As Portugal announces austerity measures to boost its tax coffers and assuage the markets worried about its deficit, a pressing problem remains: who will be left in its cities to actually pay for it.
In Lisbon’s historic centre, thousands of buildings are abandoned. Avenida da Liberdade is Portugal’s Champs-Élysées, but among the high-end brands, hoteliers and banks are empty shells.
Lisbon, along with Porto, tops the EU’s list of cities whose populations are declining – some 10,000 are leaving each year. It also has the highest proportion (24 per cent) of residents aged 65 or over. A divided and stagnant housing policy is not helping matters: post-revolution rental laws still in place mean rents are kept low for those who have stayed in the same homes since 1974 – so low that landlords and site owners cannot afford renovations or repair. While the city government has made an admirable effort to get rid of “barracas”, or slum dwellings, it has let much of its prime real estate go to waste.
Meanwhile, workers wanting to settle in the city face prices three times higher than in surrounding towns. Low interest rates in the 1990s meant many people bought houses in a country where the majority traditionally rented. Now only wealthy outside developers can thrive in a capital city ridden with mortgage debt. “The result is a distorted market,” says Helena Roseta, Lisbon’s former deputy mayor and now independent councillor for housing. “Young people who arrive have to pay high prices, and the oldest benefit from nearly-free homes, but without the conservation.”
Although fewer people can afford to live in Lisbon, there are still jobs – which means hundreds of thousands of people commuting in and out of the city every day. “We have 162,000 vehicles registered in Lisbon, but another 400,000 enter the city every day: a major nuisance that contributes nothing to the city’s finances because all of the commuters pay their taxes in neighbouring regions,” explains architect Manuel Salgado.
Once workers leave at the end of the day, local commerce plunges – a cat or a flower pot on a balcony can sometimes be the only hint of life in a row of bricked-up windows. Central streets that in any other European capital would be commercial or residential hubs are like ghost towns.
“Public powers need to force the use of closed homes,” says Roseta, whose organisation Citizens for Lisboa is fighting for publicly supported leases. “Expropriation is governed by ultra-liberal legislation, which attracts unaffordable prices with no possibility of requisition in the public interest.”
An upcoming architecture triennial, which the president opens in Lisbon this month, has taken on the title: “Let’s Talk About Houses”. Perhaps officials involved could also talk about how they can fill them.