Can Airbnb help Rio's poorest residents benefit from the Olympics?

Look at this and tell me you don't want to go there. Image: Getty.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are flocking to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. In order to meet the shortage of hotel accommodation, the city has made the online rental platform Airbnb an official partner for the games. The company now lists 25,000 units in Rio – a massive rise from only 900 in 2012.

With Brazil’s economy in the doldrums, some have praised the platform as a way for Cariocas – residents of Rio  to make extra money during the games. Nowhere would this be more welcome than in Rio’s favelas – neighbourhoods that are home to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants.

From the beachfront neighbourhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, one can easily spot favelas such as Babilonia or Vidigal, perched on the steep hills surrounding Rio’s South Zone. Favelas are often located close to more affluent areas and are home to many labourers, security guards, cooks, drivers and nannies, who are employed by their better-off neighbours.

The favelas house up to a quarter of Rio’s population – they are still considered no-go areas by some, and access to public services and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals is still limited. For decades these neighbourhoods were hidden from official maps of the city – a reflection of the neglect they received from the authorities.

Slum tourism

These neighbourhoods have long held a fascination for visitors to Rio and, since the early 1990s, tourists have ventured into some of the favelas in the South Zone on walking tours. Over the years, this trend has increased and today it is estimated that at least 50,000 visitors go on tours in Rio’s favelas each year.

On tour. Image: Daytours4u/Flickr/creative commons.

Favela tourism has also diversified; increasingly, visitors are seeking out favelas for their nightlife and markets – and sometimes also to find accommodation. Some hostels have been operating in favelas for well over a decade. But now online rental platforms (ORPs) such as Airbnb have given residents of the favelas the chance to extend their hospitality personally by renting out their own rooms or apartments to tourists.

This development comes at a time when cities across the world are debating the significance of ORPs. Airbnb and similar ORPs are part of what their proponents call “the sharing economy”. According to research conducted by Airbnb, ORPs can allow people on modest incomes to generate some extra income.

A sharing economy?

But some accuse providers such as Airbnb of accelerating gentrification by increasing the price of real estate. In particular, critics point out that OPRs encourage the transformation of whole apartment houses into permanent short-term rental flats by commercial providers, because such arrangements are more profitable than long-term tenancies.

In this way, ORPs reduce the availability of affordable housing in cities such as New York, Berlin or Paris, according to its critics.

In New York City – one the world’s largest ORP markets – the number of rooms and flats offered on Airbnb alone has now reached around 35,000. In response, lawmakers in New York State have recently approved new legislation, which bans the renting of whole apartments for periods less than one month, in order to stop short-term rentals.

In Berlin, a similar law came into effect in May 2016, which requires everyone who wants to rent out their whole apartment to get a commercial licence from the city council.

The view from Rio

So far, ORPs have attracted little controversy in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike in New York or Berlin, there has been no comprehensive research on the effect of ORPs on the housing market, particularly in favelas. So, for the time being, Airbnb’s claim that ORPs allow Rio’s residents to make ends meet in a situation of economic uncertainty goes unchallenged.

Tourists on the terrace. Image: Marcelo Sayão/EPA.

Such effects would clearly be welcome in favelas, but from what we know so far, they seem rather unlikely. Only two favelas – Vidigal and Rocinha – are listed on AirBnb as neighbourhoods. There are a number of additional listings in smaller favelas, often with pre-existing tourism infrastructure.

There are now about 250 listings on Airbnb in favelas across the city – which makes up just 1 per cent of the overall listings for Rio de Janeiro. It seems probable that the low uptake of Airbnb is caused by the lack of spare space in the favelas.

There is a clear concentration of Airbnb favela listings in Vidigal, which has around 180 ads. Yet many of these are provided by brokers, not by individuals – something we can tell by the fact that they are offering multiple units. Some places are even offered under company names – another indication that these operations are commercial by nature.

Faced with the expansion of ORPs, there seems to be a growing consensus between many cities that intelligent regulation is needed to limit or prevent their negative impacts. And Rio is no exception: Vidigal – an area which has long been subject to gang violence and police “pacification” interventions – is already facing significant pressures from gentrification. Without proper regulation, ORPs are likely to intensify gentrification and displacement in favelas, rather than provide income support for Rio’s poorest residents.The Conversation

Fabian Frenzel is lecturer in the political economy of organisation at the University of Leicester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.