The Displacement Decathlon

Olympian struggles for affordable housing from Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro.

Riot police and protestors in Vila Autódromo, Brazil, during a June 2012 march against Olympic displacement. [Photo by Cintia Barenho]

The world is urbanizing, but neither easily nor evenly. Modern cities are being shaped by top-down, forward-looking, skyline-transforming, neighborhood-renewing, tourism-enhancing, creatively destructive, global-investment-enticing forces of change. Yet these same forces exert conflicting pressures on the poorest urban neighborhoods, and so cities are being shaped as well by bottom-up, self-organizing, citizen-activist movements that are struggling to oppose the displacement that so often accompanies real estate development. It is this interplay between the dominant narrative of progress and prosperity and the counter-narratives of protest and resistance that gives early 21st-century cities their distinct dynamism. These struggles are especially magnified when cities become the setting for mega-events that attract both frenzied local development and global scrutiny — none more so than the Summer Olympic Games.

But what really matters here is not so much the Olympics themselves but rather the ambitious planning and intensive development they put in motion. With each Olympiad city officials become ever more preoccupied with the physical “legacy” of the Games, the indelible mark they might leave on housing stock and transportation infrastructure, on recreational and cultural amenities, on the reputation of the city as “world class.” 1 The Olympics and Paralympics last a couple of weeks but they catalyze projects that can define a metropolis and its image for decades.

Much has been written about the triumphs of some Olympic cities and the financial follies of others, but there has been little discussion about the ways in which the costs and benefits have been distributed among residents of host cities. The best account to date is Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights, a lengthy report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. 2 Produced in collaboration with several U.N. agencies and academic institutions, Fair Play is comprehensive — covering Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Athens (2000), Sydney (2004) and Beijing (2008) — and disturbing. According to the report, more than two million residents, mostly poor, were displaced by Olympic development in the past two decades, including 720,000 in Seoul and 1.25 million in Beijing. Likewise, the cities experienced broad, though indirect, effects on housing and homelessness:

In Barcelona, some commentators claim new house prices rose by 250 percent between the 1986 announcement of the election of Barcelona as Host City and the actual event in 1992. In Sydney, real estate speculation led to the eviction of long-term tenants throughout the greater city, and the number of homeless nearly tripled over a five-year period. The Olympic Games may accelerate gentrification of working class or immigrant neighbourhoods, and are thus likely to disproportionately affect the vulnerable and marginalised within society. The Olympic Games can also be used as a pretext for removing ethnic minorities such as the Roma in Athens, or communities of migrant workers such as in Beijing.

Further, Olympic Games have led to the increased marginalisation (and even criminalisation) of homeless people. In the lead-up to the Atlanta Olympics, over 9,000 arrest citations were issued to homeless persons, mostly African-Americans. Finally, Olympic Games bring a significant flow of investment, creating opportunities for new housing and other general infrastructure projects which are unrelated to the construction of Olympic infrastructure. This can also negatively affect the current housing situation of the local population, in particular the already disadvantaged and marginalised. 3

No Olympic city has escaped the travails of housing displacement.

This litany of Olympic lowlights underscores a range of pressures on local housing, from direct forced eviction to accelerated patterns of gentrification. It also indicates that no Olympic city has escaped the travails of housing displacement; and we believe that these grounded struggles — the wholesale replacement of low-income communities with Olympic dormitories, sports venues, etc. — give rise to an ethical dilemma. For though one might question the unevenly distributed trophies of gentrification and enhanced urban investment, these are difficult to measure and not clearly an outcome of the development of specific Olympic sites. By contrast, the housing displacement that precedes and makes possible the construction of an athletes’ village or new natatorium or signature stadium has direct and profound impact upon local communities well before the arrival of the Olympic torch and for years afterward. And almost always such aggressive displacement reveals the powerful undercurrents that have been influencing the growth politics of the host city for decades.

Top: Dona Maria Evanilde, a resident of Vila Autódromo, Brazil, a community threatened by the 2016 Olympics. [Photo by JV Santos for Catalytic Communities] Bottom: Vila Autódromo and an upscale development across the Jacarepaguá lagoon. [Photos by Lawrence Vale]

Now the world is turning its attention to Rio de Janeiro, which is host for the Summer Games in 2016 — and which is also where plans for the new Olympic Park threaten the very existence of Vila Autódromo, a favela in the city’s booming West Zone. Events are moving rapidly on the ground, and the outcome is far from certain; but meanwhile we can find lessons in the experience of Atlanta, host of the 1996 Summer Games, and more specifically in the historical precedent of public housing demolished to make way for the city’s Olympic Village. The parallels are clear, and together the two cities illuminate what we might call the Displacement Decathlon, in which well-trained residents compete for the right to remain in their homes and on their land. The contenders in this quadrennial event represent communities rather than nation-states, and they face long odds in a match against those with better funding and stronger political connections. The quality of coaching matters, as does the capacity to attract sponsorship. As in a decathlon, victory will require strength, endurance and agility. And in the Displacement Decathlon, as in any competition, most participants do not emerge victorious.

