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The Olympics Are Always A Disaster For Poor People

And Rio's no exception.

18/08/2016 8:07 AM AEST | Updated August 19, 2016 01:39
Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
One of the last remaining homes in Vila Autódromo, a favela near Rio's Olympic Village, is demolished on Aug. 2.

RIO DE JANEIRO ― Seven years ago, Vila Autódromo was little more than a tranquil fishing village on the edge of Jacarepagua Lagoon, next to the racetrack for which it was named. Like the hundreds of other favelas that dot Rio de Janeiro’s landscape, it had long been neglected by the city government, and it lacked many basic public services that are standard in the fast-growing wealthier neighborhoods just across the water. But to the more than 600 families that lived there, it was home.

“This was a paradise,” said Luiz Cláudio Silva, who lived in Autódromo for more than 20 years. “I thought that I would live here for the rest of my life.”

By the time the Rio Olympics are over, just 20 of the families who lived in Autódromo in 2009, the year the International Olympic Committee chose the city to host the games, will remain. The community, which sits less than a mile away from Rio’s Olympic Park, was crushed so that the city could build new access roads to connect Olympic venues.

Media outlets in Brazil and around the world have documented the plight of these families for years. They told readers about Rio officials’ promises: that Autódromo’s residents would be allowed to stay throughout the Olympics, that the games’ only effect on the neighborhood would be to improve it. And they reported on how politicians broke those promises — how the city forced the majority of Autódromo’s residents to leave, how the police cracked down on people who protested their removal, and how bulldozers leveled the homes of people like Silva, who saw the house he built for his wife turned to rubble in March.

Here’s what will happen when the Rio Olympics end Sunday: The reporters will leave, and the international media will forget about the people of Vila Autódromo. Their displacement will be treated as a footnote in the history of these particular games, as the world moves on to examine whatever problems may exist in the city that will host the next Olympics.

But Vila Autódromo’s destruction is anything but an isolated incident. The six Summer Olympics held between the 1988 Seoul Games and the 2008 Beijing Games forcibly evicted or otherwise displaced more than 2 million people, according to a 2008 report from the Switzerland-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Beijing was responsible for more than half that total. Rio, according to estimates from local activists and human rights groups, will relocate somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 more.

Although host governments have disputed the specific number of removals that occurred in their city around the games, this much is clear: Displacement of the urban poor is a hallmark of the modern Olympics, a virtual certainty rather than an accidental occurrence.

In the last two decades, the Olympics have become not just a sporting event but a vehicle for urban renewal, with cities pouring hundreds of millions ― if not billions ― of dollars into infrastructure and other projects that are intended to leave a positive, long-term legacy. In Rio and elsewhere, politicians have pitched these investments as a way to improve the city as a whole, for the benefit of everyone.

In fact, the major beneficiaries of the Olympics are the local and international developers in charge of these projects, as well as the host city’s wealthy residents. The poor lose out.

“This is not a byproduct of the games,” said Christopher Gaffney, a senior urban geography researcher at the University of Zurich. Gaffney was a visiting professor and researcher in Rio from 2009 to 2014, as the city prepared to host the Olympics, and has since become one of the event’s most vocal critics.

“This is the product of the games,” he said.

Twenty years later, the damage is still visible in the last U.S. city to host the Summer Olympics: Atlanta.

Travis Waldron/The Huffington Post
This building, designated the Techwood Homes Historic District, is all that remains of what was a much larger housing complex before the Atlanta Olympics.

A mile north of downtown Atlanta, a hulking barracks-style apartment building sits empty. Its white latticed windows still gleam in the summer sun, but its doorways are now covered with sheets of plywood painted forest green. Tree limbs and overgrown bushes drape the backyard fences, and wooden posts that once held clotheslines lean with age.

There is no visible evidence that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But 50,000 people gathered nearby on a frigid November morning in 1935 to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicate this place, Techwood Homes, as the first federally subsidized public housing project in the United States.

