Real estate tycoon Sam Zell, trying to restore his stature as an astute investor after his disastrous buyout of Tribune Co, has surfaced as an unlikely player in a controversy in Brazil over affordable housing.

Zell has been focusing much of his time on his global real-estate investments since the bankruptcy filing by Tribune late last year. His real-estate private-equity firm, Equity International Properties, is trying to capitalize on what many analysts say is a pent-up demand for housing in Brazil through its 19% stake in homebuilder Gafisa SA.

That's put Zell in the middle of a debate in Brazil over a $15bn program launched by the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to help build one million new houses for low-income families.

Wall Street Journal