Atlanta, 1996

On September 18, 1990, Atlanta was awarded the right to host the 1996 Summer Games; and almost immediately, as the city started to plan for the international event, a half-century of simmering racial and urban development tensions began to boil over. 4 The history traces back to 1935, to the opening of Techwood Homes, the first public housing development in the United States. Located just northwest of downtown Atlanta, adjacent to the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company and the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and constructed on the site of a partly black shantytown known as Tech Flats, the garden-style, red-brick Techwood Homes were restricted to white residents. (Controversially, the first buildings were actually dormitories for Georgia Tech students.) Techwood, along with the neighboring Clark Howell Homes, would remain whites-only for three decades; only as a result of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s would both complexes be integrated, and soon they were 50 percent black. At which point the executives of Coca-Cola took note; in a notorious 1971 memo, Coke CEO Paul Austin expressed fears that if Techwood/Clark Howell were to become “all black, the felony rate will triple.” Austin favored preemptive action, proposing a plan to disperse the residents to the edge of the city, demolish the public housing and construct “an ultra-modern middle-income apartment complex with its own shopping mall, theatre, recreation area and park.” 5 At that moment the redevelopment of Techwood/Clark Howell would prove too politically sensitive to take on; Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, elected in 1973, initially supported Austin’s plan but then reversed his position, alienating the white business elite that had long expected a close relationship with the mayor’s office. Instead, Jackson used his political weight to help the Atlanta Housing Authority secure federal “modernization” funds for Techwood/Clark Howell — by this point there were almost 10,000 code violations in the troubled complexes. 6

The former Clark Howell/Techwood Homes site, located in what is now Atlanta’s revitalized urban core. [Maps by Annemarie Gray, with image from Google Earth] Click lower map to enlarge.

But the politics of public housing would only intensify over the next couple of decades. Techwood and Clark Howell — like so many public projects across the nation — continued to suffer official neglect and social decline. The impoverished residents struggled with deteriorating apartments and increasingly dangerous streets; in 1992 the neighborhood crime rate was 69 percent higher than the city average, and in 1993 the two projects alone accounted for 5,654 police dispatches, about five percent of the city total. 7 A poorly functioning Housing Authority had wearily and warily adjusted to serving a more economically desperate clientele; but it had lost the capacity to manage them.

All the while greater Atlanta was booming. In the early 1990s, the metropolis led the nation in job growth for three years straight, and in 1994, Fortune ranked the city as the fourth-best in the world for business, trailing only Hong Kong, New York and London. Boosters and corporate leaders, along with the city’s universities and cultural institutions, were eagerly promoting Atlanta as capital of the New South, a business-friendly magnet for entrepreneurs, foreign investment, corporate relocation and the rising black middle-class. 8 These disparities — the bleak and crime-ridden public housing projects, the dazzling new opportunities for real estate development — came crashing together in the frenzy unleashed when the Olympics came to town.

Atlanta’s disparities came crashing together in the frenzy unleashed when the Olympics came to town.

Almost immediately, the Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games — a private corporation in charge of staging the events — proposed to renovate the troubled public housing projects and to rent the units to the thousands of athletes who would compete in the Summer Games. In October 1990, the chair of the Atlanta Housing Authority board, Jane Fortson, approached the Techwood/Clark Howell Residents Association to discuss the proposal, pitching it as a way to secure up to $25,000 per unit for renovation costs. But the residents were suspicious; they redirected the conversation to unmet maintenance and security needs, and above all they wanted to know: Where were you before the Olympics? At the same time, the city’s business and political leaders wondered, as Georgia Tech planning professor Larry Keating put it, “whether Atlanta could host athletes from all over the world in an area of high crime and poverty. Was this the image the self-proclaimed ‘international city’ wanted to project?” 9

Techwood Homes, 1993. [Photos by the Historic American Buildings Survey, courtesy of the Library of Congress]

Renovation was not the only option on the table. Within months many local real estate developers chimed in with unsolicited proposals to replace the projects. The president of Georgia Tech, Patrick Crecine, began to negotiate with an ACOG liaison to propose a buyout of Techwood, and soon Crecine’s special assistant would acidly list the public housing complex as the outlier among the Atlanta landmarks which Olympic spectators would encounter: “Number one, there is one of the finest international corporations [Coca-Cola]. Two, here is one of the world’s finest technological institutions [Georgia Tech]. And here is one of the world’s best cesspools [Techwood]. It doesn’t play well.” 10 The cesspool analogy conveyed more than vitriolic humor; it acknowledged (perhaps unintentionally) that flood-prone Techwood had been built on the buried streambed of Tanyard Creek, and it even implied that removing public housing residents from the site and reworking the infrastructure could be rationalized as environmentally protective.

Techwood/Clark Howell faced challenges not only from the business and educational communities but also from the municipal government. In the spring of 1991, the president of the City Council recommended that the city “assume leadership in pursuing the development of an Olympic Village that would cover Techwood and Clark Howell Homes.” In a letter to the mayor, the Council leader made ambiguous promises that prefigured future battles: he proposed that displaced residents be given “top priority” for “any new housing accommodations,” but he also emphasized that he wanted them to occupy “dispersed” locations rather than return to the post-redevelopment neighborhood. And he specified that only “responsible and employed” residents would be eligible for any further housing assistance. 11