The apartment building, now known as the Techwood Homes Historic District, is the only one still standing today of the 22 units that once made up the housing project. Atlanta tore down most of Techwood and the neighboring Clark Howell complex to make way for the 1996 Olympics. That destruction forced as many as 4,000 people out of their homes, according to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

They weren’t the only public housing complexes Atlanta demolished and redeveloped to prepare for the games. The city relocated 6,000 residents of public housing in the lead-up to the Olympics and rapid gentrification after the games displaced another 24,000 people, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions said in its report.

Even the most optimistic organizers behind Atlanta’s bid didn’t think the city would actually end up hosting the 1996 Olympics. They would be the Centennial Games, and the conventional wisdom was that Athens, the capital of the country that had birthed the Olympics centuries ago and the city that hosted the first modern event in 1896, would sail through the bidding process. But in one of the most shocking announcements in Olympics history, the IOC announced its selection of Atlanta in September 1990.

The city quickly set to work preparing for the games, and Techwood and Clark Howell found themselves at the unfortunate heart of that process. Atlanta’s plan included the construction of a sprawling new park near downtown and an athletes village near the Georgia Institute of Technology, which would be converted to student housing after the games ended. Techwood and Clark Howell sat on prime real estate ― with the new park to its south, Georgia Tech to its north and the world headquarters of Coca-Cola to its west ― and the area’s high poverty and crime rates made it ripe for redevelopment.  

The Olympics provided the cover for the destruction. Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating

Though the two housing complexes had long been the target of developers, previous efforts to raze Techwood and Clark Howell had failed, due either to a lack of political will or the difficulty of removing the residents. But when Atlanta won its Olympics bid, the desire to showcase the city before hundreds of thousands of athletes, tourists and foreign dignitaries finally greased the wheels for the projects’ demolition.

“The Olympics provided the cover for the destruction,” said Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech urban planning professor who has studied the impact of the games on Atlanta’s low-income housing population. “I don’t think they could have mounted the campaign to knock it down with anywhere near the political effectiveness that they had without the Olympics.”

Residents of the two complexes were skeptical when city housing officials began showing up at tenant meetings, supposedly with good news, in the months after the bid announcement. The city had neglected them for years.

But with the Olympics coming to town, officials suddenly seemed to care. They told residents that the latest redevelopment plans would vastly upgrade their housing. Those promises led Techwood and Clark Howell’s residents to work with developers and housing officials in crafting a proposal that would satisfy the existing population, the developers, local officials and federal housing authorities, who would provide needed funding.

The initial proposal didn’t call for the total demolition of Techwood and Clark Howell, only for upgrades to the buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Subsequent drafts suggested a full redevelopment of the site that would replace some, though not all, of the public units ― and allow many of the residents to stay.

The planning process dragged on for nearly five years. The city’s political and housing authority leadership changed. New federal laws eliminated previous requirements that cities replace any public housing units they destroyed with an equal number elsewhere. And the final redevelopment plan aimed to demolish nearly all the units in the two complexes.

That plan, released in March 1995, would use $40 million in federal funding to tear down more than 1,100 homes at Techwood and Clark Howell and replace them with a new 900-unit mixed-income apartment complex. Forty percent of the new apartments ― 360 in total ― would serve as public housing. Forty percent would rent at market rates. The remaining 180 units would be “affordable housing” ― that is, the rents would be subsidized with federal tax credits for Atlantans with low and moderate incomes. It took the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development less than a month to approve Atlanta’s plan.

By the time the destruction actually began, the complexes were nearly empty. Although more than 90 percent of Techwood’s homes had been occupied in 1989, the year before Atlanta won its bid, the residents began to flee during the five years of planning debate, fearing that they would eventually have to move anyway. By April 1993, the occupancy rate in the two complexes had dropped below 50 percent. They were 77 percent vacant by that October, Georgia State professor Harvey K. Newman found in his 2002 research on Techwood’s demolition.

Atlanta housing officials, even today, paint this change as a case of people choosing to leave for better opportunities and note that the residents of Techwood and Clark Howell had voted to approve the plan that led to the demolition. But residential flight was out of character for the neighborhood, which had a relatively stable population before the games. In 1990, the average Techwood resident had lived there for nearly eight years, according to Keating’s research, and nearly one-third of its families had been there more than 11 years.

