Favela Chic: Gentrifying the Slums of Brazil

In time for the World Cup and with an eye on the 2016 Summer Olympics, the poor have been priced out, bulldozed and pushed away from their homes, with no place to go.

View of the beach at Ipanema taken from the top of the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janieiro June 23, 2014  
View of the beach at Ipanema taken from the top of the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janieiro June 23, 2014   VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images

A walk through Rio de Janeiro’s Vidigal favela is a full sensory experience on any given day.

The smell of grilled meat mixes with that of exhaust from motorcycle taxis traversing the slum’s corridors as well as the scent of excrement from the legion of stray dogs that roam the streets. Add in the engulfing humidity trapped within the concrete structures built into a hill overlooking Rio’s posh Ipanema beach. And then there are the sounds. Normally it’s Rio’s trademark funk music blaring from various cars or trucks making their way up the favela’s winding roads, but in the past few weeks, it has been the sound of German, English or French being spoken by its new inhabitants.

Favela chic, as it’s come to be known, has quickly taken Vidigal, as well as its favela neighbor Rocinha and a number of other slums in Rio, by storm. A combination of new security forces, low prices and curiosity by outsiders have brought a wave of new renters to neighborhoods that were once considered unsafe to even visit.

American Kristine Witko moved into Vidigal during the World Cup and says she loves it.

“It has more life because there’s always something going on,” says the 27-year-old New Jersey native. “Bars with people spilling out of them at 6 a.m., music blaring constantly, always people in the street. In other neighborhoods, it’s the complete opposite.”

Witko joined a cadre of other visitors who moved into Vidigal when she signed on to work with Project Favela, a volunteer-placement organization that puts travelers in different favelas to create what it calls “sustainable tourism.”

Similarly, James Cherry came from Ireland to stay in Rio’s Rocinha slum looking for “a bit of an adventure.” He says that since moving into a local guesthouse, he’s been hanging out with the favela’s gangsters who carry AK-47s and refer to him as James 007.

Both Witko and Cherry have plans to return home soon. But in addition to a spate of World Cup visitors, Rio’s favelas have also become popular among venture capitalists looking to rent or sell to higher-income buyers. Less than 10 years ago, a modest home here would cost only $2,500. Today that house can fetch $75,000 or more.

While some former favela residents are being priced out of their homes by land prospectors from the U.S. and Europe, others have been forcibly removed. In Rio, as many as 250,000 have been relocated, many to the outskirts of the city, far from their former homes. Many complain that the compensation packages, when offered, are inadequate. They’re often around $22,000, when an equivalent living space costs between $30,000 and $34,000.