In the years that followed, various redevelopment plans would test the strength and stamina of the tenant activist groups. Early on, a development team known as PATH proposed replacing the 1,195 public housing units with 800 units of mixed-income development; Olympic athletes would live in dormitories on the Georgia Tech end of the site, and Coca-Cola would make a considerable investment on adjacent land. Tellingly, the PATH team made cynical use of a Techwood/Clark Howell resident survey. When asked: “Do you expect to live here after the Olympic Games?,” 51 percent responded “No”; according to Georgia Tech’s Keating, the question was putatively intended to assess “how much control residents believed they had over their situation” as redevelopment plans advanced. But as Keating pointed out, the PATH team “turned this logic on its head” and “used the question as a license to talk openly about how many households expected to have to leave.” 12 In this way developers could assert that they had empirical evidence for establishing a politically acceptable maximum number of apartments to be set aside for low-income tenants in future redevelopment. The AHA board chair then provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with this misleading bottom line: “Our statistics indicate that the number of people who want to stay are in a minority. We will have more than enough units at the revitalized Techwood to house them.” 13

By this point internal friction over the PATH plan had split the public housing residents into two camps: the residents’ association initially supported PATH, while an activist group known as Tenants United for Fairness, or TUFF, was adamantly opposed. TUFF organized protests and later filed a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the association leadership. Concerned about insufficient funding, HUD rejected the PATH plan in early 1992, but by then the internal schisms established a pattern of conflict that made eventual displacement more likely. 14

Techwood Homes (exterior) and Clark Howell (interior), 1993. [Photos by the Historic American Buildings Survey, courtesy of the Library of Congress]

With a new plan still emerging, the Atlanta Housing Authority gained residents’ approval to demolish 114 units of Techwood and sell 4.5 acres of the property for use as an athlete’s village (and, in an echo of history, for later use as a Georgia Tech dormitory). The new AHA director, Earl Phillips, reassured tenants that all those who were displaced would be relocated within Techwood/Clark Howell or other appropriate housing, and he warned that “if you vote ‘no’ on this property, it means that the Olympics will not come to Techwood and Clark Howell and they will build the Olympic Village in spite of you. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” A Journal-Constitution editorial exulted: “Finally, an area known for blight amid progress can begin to feel a part of the progressiveness of Georgia Tech and Coca Cola.” 15

Ultimately, residents came to realize that the PATH project would have limited their capacity to return to the redeveloped site, and they favored a second plan developed during Phillips’s tenure — as part of the nascent HOPE VI program — that focused on retention of Techwood and Clark Howell as public housing. But this plan too would prove short-lived. In 1994, as federal housing policy began to favor private-sector initiatives, the AHA reinvented itself under CEO Renée Lewis Glover and swiftly developed plans to demolish the low-income projects and replace them with a mixed-income community known as Centennial Place. Glover saw the Olympic deadline as an opportunity to shake up an “otherwise sluggish bureaucracy.” As she explained, during an April 1995 meeting with residents: “Redevelopment is not being done because the Olympics [are] coming. It is facilitated because the Olympics are coming.” 16 Later she would recall:

These things are fortuitous, or sometimes you can say they are God-ordained, or however you want to put it, but with Olympic dormitories being right across the street [from Techwood], it “wasn’t no prettyin’ it up”; you couldn’t have painted it enough or locked it down enough. It was just right there. All of the world’s TV cameras were going to be there. You couldn’t help but ask, “Well I know we’re here at the Olympics but what the heck is all that over there?” So something had to be done. 17

And something was done. When the 10,000 athletes from 197 countries arrived at the Olympic Village in Atlanta, in July 1996, many were housed in new buildings that had replaced a 60-year-old dormitory at Georgia Tech and several acres of Techwood Homes. By this time the rest of Techwood had been demolished and its residents shotput out of the neighborhood. The Atlanta Housing Authority had also launched construction on phase one of Centennial Place, which would open the following winter. Thus the international media would see not desolate housing projects but rather signs that Atlanta was a city on the move. 18

Top: Techwood Homes and downtown Atlanta, 1993. [Photo by the Historic American Buildings Survey, courtesy of the Library of Congress] Bottom: Atlanta’s Centennial Place apartments, with remnant building of Techwood Homes public housing, 2010. [Photo by Lawrence Vale]

The case of the 1996 Olympics shows that a fortuitous mix of local, national and international factors could provide policy entrepreneurs the perfect conditions to support the kind of bold redevelopment they had dreamed about for decades. Purged of its poorest residents, the erstwhile Tech Flats/Techwood/Clark Howell Homes was once again a playing field for lucrative real estate ventures on the prime edge of downtown. Not until years later would the full extent of the displacement become clear. When the rental units of Centennial Place were all occupied, in 2000, only 78 families from the former Techwood and Clark Howell Homes were re-housed — just seven percent of the population when the planning process began. 19

The 1996 Olympics provided policy entrepreneurs with the conditions to support the plans they had long dreamed about.

To Renée Glover, such statistics are irrelevant and misleading. She insists that most households, provided with a housing voucher, had exercised a choice to move elsewhere. (Never mind that many families felt they would not be able to meet the more stringent requirements under private management.) To the developer of Centennial Place, Egbert Perry, public housing like Techwood/Clark Howell had devolved to become little more than a “containment strategy,” or “concentration camps of poverty.” And to the Georgia Tech economist Thomas D. (Danny) Boston, the wholesale evictions of public housing tenants were actually “[an acceleration of] the mobility of households away from environments where poverty is concentrated.” 20 In short, the defenders of the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games have been steadfast in justifying the displacement as in the residents’ own best interests.