Some residents left of their own volition, no doubt. But others were surely worn down by a long, complicated process that featured numerous iterations of the plans and left residents unsure whether they would be able to stay after the Olympics.

The city’s housing authority assisted in getting people out of the complexes, revising provisions so residents could be evicted for “minor lease infractions,” Newman wrote. Officials also spun the results of residential surveys to make it seem as if the majority of the people in Techwood and Clark Howell wanted to leave, said Lawrence Vale, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studied Atlanta’s Olympics housing legacy after the games. One such survey, for instance, found that 51 percent of residents said they expected to live elsewhere after the Olympics. Officials touted the results as evidence that people wanted to move. What the survey really showed, Vale said, was that many residents thought they would have to move.

The residents’ flight served to deepen the neighborhood’s problems, both Vale and Keating said. Widespread vacancies led to increased crime rates and contributed to the idea that people wanted out ― which made the neighborhood an even easier political target.

“It was a rail job,” Keating said.

By the time the Olympic Games began, the demolition was complete, leaving behind the one building that alone bears the designation of the Techwood Homes Historic District. The listing in the federal historic register saved it, barely.

Bettmann via Getty Images
President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Techwood Homes in 1935. When it opened the next year, it was America's first federally subsidized public housing project.

The buildings that replaced Techwood, which are known as the Centennial Place Apartments, are easier on the eye than their predecessors. The restoration of the original street grid that ran through the area before Techwood’s construction made the neighborhood safer, more walkable and more attractive.

On the surface, it seems that city housing officials achieved their goal of revitalizing the neighborhood and pulling its people out of the pre-Olympics blight.

Except which people?

Despite promises that the process would benefit the area’s residents, few of them returned after the Olympics ended. There were more than 900 families at Techwood and Clark Howell in 1990, when Atlanta won the games. By 2000, when the Centennial Place Apartments were fully occupied, just 78 of those families ― 7 percent ― had received housing in the new complex, Keating’s research showed.

The federal government’s own findings paint a similar picture. In the early 1990s, Congress had launched a new initiative, called HOPE VI, that aimed to revitalize or redevelop the nation’s public housing complexes. The goal, as the HUD inspector general wrote in 1998, was to address the conditions for people, and not merely “bricks and mortar.”

Atlanta, the inspector general wrote, “accomplished impressive physical revitalizations” at Techwood and Clark Howell.

“However,” he continued, “improvements to the lives of residents who lived there are much less obvious.”

When HUD returned to re-examine the Atlanta sites three years later, it found that the city had achieved worse results on average than other cities with similarly funded projects that had not hosted the Olympics. Sixty percent of the new units at Centennial Place were not categorized as public housing ― more than double the average for all the sites that HUD examined. Five of the 15 comparable sites brought back more than half of their original residents. Atlanta managed to bring back just 9 percent ― slightly more than Keating observed in his research, but still less than any other city in HUD’s study.

Atlanta 'accomplished impressive physical revitalizations' to the neighborhood. But 'improvements to the lives of residents who lived there are much less obvious.' HUD inspector general's report

Atlanta promised the residents it relocated that they would receive either places in other public housing complexes or rental assistance vouchers that would help them pay for new homes.

Other research calls into question whether the city fully delivered on that promise. Of the residents who had lived in Techwood and Clark Howell in 1990, “more than half … moved or were evicted without any assistance or the ability to track their locations,” according to Newman, the Georgia State professor.

Still, some former Techwood residents praised the changes. Andrell Crowder-Jordan, who served as Techwood’s tenant association president in the years before the 1996 Games, returned to a new home in Centennial Place ― a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment that was better suited to her family’s needs.

“The change was for the better,” she said. “A lot of residents that I still run into, they live so much better now.”

But what of those who fared worst, who didn’t receive new housing or assistance? It’s hard to know. Five years after the Olympics ended, it was “impossible to determine” where the residents who left Techwood and Clark Howell in the years before the demolition had gone, Newman wrote, making it similarly impossible to fully assess how much the previous residents had benefited.

Twenty years after the Olympics smashed through Techwood, it is harder still to find those who did not remain in the system, whether through public housing or assistance vouchers.

