Protests took to streets earlier this month, demanding the right to housing in Portugal. Image: Chão das Lutas - Association for the Right to Housing/ facebook
Protests took to streets earlier this month, demanding the right to housing in Portugal. Image: Chão das Lutas - Association for the Right to Housing/ facebook

Squatting “gains new expression in Portugal”

‘Ocupas’ phenomenon returns after heyday during troika years

Portugal’s housing crisis has led to a new surge in the phenomenon dubbed “Ocupas” – more commonly known as ‘squatting’, or ‘the illegal occupation of empty properties’.

Explains Expresso, the practice is “gaining new expression” among families “desperate for homes in which to live, and activists for the right to housing”.

For now, the phenomenon is most prevalent in the metropolitan areas of Lisbon and Porto.

Expresso carries stories of landlords who have found ‘different people’ living in homes they had previously rented out with contracts.

Some of these families have even been paying the rent, but without any contract.

In other areas of the city, the paper describes 800-900 properties owned by municipalities (and left empty) that have since been ‘illegally occupied’. The areas include Alcântara, Marvila and Lumiar.

Lawyer Vasco Barata, who represents some of the families moving into these properties, and runs the association ‘Rés-do-Chão das Lutas’ (loosely translated as ‘struggle ground zero’) tells the paper: “We have people who have nowhere to live, who have been waiting years for social housing overwhelmingly single mothers with children – who are occupying these empty houses”.

It is difficult to say how many properties are occupied in this form. He calculates around 600. “It is a floating number, because of forced evictions” that tend to follow.

Here, too, comes the dangers so clearly present: one woman, living in an empty property, was forced out by police, and left in the streets. She had left her husband due to domestic violence but ended up having no alternative but to return to him.

The areas of Porto where illegal occupations are going on most are ‘social neighbourhoods’ like Aldoar, Lordelo and Ramalde.

Vasco Barata stresses that to be ordered out of a ‘squat’ in one of these areas, authorities technically need a judicial order because the Housing Base Law only permits evictions when there is an alternative new habitation (which of course there rarely ever is…)

That said, “many times the law is not complied with” and people are forced once again into the streets. This often happens in properties run by IHRU (the so-called institute of housing and urban rehabilitation) which, unsurprisingly, was “not available for comment”.

Bruno Pratas, a police officer who presented a study carried out in 2022 on the “Illegal Occupation of Houses” at the Higher Institute of Police Sciences and Internal Security, describes the “deprivation due to the material lack to satisfy the basic need for housing, a lack in which real situations of vulnerability are found, leading to many ‘occupations of unoccupied and vacant properties’ to materialise as dwellings for those who occupy them”. 

In the study, Pratas agrees that “restitution of the legal property should be the primary objective”, but “the right to inviolability of the home and personal privacy prevail when  police intervene for the first time, leaving the decision to vacate to the judicial authority”.

Pratas highlights the two rights at stake when “people occupy property without having a title that authorises them: the guarantee of the rightful owner to recover the property and the right of the occupier to inviolability, having turned the occupied space into their decent home”.

Even last year, the study pointed to the existence of an “undefined number of illegally occupied properties by activists of ‘occupy’ movements; activists fighting the housing cause and by people looking for housing out of necessity or for the purposes of financial profitability by renting to third parties on a non-contractual basis”.

The study cites figured from Gebalis, Lisbon’s Municipal Housing Lease Management, which manages 21,848 properties, and which pointed to “927 illegal occupations” registered by 2021.

There are illegal occupations registered further afield in Vila Franca de Xira – and with the aggravation of the housing crisis, Vasco Barata believes it is very likely that cases of squatting will increase.

Illegal occupations began, in earnest, during the economic crisis of 2012, investigator Luís Mendes of the Centre for Geographic Studies tells Expresso.

A typical ‘derelict property’ that people desperate for a roof over their heads will occupy. This one photographed for Expresso by Nuno Fox

They increased during the pandemic, and are now growing again.

It is a sign of the worsening of the housing crisis, “which is already severe”, he said. 

The number of people in need of housing “is high and we are seeing new occupations of houses, land and even the arcades of downtown Lisbon, along with an increase in the number of homeless people,” he went on. 

In other words, people are not just occupying empty homes: they are taking shelter/ making homes in shops, buildings under construction – even the public highway (Mendes referred to the appearance of tents, shacks and caravans).

We are talking about homes “that have not even the minimum conditions for life, but which are a solution for people who are truly desperate”, he said.

Mendes added that it is impossible to tell how many empty homes IHRU/ municipalities have – but the number must be fairly considerable on the basis that the municipality of Vila Nova de Gaia has “developed a programme to combat squatting. Empty properties are fitted with video surveillance cameras and an automatic block on the opening of doors, even when they are forced…”

Expresso’s stark account shows the difference in the way squatting is dealt with in Portugal compared to Spain, where roughly 17,000 properties are currently illegally occupied.

In Spain “immediate evictions are prohibited and (properties that have) water and electricity are not disconnected: Squatters are seen as “people in a vulnerable situation”, says the paper. 

In Portugal, anyone who illegally occupies a house/ property is seen as committing a crime (of usurping property), and can face two years in jail, or a fine of 240 days. 

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