At the same time it clearly served the financial interests of Atlanta’s business elite. As the Olympics approached, the land between the housing projects and the central business district, occupied by an assortment of repair shops, manufacturers, printers, and other small businesses, rapidly became a prime target for redevelopment. The ACOG acquired the southern part of the site for the privately funded Centennial Olympic Park, and Coca-Cola purchased 10 square blocks between the projects and the park, which was later partly developed for the new World of Coke. If all this development is credited to the removal of Techwood and Clark Howell — a dubious calculation, but an instructive one — the overall economic impact was immense. In 2009, Glover estimated that “approximately $1 billion of private investment” had flowed into the neighborhood surrounding Centennial Place. 21

Centennial Place surrounded by Coca-Cola, Centennial Olympic Park, Georgia Tech, and the downtown business district. The development pressures that led — and then followed upon — Techwood’s demolition seem obvious. [Background photo © 2013 Alex S. MacLean; annotations by the authors]

Rio de Janeiro, 2016

Today, 20 years after the displacement occasioned by the Atlanta Olympics, Rio de Janeiro prepares for the 2016 Games, and another low-income community finds itself blocking the path of Olympic-style urban progress: the 3,000 residents of Vila Autódromo, whose ambiguously imminent eviction has caught the attention of activist groups and international media. 22 Situated on a slice of lowland in the newly-booming Barra da Tijuca, roughly 30 kilometers west of central Rio, Vila Autódromo curls around the very site selected for the Olympic Park, designated as the setting for major sport venues as well as housing for the global media. In fact Vila Autódromo has a dual handicap in the Displacement Decathlon: not only does it occupy prime real estate but it is also perceived as a favela, the loaded Portuguese word for an informal settlement, in a metropolis long notorious for its contentious relationship with the poor.

Local fishermen settled the site, which flanks a lagoon, in the late 1960s, when it was still part of the undeveloped West Zone of metropolitan Rio. 23 A few years later, in the mid-’70s, the city began to build a large Formula One racetrack — hence “autódromo” — and the fishermen, now joined by construction workers and other new migrants, concentrated their settlement on a strip between the lagoon and the racetrack wall and slowly expanded into an adjacent piece of flat and stable land. In 1987, the settlers founded a residents’ association to develop infrastructure for water and electricity. In 1992, the governor of Rio de Janeiro State granted 354 households a 33-year lease for the land, which was extended to 99 years in 1994, and in 2005 the city declared part of the community to be a Special Zone of Social Interest, as additional legal assurance against evictions. 24 A 1990 municipal law also prohibits the eviction of any favela except in the case of physical risk due to land conditions. 25 Thus over the decades Vila Autódromo has evolved into a well-established and indeed formal neighborhood; a now faded sign boasts, in three languages, that it has been “a peaceful and orderly community since 1967.”

Vila Autódromo, adjacent to the future Olympic Park, Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro. [Maps by Annemarie Gray, with image from Google Earth] Click lower map to enlarge.

For many Brazilians, the opportunity to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, which will follow closely on the 2014 World Cup, is the ultimate symbol of the nation’s new prominence on the international stage. Leaders from Rio 2016, the private company in charge of Olympics coordination, are trumpeting the change which they argue is demanded by these mega-events: “To receive all these guests, Rio will undergo a transformation, but without ever losing the city spirit and Brazilian energy that is contagious to all.” 29 And so the current city’s rapid economic growth, burgeoning middle class and distinct cultural pride are manifested in Rio’s ambitious — and controversial — urban development projects: four new venues for Olympic events, four new Bus Rapid Transit lines, a new central waterfront development, a “pacification” policing program to address drug gang violence, continued infrastructure investments through the federal Accelerated Growth Program, and the newest favela upgrading program, Morar Carioca. “The physical, social and economic legacy of the Games at the Olympic and Paralympic Park in Barra de Tijuca will establish for the people of Rio the future direction of sustainable urban development and city growth,” reads the competition brief for the Olympic Park Master Plan. For the city’s poorest residents, these mega-events — and what happens after the international cameras leave — represent the ultimate test: where do they fit into that legacy?

As in Atlanta two decades earlier, the succession of arguments purporting to justify displacement began even before the city officially won the Olympic bid. In August 2009, the city asserted that Vila Autódromo’s families must be relocated to accommodate the widening of two major avenues; after the Olympic agreement, these plans evolved into a formal commitment to the International Olympic Committee for a 26-kilometer BRT line, now known as TransOlímpica, connecting competition venues and existing transportation networks across the city. An official video depicted the BRT route cutting directly through Vila Autódromo, even as other video projections demonstrated that the community could be spared. 30

Top: The city of Rio de Janeiro released multiple videos showing the projected route of the new TransOlímpica BRT line, one cutting through the heart of Vila Autódromo and another bypassing it. [Screenshots by the authors] Bottom: Resident activist Inalva Mendes Brito and researcher Graham Denyer Willis at the Vila Autódromo Residents’ Association. [Photo by Lawrence Vale]