One morning this summer, Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, flipped through the pages of her old address book, searching for the names of former Techwood and Clark Howell residents she had worked with while fighting their displacement years ago. Each number she dialed was disconnected; subsequent searches for those residents proved unsuccessful.

“All the improvements that were done to make Atlanta pretty much a Potemkin village during the games could have been done in a way to improve the housing of the people who lost their housing,” Beaty said. “There’s a lot wrong with concentrating poverty in certain area. But then in order to remedy that issue, you don’t just tear it down and move ‘em out and then say, ‘Well, we don’t know where they went.’”

Even some who did return to the new complex noticed something missing.

“The condition of the housing is better now, but it seemed more like a community in the old neighborhood,” Margie Smith, a former Techwood tenant association president who received a new home in Centennial Place, told Georgia Trend magazine in 2006. “You knew everybody, people talked to one another, looked after each other. If Mrs. Jones down the street was sick, someone took care of her. But when Mrs. Jones moved across town while they built Centennial Place, you just lost touch and the next thing you hear, Mrs. Jones had died. We lost a lot of friends who didn’t or couldn’t come back.

“And now many of us are gone. I feel like we got something nice, but we lost a lot more.”

Renee Glover, who served as head of the Atlanta Housing Authority from 1994 to 2013, disagrees with that assessment. She said that, “by and large,” the families who lived in Techwood and Clark Howell “are substantially better off” than they were before the games.

Among those residents who were still there in 1994, Glover said “everyone who could meet the qualifications” received some form of housing assistance. The Techwood plan, she noted, included the construction of a new neighborhood school and counseling programs to help residents. Research by another Georgia Tech professor, Thomas D. Boston, found that students fared better at the new school than they had at the one it replaced.

Glover also suggested that critics of the way Atlanta handled Techwood and Clark Howell chimed in a bit late. “When people were living in horror, in these horrible public housing projects where the violent crime rates are off the chart, where kids are going to failing schools and families are falling apart, nobody seems that focused [on them],” she said. “But as soon as you start trying to work … toward better outcomes, then everybody comes out of the woodwork and says, ‘Well, this was really terrible.’”

“Where were all these people when the families were being systematically destroyed?” she asked. “You’ve got to start from somewhere.”

Sergio Moraes/Reuters
Vila Autódromo residents clashed with police during protests aimed at stopping the demolition of their homes in 2015.

The promise of Olympics-related housing development is that the cities will rebuild the targeted areas in ways that improve life for their current residents. But that rarely happens.

The neighborhoods that find themselves in the path of pre-Olympics bulldozers are almost always populated by low-income families. The neighborhoods that replace them are often see significant reductions in public housing that is replaced with higher-end homes geared toward people with larger incomes.

By 2004, eight years after the games, rents on Centennial Place’s market-rate apartments ― those that weren’t set aside as public housing ― had risen between 42 and 72 percent, depending on the size of the apartment. From 1990 to 2000, the Techwood neighborhood’s median income rose a staggering 174 percent ― 10 times the rate of Atlanta as a whole.

Even the apartments set aside as “affordable housing,” with reduced rents, likely weren’t accessible to most of those who had lived in Techwood and Clark Howell before the games.

“The deal is, what do you mean by ‘affordable’?” said Deirdre Oakley, a Georgia State professor who examined the effects of Atlanta’s continued displacement of public housing residents after the Olympics. “If you’re talking about the original public housing residents ... it’s not affordable at that income level.”

A similar process played out in London, the host of the 2012 Olympics. The city had vowed that the development of new housing would be a key legacy of the event.

The games were concentrated in the East London boroughs of Stratford and Newham, industrial areas that truly needed new homes. London, too, tore down a low-income housing complex: the Clays Lane Estate in Stratford, which had been home to more than 400 people before the games. And organizers promised that half of all the new housing built would qualify under British law as “affordable,” as defined by real estate rates in the area.

There’s no proper debate. There’s no referendum or anything. It’s just, we ram it through. Julian Cheyne, who lost his home to the 2012 London Olympics

But housing prices in Stratford and Newham skyrocketed in the years after the games. Stratford saw real estate prices rise 71 percent from 2005, the year the IOC awarded London the Olympics, to the beginning of this year ― an increase that far outpaced the city as a whole. That meant that, as in Atlanta, much of the “affordable” housing specifically set aside for low- and middle-income people was no longer in the price range of the area’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Penny Bernstock, a professor at the University of East London, said that in one new development in the Olympic Park area today, people who earn as much as $95,000 a year are eligible for “affordable” units. “It’s not really affordable [for the needy],” Bernstock said. 

