No One Should Have to Spend Most of Their Income on Rent

Renting a one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon costs a massive 63% of the average resident’s wage. Faced with one of Europe’s worst housing markets, Portugal’s government has proposed to subsidize rents — but critics say it’s another handout to landlords.

A couple stands on a balcony as demonstrators march during a protest against the rise of the cost of living and for housing rights in Lisbon, Portugal on February 25, 2023. (Patricia de Melo Moreira / AFP via Getty Images)

If you visit Portugal’s most popular property search engine and look for a one-bedroom flat in Lisbon, you’ll find nothing cheaper than a twenty-five square meter (eighty-two square foot) studio for €700 a month. There’s barely any space around the bed, and even less in the bathroom. An ever-so-slightly larger flat in the same area goes for €800 a month; in return for the extra five square meters (16.4 square feet) you’ll get little natural light, and the bedroom is entirely windowless. You’ll also be on the ground floor, at the mercy of street noise, and losing all privacy were you to open a window on one of Lisbon’s hot summer nights.

Both these flats are considered “bargains” by those offering them because of their location, relatively good condition, and price. But with Lisbon’s average salaries at just under €1,500 a month, each listing demands devoting half of one’s earnings to securing shelter alone. That’s without the cost of amenities such as electricity, water, and internet. In fact, Eurostat figures show that renting a one-bedroom apartment in the capital (not including the tourism-inflated prices of the old city center) demands on average 63 percent of a Lisboner’s wages. In London, a city infamous for its extortionate housing costs, the number is closer to 40 percent.

The same shocking phenomenon is witnessed in most of Portugal’s cities — and it’s getting worse. Shortly after Christmas, a survey by real estate agency Imovirtual found that tenancies had risen nearly 50 percent between 2021 and 2022. The average rent in the capital is now at over €2,000 a month. In the city of Évora, an hour and a half south of Lisbon, rents had soared 127.3 percent in just twelve months. They’re now around €1,355 monthly. Meanwhile, Portugal has the tenth-lowest average income of the European Union, with the typical full-time worker earning €1,600 a month before taxes. Minimum wage is €760 a month. You don’t need to be an economist to realize the math doesn’t add up.

Outpriced Middle Classes

Portuguese comedian Diogo Faro found himself as the unlikely face of the housing crisis. In a viral short video, Faro satirizes the exorbitant rental increase, the cost-of-living crisis, stagnant salaries, and the fact that despite these stats, the foreign press and many “digital nomads” continue electing Portugal as a dream destination. “What was most interesting was people’s responses to the video,” Faro tells me. “Very organically, people started sharing their experiences [with me] and when I shared those testimonies a snowball of more testimonies would come through.” Platforming average people’s experiences with the housing crisis didn’t just raise awareness of the problem — it made many feel seen and vindicated. Faro believes it allowed people to think, “I’m not crazy after all,” and, “There are many other people in the same situation as me.”

With his boyish looks and colorful nails, Faro could easily pass for Gen Z, but he is in his mid-thirties. During the pandemic he, too, felt the cruelty of the housing market when, finding himself with less work due to the lockdown, he asked his landlady for a rent reduction. She refused, and Faro ended up having to leave his home of six years. He got lucky, he adds, and found another place nearby, but the experience left a bitter taste.

“Society, capitalism, the system we live under, promises that if we study and work and become skilled, we will have our independence, a good life,” Faro says, “but then you reach thirty-something, forty, and you have to live in a room [in a shared house].” Some of the people that contacted him over the past few months were doctors, nurses, and teachers, many of them in dual-income households but still unable to afford a home in inner Lisbon or Porto. “This has exploded because it has now reached the middle classes, unfortunately the poor, lower classes, have been struggling with housing for a long time now,” Faro adds.

In the wake of his viral video, Faro helped found the Housing Is a Right (Casa É um Direito) campaign. Together with many long-standing organizations, the group is planning a national demonstration for April 1. Numbers for the day are still under wraps, but there are at least fifteen groups involved, and the event will be supported by the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and to the City, which in turn is hosting an action week between March 24 and April 2. Across activist circles the hope is that the palpable and universal discontent will bring the return of the anti-austerity movement that filled the streets of Portugal a decade ago.