The city’s intent to displace Vila Autódromo became clear after Rio de Janeiro won the Olympic bid in October 2009. Jane Nascimento de Oliveira, one of the directors of the Vila Autódromo Residents’ Association, told us she first learned of plans for her community’s removal through a television broadcast by Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes. 31 She said the city also revoked the community’s Special Zone of Social Interest status around that time in order to strengthen the rationale for resettlement. 32 In March 2010 community leaders met with representatives from city government, the state housing secretary, public defenders and activist groups. City officials reaffirmed the plan for resettlement, now justifying it as a suggestion from the IOC; but they offered the community an opportunity to devise an alternative. In another meeting later that month, however, the special secretary of Rio 2016 introduced a new rationale for removal: “Safe conditions should be secured through the creation of an open space around the perimeter of the race track and a strip around the edge of the Jacarepaguá lagoon.” 33 The meaning of “safety” now teetered ambiguously between safety for residents and safety from them. A few months later, in June, city planners announced another plan: 119 favelas must be removed. Once again Vila Autódromo was deemed an unacceptable environmental risk, and since it could not be upgraded, it would have to be relocated. 34 Residents and supporters mobilized in front of Rio City Hall, demanding stronger representation and formal documentation of the environmental claims. In February 2011, a judge ordered the removal of all houses in Vila Autódromo that lay within 25 meters of the lagoon, citing federal legislation that requires a buffer between construction and any body of water. 35

Thin Red Line

Whatever the rationale for redevelopment, municipal leaders and private developers were of course well aware of the future value of Vila Autódromo’s land. In an effort to defuse charges that the 1.18-million-square-meter Olympic Park project contract would be granted without a public selection process, Rio 2016 and the Brazilian Institute of Architects launched a formal competition in May 2011, which was won by the international firm AECOM.

The competition brief underscored the design politics of the Olympic Park. The roughly triangular site plan, distributed to all entrants, revealed highly politicized edges to the south, where the site extended right down to the lagoon edge, and to the west, where it bumped up against the main part of the favela. As drawn the plan implied a clear distinction between two existing communities: 1) a lagoon-side strip of solidly constructed houses along Avenida do Autódromo, now encompassed within the territory of Olympic Park, and 2) the more informally constructed expanse of Vila Autódromo, shown just outside the boundary.

The site plan provided to entrants in the Olympic Park masterplan competition revealed Vila Autódromo as a neighbor but left most of the community outside the red line that marked the site boundary. Click image to enlarge.

That the communities had long viewed themselves as a social and political whole did not seem to matter. On the competition site plan, the strip along the lagoon was boldly coded as “preserved area” — but the Olympic planners are using “preservation” in the ecological, not social, sense. What is being “preserved” is not the longstanding community but instead a newly created environmental buffer. And so on the drawing, faintly visible beneath the green swath along the lagoon, we can discern the outlines of the roadway and existing houses. Beyond the legally mandated 25-meter waterfront setback, the swath thickens in all the right places to encompass and hence obliterate all the “wrong” dwellings. On the other side of the drawing, beyond the red line tracing the wall of the current racetrack, we can see that the main part of Vila Autódromo was provisionally left intact — but the new spur of the proposed BRT slashes right through it. Thus we realize that the Rio 2016 planners had no need to actually state in the competition brief that the favela was doomed; the drawing did this for them — more subtly, perhaps, but with equal force.

What is being “preserved” is not the longstanding community.

Faced with these constraints, AECOM has responded with admirable professionalism. Team director Bill Hanway, with previous experience on the 2012 Olympics in London, has a superior understanding of the many technical requirements for setbacks and security in contemporary Olympic facilities, and the AECOM team collaborated with Rio architect Daniel Guzmão and other locals to use the 45-day competition period effectively. According to Adam Williams of AECOM, they identified the Brazilian cultural preference for linear parks; examined successful local neighborhood layouts; and, to prevent stormwater from discharging into the lagoon, devised a plan to restore mangroves and install reed beds linked to drainage systems and holding ponds. Given related concerns about untreated sewage flowing into the lagoon from informal settlements further inland, Hanway wanted to ensure that “our site wouldn’t contribute to the environmental load.” 36 And of course such environmentally measures make sense — providing that one does not question too closely the prior decision to site a massive program of Olympic facilities on an environmentally sensitive site.

More proactively, AECOM chose to preserve the inland part of Vila Autódromo. In its winning plan, it remains not only for 2016 but also in the 2018 and 2030 “legacy” projections, by which time the majority of Olympic Park will presumably have been sold to private developers to create a new urban district. Adam Williams has noted that the favela was “not part of the remit,” since it was outside the site boundaries, but also that the team “couldn’t ignore it” because it appeared in the aerial photos. And according to Bill Hanway, there was “broad agreement” to “keep these communities” in the drawings; it was, he said, “the right thing to do.” 37

AECOM, winning entry for the Rio 2016 Olympic Park. The plan retained a large part of Vila Autódromo, to the northwest, in the projections for 2016, 2018 (not shown) and 2030. [Annotations by the authors] Click images to enlarge.  

But as it happened, this “right thing to do” was not the end of the story. The rules of the competition provide that the winning proposal can be adapted at the discretion of the Rio 2016 committee; this is common procedure for competitions, to be sure, but it stacked the game against Vila Autódromo. Within a month of the announcement of the winning scheme, Vila Autódromo had been erased entirely from the plans, and in October 2011, the Rio newspaper O Globo reported that Vila Autódromo would be removed by 2013. 38 This assertion ignored the fact that the consent and relocation process required when residents hold legal land title had not yet begun. According to Theresa Williamson, director of the activist network Catalytic Communities which has been closely following the Vila Autódromo case, this is a standard tactic of intimidation: “Several times now we have seen the City’s plans announced to the community through the local newspaper, when they are in fact not yet finalized, given the legal process is still very much open, in order to pressure residents into thinking certain things are inevitable or already determined, or that their neighbors have consented, and to stop resisting.” 39

