Europe

Inside Lisbon’s housing crisis

Can you store 86 years of someone’s life in a 10m2 room? Nazaré Jorge can. For the last three years, the Portuguese pensioner has been living in a tiny room provided by the municipality of Lisbon. Unable to pay the rent of the apartment she had shared for four decades with her aunt, she was evicted in 2019. 

She was escorted out of the flat by police, and later allocated the room she now calls home. There are no wardrobes, so clothes, medicines, photos and all her belongings are kept in plastic bags scattered around the bed. She spent her 84th birthday in front of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing to demand proper housing.

On a very hot June morning, I spent almost three hours listening to her story and filming the squalid room in which she now lives.

Just some weeks before, I had been put on the story that can be summed up as “Lisbon´s Housing Crisis”. Portugal’s, but especially the capital’s, property market is now what analysts call one of Europe’s “most dynamic”. But this comes with a heavy human cost. 

Enticed by successful programmes to attract foreign investment, new real state developments, renovation projects and tourist accommodation have mushroomed across the capital. 

As a result, property prices and rents have skyrocketed. A thriving economy that is pushing prices up -and certain people like Nazaré out.

Our fixer, Miguel Jorge Dias, got in touch with Nazaré through the NGO, Stop Despejos (Stop Evictions) that, along with another NGO called Habita!, provided us with the points of view of those bearing the brunt of this social housing shortage. 

To my amazement, even the centre that houses Habita! is under the threat of eviction, as the landlord has refused to renew the rental contract. The reason is unclear but they suspect an ulterior motive. The NGO blames the general housing crisis Lisbon is facing on rampant speculation, unregulated rents and political inaction.

In search of answers, I reached out to the authorities. I spent a lot of time asking questions to Lisbon’s Assistant Mayor for Housing. Lisbon Town Hall is thought to be Portugal´s biggest real estate owner; it owns 25,000 social housing units. Most, but not all, are currently allocated. It’s for that reason the municipality is on the frontline of the crisis and facing heavy criticism for not doing enough to address the situation. 

Filipa Roseta, the Assistant Mayor for Housing, patiently replied to all my questions, vehemently refuting some of the allegations the local authority has been accused of. She told me about their ongoing work to alleviate the difficulties many residents face, including in some cases subsiding rents. Once the interview finished, she told me about an inauguration of a new development of social housing that she was planning to attend in the afternoon, so I joined her and found that Lisbon’s Mayor and even the Minister of Infrastructure and Housing were also there.

By chance, the whole filming took place during Festas de Lisboa, a special time for the city. It was also a powerful and colourful reminder of Lisbon’s unique traditions and culture and how this heritage is threatened as more residents are forced to leave the city due to spiralling rents.

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