, if not non-existent, Fajardo himself laments. The closest thing to this would be the federal government’s “My House, My Life” program, one of the banners of the Labor Party (PT) governments. More than a solution, in most cases these impersonal blocks that were mass-built worsened the problem, driving low-income families back to the periphery without any public service available.
Finally, the weakness of state-level housing policies is holding back the center’s recovery, as thousands of poorer families would be willing to move if public authorities made it easier for them. The other problem is a classic in such urban renewal processes: the dreaded gentrification. This fear of rising prices has been lurking in central Rio since before the 2016 Olympics, when the port’s waterfront was completely renovated and renamed Porto Maravilha.
Fajardo denies that evicting neighbors is difficult because there are very few and most live in their own homes. “This is the lowest population density in the city. It’s about bringing in new neighbors, not evicting those who are already there,” he says, emphasizing that the priority is to avoid a real estate bubble. For now, it is in the port region (which, despite its proximity to the financial hub, does not benefit from the municipal plan’s tax incentives) that the anticipated housing boom has started to flourish most rapidly. In just one year, more than 4,900 apartments are already in operation.