At this point events moved fast. The very next week, the municipal housing secretary, Jorge Bittar, visited Vila Autódromo; his purpose was to notify residents that they would be evicted; his only explanation: “This is a commitment from the federal government to the International Olympic Committee.” 40 In response, Vila Autódromo’s legal advisors filed an injunction to postpone the eviction, and community leaders petitioned the IOC, citing human rights prohibitions against forcible removal. 41 The next day, the São Paulo newspaper Estadão revealed that the city had informally purchased an area designated for relocation one kilometer away for US $12.5 million — nearly triple its appraised value — from a private developer that had donated US $150,000 to the political campaigns of Rio Housing Secretary Bittar and Mayor Paes. 42 A judge cancelled the land purchase and ordered a formal appraisal, and in January 2012, another judge suspended the process altogether until the resettlement issues were resolved. As a result of this small court victory, Vila Autódromo had a year’s reprieve; it also showed that a strong favela could resist displacement. 43

Resident Activism

Throughout 2012, Vila Autódromo repeatedly fought off powerful redevelopment interests. “We are not against the Games nor against progress; we just don’t accept social exclusion,” said Nascimento. 44 The Residents’ Association has been organizing and educating the community, and activists shot a video that showed the government resorting to intimidation during a “registration for relocation” drive, the formal process required when people hold legal property title. 45 In response, the residents’ association collaborated with the public defenders to register community members who wanted to stay, and conducted door-to-door visits to assemble a community census and inform residents of their rights. Of the roughly 720 families owning homes in the community, 450 confirmed their desire to stay. 46 Without this activism, city officials would have been able to argue that a majority of Vila Autódromo wanted to leave, as did their counterparts in Atlanta two decades ago.

Top: Altair Guimarães, president of the Vila Autódromo Residents’ Association, interviewed in Rio’s Red Card, a documentary that aired on Al Jazeera, February 2013. Bottom: “Plano Popular” development plan delivered by community representatives to the Rio mayor. [Photo by Lawrence Vale]

Later that year, in June, during the United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, a march for solidarity attracted 4,000 people and garnered support from the National Movement for the Right for Housing, the Rio Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics, and the Popular Movement Center. In July, community representatives delivered to Mayor Paes the “People’s Plan”; the outcome of an extensive participatory process led by two local universities, the plan laid out a sustainable alternative that retained the favela with upgrades to existing buildings, infrastructure, and environmental protections at a third of the relocation cost.

The city agreed to consider their case, but as we learned from speaking with residents in March 2013, the community has yet to receive a formal response. However, the facts on the ground point to imminent relocation. In late January, O Globo reported that construction had begun at the site of the proposed replacement housing one kilometer away at Parque Carioca, part of the city’s new housing and urban upgrading program, 47 and in late February Mayor Paes visited the area to highlight its future amenities, which include an outdoor pool and waterslide. The mayor assured critics that the process had involved a long dialogue. “The slogan is negotiate, negotiate, negotiate,” Paes said. 48

Meanwhile, many in the community remain mobilized and committed to resistance. Williamson reiterates that “the community is still there, still standing, and the court case still open.” 49 Any relocation requires consent, and residents need not decide whether to accept the new housing until it is built. In contrast to the tenants at Techwood/Clark Howell Homes, the residents of Vila Autódromo have maintained a unified front; and should they decide to move, their legal status as property owners will likely ensure that they are fairly compensated for what has become enormously valuable lakefront real estate.

Whether the citizens of Vila Autódromo will be removed from the vicinity of the 2016 Olympic Park remains to be seen. But whatever the case, the community is already a city-wide exemplar of resistance to fierce development pressure — a model for the dozens of Rio communities that face eviction. For it is the sad truth that the real losers in the Summer Olympic Games are often the low-income residents who happen to live in the path of new development, whose race begins well before and lasts long after the official competition.

Official rendering of “Parque Carioca,” the rehousing development under construction near Vila Autódromo.

2020 Hindsight

Atlanta and Rio are but two chapters in the long history of displacement that has accompanied mega-events like the Olympics. Similar dynamics reshaped London’s Clays Lane Estate, Beijing’s hutongs, the Marousi Roma settlement in Athens, Barcelona’s Poblenou and Seoul’s hanoks. Only the 2004 Games in Sydney received a passing grade in Fair Play for Housing Rights, although those Olympics, too, were implicated in catalyzing gentrification.

Today the people of Vila Autódromo are struggling for what housing scholar-activist Chester Hartman has aptly called “the right to stay put.” They face multiple challenges, and each hurdle seems driven by a different rationale. If we view the Olympic Games from the perspective of low-income communities, the events of the Displacement Decathlon are truly daunting:

  1. “The eyes of the world” challenge: Your community’s presence is inconsistent with the clean, attractive, prosperous and progressive city and nation we wish to display to the world and the media.
  2. The “public safety” challenge: Your community’s presence has posed dangers to the general welfare in the past, and we will no longer tolerate the potential for future incidents.
  3. The “environmental risk” challenge: Your community is located in a precarious and vulnerable location inconsistent with our national environmental protection standards. We cannot protect you and thus must remove you to a safer place.
  4. The “top-down pressure” challenge: We care about your community but we must balance the agendas of the national and international authorities.
  5. The “Olympic catalyst” challenge: Much-needed investment in modern transportation infrastructure and market-rate housing will ultimately benefit the whole city. Your community is in the way of these vital improvements.
  6. “The ticking clock” challenge: Olympic construction is on a tight deadline; therefore we must fast-track the standard time-consuming processes to stay within budget.
  7. The “eminent domain” challenge: Your community is not located on land that you should be able to control.
  8. The “local preference” challenge: Our community engagement process indicates that most members of your community would prefer to leave.
  9. The “civic duty” challenge. Your community has a public obligation to comply with whatever is necessary and recognize that the city as a whole will gain from hosting the Olympic Games.
  10. The “personal well-being” challenge: However disruptive this may seem right now, your removal really is for your own good in the long term.