Government Stopgaps and Spooked Liberals

Recently, the Portuguese government has proposed that, as part of its wider housing program, homes staying empty for over a year could be forcibly rented out to the state. Theoretically, the duty of second-property owners to make use of those homes has been enshrined in Portuguese law for a few years. In practice, very few people have experienced the “compulsory renting” of their holiday homes or property portfolio. But remind the Portuguese bourgeoisie of this and all hell breaks loose.

Conservative and liberal pundits have come out in force, scaremongering and red-baiting galore. But in reality, the proposed package is “too little too late,” according to most housing experts. Speaking on CNN Portugal, lawyer and housing activist Vasco Barata said measures like ending the golden visa scheme and short-term letting licenses (known as Alojamento Local) are welcome but will have little impact on Lisbon and Porto, cities that have already been changed beyond recognition. The same applies to an inflation-indexed cap on the price of new tenancies. “Ten years ago it might have had an interesting effect, but now that Lisbon has an average rent of €2,000, I ask myself if in people’s lives it will make any difference,” Barata said.

Worse, to a degree the new housing policies mean a direct transfer of money from the state to private pockets. The so-called seizure of empty properties is a prime example of this — even if representatives of big capital try to drown it under the rhetoric of “attacks on individual rights.” Instead, the state is offering to rent properties at market prices, to then sublet them at a lower cost to the tens of thousands needing affordable homes. Somewhere along the line, the taxpayer covers the difference. The government is also offering tax exemptions to property owners selling their housing stock to the state. On a long Twitter thread, esteemed climate scientist João Camargo put it neatly when he wrote that the government has a “housing time bomb in their hands that they hoped to defuse with big announcements.” But the ticking timer is unlikely to slow down.

“The government is very ironic, but it isn’t funny at all because we are talking about people’s lives,” says rapper and longtime community campaigner LBC Soldjah Soldjah. Currently, LBC is lending his voice to the Vida Justa (Fair Life) movement, which hopes to put the housing crisis in the context of the wider issues afflicting Portugal’s poorest. Vida Justa is a grassroots and ground-up organization, responsible for a thousands-strong demonstration on Saturday, February 25 in Lisbon. The people Vida Justa works with aren’t just doctors and engineers. Their social media accounts are filled with testimonies from people living in social housing and the shantytowns on the urban commuter belt, the bairros. “The government measures won’t resolve any problems,” LBC continues, “starting by the way the process was organized: from top to bottom. What has the government offered those living on the outskirts? Nothing.”

The movement has three main demands: the ring-fencing of prices for essential goods, affordable homes, and better salaries. And Vida Justa isn’t shy of breaching into other urgent topics, as well as building bridges between the various movements. The Portuguese teachers’ union is supporting Vida Justa, as is Portugal’s main climate campaign, Climáximo. On Saturday we saw bairro residents walking side by side with disabled people’s rights campaigners and famous actors, such as the star of Netflix show Glória, Miguel Nunes.

“We have felt a large wave of support because people are unhappy about what is happening. That is a legitimate rage and we want people to channel that rage into fighting channels,” LBC says. The Vida Justa protest had widespread live coverage by mainstream broadcasting channels and the press, and pictures of crowds standing in front of parliament with their fists raised spread across social media. In the buildup to the demonstration on April 1, this Saturday’s protest could be seen as a watershed moment, not just for the Portuguese housing crisis, but for social justice in the country at large.

In this sense, Portugal also has rich traditions to draw on. In the eighteen months that followed the Carnation Revolution in 1974, one of the most transformative events for Portuguese society was the creation of residents’ commissions. These people’s assemblies saw local residents take ownership of their neighborhoods and make democratic decisions over logistics, construction, refurbishment of outside spaces and derelict buildings, and the allocation of resources. Empty buildings were taken over and turned into nurseries and social centers, and many shantytowns were recognized — legally allowing for state funds to come through bringing water and electricity. Nearly fifty years later, the fight for decent housing and decent living might lag a few steps behind the heady promise of those revolutionary days. But to all but the hysterical bourgeoisie, such radicalism seems to make a lot of sense once more.