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SAO PAULO - New hope is sprouting near a future Brazil 2014 World Cup stadium, where a once crime-ridden shantytown has emerged as a vibrant community with skyrocketing property values.
Emerging powerhouse Brazil faces a daunting task in providing decent housing for its millions of urban poor, many of whom languish in slums, known as favelas, on the periphery of major cities.
But in Sao Paulo, the country's most populous and wealthiest state, increased funding and close monitoring has transformed some of these once drug-infested favelas.
A showcase of that policy is Uniao de Vila Nova, a neighborhood of 32,000 people located 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Sao Paulo city center.
Like many other shantytowns across Brazil, Uniao de Vila Nova was created illegally, by people who, unable to afford city rents, cobbled together squalid, wooden shacks in risky or environmentally-protected areas.
But in place of the rickety homes -- once routinely swept away by the flood waters of the nearby Tiete Tiver during the rainy season -- the one-million-square meter (10.7 million square feet) area has morphed into a clean, safe, and proud community.
The changes began a decade ago, when authorities launched a program to "urbanize" the favelas. They helped residents upgrade their homes and brought in basic services such as running water, paved roads, electricity, and public transport.
The results have been striking.
"We have not had any murder in six years, while we used to have four a day in the 1990s," says community leader Geraldo de Pindola Melo.
Melo migrated here in 1984 from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, joining the six percent of 42 million people in Sao Paulo who live in shantytowns.
The 42-year-old now lives with his wife and four children in a small, brightly colored house that he built and upgraded over the years, with help from the Sao Paulo state housing agency CDHU.
"This is a very cohesive, stable community," he told AFP.
Today, the neighborhood has seven schools, three daycare centers, regular trash collection, a local soccer league with 28 teams and a recycling cooperative employing 36 trash pickers, most of them women.
Residents also have a handicraft workshop, a gardening school equipped with a greenhouse and a factory where rehabilitated drug addicts come to make vuvuzelas, the noise-making trumpets popularized by South African football fans during the last World Cup.
A new train station is set to open early next year, while a technical college will soon be built and residents hope to get a new mini-hospital soon.
Throughout the neighborhood, residents, beaming with pride, showed off new, well-equipped apartments, built with CDHU funding, and rented for 15 percent of their income.
Others who own their homes were contributing to a beehive of construction activity as they upgraded or expanded their brick and concrete dwellings.
"We have 3,010 families living in new vertical apartment blocks funded by CDHU, while 5,300 families live in their own urbanized homes," said Valkaria Marques de Paula, a CDHU official.
Property values skyrocketing
Valeria Araujo da Silva, the local urbanization secretary, has seen the transformation of her neighborhood since she moved to Uniao de Vila Nova 16 years ago.
She and her husband built their own house, and thanks to the property boom in Sao Paulo's eastern district -- where construction is underway on the stadium that will host the opening game of the 2014 World Cup -- da Silva says her home is now valued at $65,000.
The prices of many homes in the neighborhood have jumped as World Cup fever grows and word spreads about the emerging community in Uniao de Vila Nova.
"In 2000, you could buy a 25-square meter (270 square feet) apartment for $1,000 here; now it is worth $25,000," said Ailton Severino Dias, better known as "Pe de Frango," who arrived here 20 years ago and also built his own home.
Authorities are in the process of carrying out land registration in urbanized favelas and homeowners will begin receiving ownership titles in the next few months. In exchange, said CDHU's de Paula, they will have to pay property taxes.
De Paula said the urbanization policy works if "you empower the residents."
"We have been training community leaders that then teach responsible citizenship. We have launched health and sanitation awareness campaigns and residents have responded," she added.
CDHU President Antonio Carlos do Amaral stressed that "our job is to reintegrate marginalized people into society as productive citizens. Housing is only one phase of that process."
He called for expanding the projects, which would require the city, the federal government and the private sector to get involved.
Sao Paulo state has an annual housing budget of $1.1 billion, 43 percent of which is spent on building new homes or upgrading existing ones for favela residents, according to Eduardo Trani of CDHU.
Over the past 20 years, some 500,000 homes have been built for an estimated two million low-income people across the state.
But state officials say there is a still a deficit of half a million dwellings for the poor and another two million homes deemed sub-standard.
The Sao Paulo metropolitan area alone is home to 20 million people, roughly 10 percent of whom live in favelas and illegal settlements.