Public officials and their private sector partners proffer various reasons to justify displacement, and in each case these are weighted and sequenced differently. But taken together, they coalesce into a multi-track challenge that can outflank almost any defense; deployed simultaneously or sequentially, they constitute a formidable weapon against community resilience.

This summer, the International Olympic Committee will choose Istanbul, Tokyo or Madrid as host of the 2020 summer Olympics. At which time we might think again about past experiences with housing displacement — call it an actual opportunity for 2020 hindsight. For sports fans, the Olympic decathlon comes round every fourth year, but for housing rights advocates, the race never stops.

“The Olympics Do Not Justify Displacement.” Sign at the Vila Autódromo Residents’ Association. [Photo by Lawrence Vale]

  1. John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold, eds., Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s Games, 1896-2016 (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  2. Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights (Geneva: COHRE, 2007).
  3. COHRE, Fair Play for Housing Rights, 41.
  4. The longer story of the double clearance of Techwood and Clark Howell is told in Lawrence J. Vale, Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), chapters 2 and 3.
  5. Austin, quoted in Larry Keating and Carol A. Flores, “Sixty and Out: Techwood Homes Transformed by Enemies and Friends,” Journal of Urban History 26, no. 3 (2000): 285.
  6. Evelyn L. Newman, “AHA Director Reacts with Dismay to City Pressure,” Atlanta Daily World, 8 January 1980; “Techwood Homes to Get ‘Face Lifting,’” Atlanta Daily World, 18 September 1980, 2.
  7. Larry Keating, “Techwood and Clark Howell HOPE VI Baseline Case Study,” in Linda B. Fosburg, Susan J. Popkin, and Gretchen P. Locke, An Historical and Baseline Assessment of HOPE VI, Volume II: Case Studies (Washington, D.C.: Office of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1996), 2–3, 8–9; crime statistics for 1992 and 1993, reported in Thomas D. Boston, “Environment Matters: The Effect of Mixed-Income Revitalization on the Socio-economic Status of Public Housing Residents: A Case Study of Atlanta” (working paper #1, January 2005). By 1994, however, the Techwood side was 80 percent vacant, however, surely affecting its propensity to attract crime.
  8. Frank W. Johnson, “Let the Games Begin: Relocation and the Redevelopment of Public Housing in Atlanta, Georgia,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Temple University, 2002, 43–46.
  9. Keating, “HOPE VI Baseline Case Study,” 15–16.
  10. Norman Johnson, quoted in Bert Roughton Jr., “Techwood Eyes on Olympics’ Prize,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 17 March 1991.
  11. Council president Marvin Arrington to Mayor Maynard Jackson, 28 March 1991, included as an appendix in Eric Leonard Pinckney, “Urban Revitalization: The Techwood/Clark Howell Homes Revitalization Effort Atlanta, Georgia, September 1989 through September 1993: A Case Study for Collaborative Planning” (master’s thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology, 1993).
  12. Keating, “HOPE VI Baseline Case Study,” 16–20; Darren Hamilton, “City’s Top Officials Hold Fate of Techwood Homes,” Atlanta Daily World, 11 April 1991, 1; Darren T. Hamilton, “Housing Director Hopes to Capitalize on Olympics,” Atlanta Daily World, 21 April 1991, 2.
  13. Board chair Jane Fortson quoted in Cynthia Durcanin, “1996 Olympics: Techwood Tenants Review Options for Moving Out,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 18 September 1991; Keating, “HOPE VI Baseline Case Study,” 18–21.
  14. Lyle V. Harris, “Techwood/Clark Howell Dispute Threatens Revitalization, Turf War Hampers Progress on Olympic Village Plans,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 28 April 1992; “Techwood Redevelopment Plan is Rejected by HUD Officials,” Atlanta Daily World, 25 February 1992.
  15. Keating, “HOPE VI Baseline Case Study,” 25–27; Lyle V. Harris, “Techwood Residents OK Plan for Games,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 27 May 1992. The residents voted 144 to 47 to approve the sale, a voter turnout of only 13 percent. Phillips, quoted in Lyle V. Harris, “Residents Meet on Olympic Redevelopment Plan,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 22 May 1992; “Techwood and Olympics: Now Let the Building Begin,” editorial, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 28 May 1992.
  16. Glover (April 1995), quoted in Johnson, “Let the Games Begin,” 125.
  17. Renée Lewis Glover interview with Lawrence Vale, February 2010.
  18. “AHA Breaks Ground for Olympic Redevelopment,” Atlanta Daily World, 7 March 1996, 1; Ken Edelstein, “A New Mixed-Income Village for Downtown Atlanta,” New York Times, 24 November 1996; Gretchen Locke and Kristin Winkel, Interim Assessment of the HOPE VI Program: Case Study of Techwood Homes and Clark Howell Homes in Atlanta, Georgia, Task Order 2, Final Report (Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates, 2001), 10.