That wasn’t the only way that housing promises made before the Olympics have fallen apart. Almost immediately after the 2012 games, London officials were walking back their vow that one of every two new units would qualify as “affordable,” reducing the number to 41 percent. The London Legacy Development Corporation now says that “a maximum of 31 percent” of the new housing will be affordable, according to Bernstock.

East London would have been redeveloped eventually even without the Olympics, said Julian Cheyne, who lost his home at Clays Lane when it was torn down to make way for Olympic venues. But without the games and their deadlines, the process might have been less pressured and more deliberate, which might have led to broader benefits for the existing residents.

“It would have been more democratic. It would have been more helpful,” Cheyne said. “There’s no proper debate. There’s no referendum or anything. It’s just, we ram it through.”

Edgar Maciel/HuffPost Brazil
Iran Souza was relocated to new housing after his home in Autódromo was demolished, but he's not happy. "Most families regret living here," he said.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes boasted this month in The Huffington Post that Rio is “revitalizing neglected areas of the city and undertaking some of the most ambitious legacy projects an Olympic City has ever seen.”

But in Vila Autódromo and similar neighborhoods, residents have long since given up hope that the government will follow through on most of its pre-Olympics promises once the games are over.

During his 2012 campaign for re-election, Paes laid out an ambitious plan to improve Rio’s favelas ― home to 1.4 million people ― by bringing them reliable electricity, trash pickups, water treatment facilities and other basic government services they have long lacked. Although Morar Carioca, as the plan was called, was not an official Olympics legacy program, it existed alongside the mayor’s promises to use the games to benefit all of Rio’s residents.

Paes largely abandoned Morar Carioca, however, after he won re-election. Only a few small projects were ever started, according to Christopher Gaffney, the University of Zurich professor who lived in Rio in the run-up to the games.

Don’t let these events destroy so many life stories. Luiz Cláudio Silva, who lost his home to the Rio Games

Rio has already said that its Olympic Village will become luxury housing after the games conclude, with units selling for up to $925,000. And although the city’s bid for the Olympics promised that it would create “Legacy Villages” with 24,000 new units of low-income housing, there is little evidence that is actually going to happen.

Meanwhile, some Autódromo residents who were relocated told HuffPost Brazil about serious problems with their new housing. “We received a terrible apartment. The walls were broken ... the sewer broke there. I complained, but nothing happened,” said Iran Souza. “Most families regret living here.”

The Rio Games, then, will likely end as so many have before, with flattened homes and forgotten promises and poor residents whose only true recourse is to beg future Olympic hosts not to put similar people through this process again.

“For those cities that will apply to be an Olympic host, I ask them to review their positions,” said Luiz Cláudio Silva, the Autódromo resident who lost his home this March. “Don’t let these events destroy so many life stories.”

It may be too late to reverse the Olympics’ destructive effects on Techwood or Autódromo. But their stories have resonated in other cities.

Boston’s Olympics pitch was coordinated by private organizers who persuaded the U.S. Olympic Committee to select it as the nation’s bid for the 2024 Games in January 2015. By July of last year, a number of opposition groups had so effectively voiced the residents’ displeasure that the USOC nixed the Boston bid.

The activists’ central argument focused on the games’ cost ― and the idea that local taxpayers would end up footing the bill. But they also warned that the Olympics could become a vehicle for poorly conceived development that would inevitably displace city residents.

“People started to wake up and say, ‘Wait, this is really about more than just putting on an event for three weeks,’” said Chris Dempsey, a local political consultant who co-founded No Boston Olympics, one of the most prominent groups opposing the bid.

“It’s sort of part and parcel with the Olympics these days,” he said. “If you’re going to do Olympic development, you’re going to displace poor people.”

Travis Waldron reported from Rio, London and Atlanta. Edgar Maciel reported from Rio.

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