  19. Keating and Flores, “Sixty and Out”; Locke and Winkel, Case Study of Techwood and Clark Howell, 30; Naparstek et al., HOPE VI: Community Building, 26.
  20. Egbert Perry interview with Lawrence Vale, May 2010; Thomas D. Boston, “The Effects of Revitalization on Public Housing Residents: A Case Study of the Atlanta Housing Authority,” Journal of the American Planning Association 71, no. 4 (2005): 405.
  21. Regeneration impact is discussed in Charles Heyring, Matthew J. Burbank, and Greg Andranovich, “World Class: Using the Olympics to Shape and Brand the American Metropolis,” in Tourism, Culture and Regeneration, ed. Melanie K. Smith (Wallingford, UK: CABI, 2007), 105; Renée Lewis Glover, “The Atlanta Blueprint,” in Henry Cisneros and Lora Engdahl, eds., From Despair to Hope: HOPE VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America’s Cities (Washington, D.C. Brookings Institution, 2009), 152. She also gives estimated financial impacts of all of the other Atlanta public housing redevelopment efforts, totaling more than $2.4 billion citywide; 160–61.
  22. Jane Nascimento de Oliveira interview, 22 March 2013; “Rio’s Red Card,” Al Jazeera Viewfinder special, Dir. Susanna Lira, February 2013.
  23. “Vila Autódromo: uma história de luta,” Rio sem remoções, trans. Annemarie Gray.
  24. Theresa Williamson interviews, March 2013; Vila Autódromo Resident’s Association, “Plano Popular? da Vila Autódromo,” July 2012.
  25. Lei Orgânica do Município, Article 429, Paragraph VI, Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1990.
  26. The word favela originates from a thorny plant typical of Brazil’s northeast familiar to the Afro-Brazilian veterans of the Canudos war who settled Morro da Providencia in the center of Rio (which is now fighting its own battle against displacement: see Theresa Williamson and Mauricio Hora, “In the Name of the Future, Rio Is Destroying Its Past,” The New York Times,12 August 2012).
  27. Williamson and Hora, “In the Name of the Future.”
  28. Zoë Roller, “Vila Autódromo Favela Resists Eviction in Rio,” The Rio Times, 11 October 2011.
  29. Official Rio 2016 website.
  30. City of Rio de Janeiro, Office of the Secretary of Urbanism, “O Plano de Legado Urbano e Ambiental Rio 2016,” October 2008; “Vila Autódromo: uma história de luta,” op. cit. A video by the City of Rio de Janeiro shows the route cutting through the community at minute 1:20; another official government video shows the route bypassing the community at 1:33.
  31. Andréia Coutinho, Samuel Lima, and Thamyres Gonçalves, trans. Micaela Lillard Browning, “Jane’s Awakening,” Rio on Watch, 10 June 2011; Gabriele Lomba, “Vizinhos olímpicos travam batalha com a Prefeitura para serem legados sociais,” O Globo, 8 October 2009.
  32. Nascimento interview, March 2013.
  33. “Vila Autódromo: uma história de luta.”
  34. Isabella Bastos and Selma Schmidt, “Prefeitura removerá 119 favelas até o fim de 2012,” O Globo, 7 January 2010.
  35. Luiz Ernesto Magalhães, “Minuta de edital prevê remoção de favela Vila Autódromo até 2013 para obras do Parque Olímpico,” O Globo, 4 October 2011.
  36. Bill Hanway interview, 12 March 2013; Adam Williams interview, AECOM director, 15 March 2013.
  37. Hanway and Williams interviews.
  38. Magalhães, 2011.
  39. Williamson interviews, March 2013.
  40. Katie Judd, “Housing Secretary Jorge Bittar to Present Relocation Proposal to Vila Autódromo Community Sunday,” Catalytic Communities press release, 14 October 2011.
  41. Christa Hall, “Vila Autódromo wins Olympic Land Battle,” Rio on Watch, 27 January 2012.
  42. Alfredo Junqueira and Bruno Boghossian, “Rio paga R$ 19,9 mi por área de doador de Paes,” O Estadão de São Paulo, 6 October 2011.
  43. Luiz Ernesto Magalhães, “Prefeito cancela compra de terreno para onde serão removidos moradores da Vila Autódromo,” O Globo, 18 October 2011; Luiz Ernesto Magalhães, “Favela Vila Autódromo pode ganhar sobrevida de um ano,” O Globo, 2 December 2011.
  44. Vila Autódromo Facebook page, posted 8 March 2013.
  45. Henrique Zizo, “Vila Autódromo/RJ – Cadastro da Prefeitura para o início do projeto de remoção,” video uploaded to YouTube, 22 October 2011.
  46. There are an estimated 900 families living in Vila Autódromo; however, evidence from other favelas suggests that roughly 20 percent of residents may be renters. Williamson interviews.
  47. Luiz Ernesto Magalhães, trans. Annemarie Gray, “Vila Autódromo: remoção só em 2014,” O Globo, 17 January 2013.
  48. Parque Carioca, o novo endereço das famílias da Vila Autódromo,” public notice from Municipal Housing Secretary, 28 February 2013.
  49. Williamson interviews.
Lawrence Vale & Annemarie Gray, “The Displacement Decathlon,” Places Journal, April 2013. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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