Guest Post: Porto struggles to seize long-term residents in its beautiful but vacant city center

Ziyou Tian is an urban planner graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She currently works on housing renovation projects with Critical Concrete, a nonprofit based in Porto. She is interested in housing, real estate, and sustainable urban development. Native to Beijing, she contributes china-focused articles to China Urban Development Blog. Follow Ziyou on Twitter @tianziyou, on LinkedIn, or reach out to her via email at ziyou.zt@gmail.com.

Porto is a city with convenient transit, stretching river, sandy beach, pleasant summer, beautiful architecture, and abundant green space. An ideal vacation spot, the city has been attracting millions of tourists ever since tourism-driven development started to emerge within the past five years. However, a short stroll along Porto’s historic center would reveal a different story: many residential houses remain under-maintained and abandoned in the most desirable locations. While the city gains international popularity, its own residents do not seem to find home at the heart of Porto.

Rua de Cedofeita, Porto. Under-maintained and abandoned houses in Portugal's second-largest city. (Photo: Ziyou Tian)

Rua de Cedofeita, Porto. Under-maintained and abandoned houses in Portugal's second-largest city. (Photo: Ziyou Tian)

Until enough public incentives are made available, revitalizing abandoned houses for long-term residents would have to rely on the work of mission-driven organizations that aim to create a more vibrant and equitable city center.

The city of Porto suffers from national economic distress since the early 2000s. Ever since, new construction activities have been negatively impacted. In the north region of Portugal, including the Porto Metropolitan Area, annual new construction permits issued dropped by over 90%: from 17,000 in 2003 to merely 1,300 in 2016. The few new construction also concentrated on the outskirts of the city due to stringent procedural limitations in the city. People with means left the city center for better quality housing. Financial limitations and restrictive policies left Porto with a poor and vacant city center.

The municipality of Porto has 18.2% of all houses vacant according to the 2011 census results. Downtown Porto suffers from an abandonment that is obvious to anyone who walks through the city. Although many houses are unoccupied in the city, there is a severe shortage of affordable options. Despite the recovering economy, lucrative tourism-driven developments exacerbate the housing crisis in the city. Many owners of vacant properties rather await for the next investor to pay for luxury refurbishment that attracts tourist than renovating their properties for long-term rental.

As a result, in the most central locations, long-term residents can hardly find viable housing options. While one bedroom in a 2-3 bedroom apartment could generate rental of 200 euros/month on average, Airbnb brings in 50euros/night. Profit gained from short-term rental incentified a long business chain from acquisition, refurbishment, rental, to property management all-in-one services for investors.

Porto Vivo, a semi-public agency, plans to refurbish abandoned row houses in center Porto to affordable housing units. The plan would add to the shortage of low-income housing, however, faced with complex ownership structure and lucrative private development plans, it still needs more support to move the process forward. Arrebita! Porto attempted a refurbishment exercise for a vacant estate through an educational program in 2014. The project was halted due to lack of funding and insufficient resources. Recently, Critical Concrete, a nonprofit I am part of, aims to refurbish abandoned housing for low-income families. It successfully delivered a renovation project for a low-income resident and is looking for partners and resources to conduct more similar projects that benefit long-term residents in the city. The Worst Tour organizes free walking tours that take you to see these abandoned reality in downtown Porto.

Although there is little incentives for revitalizing downtown for housing, there is much we could do to raise awareness both locally and internationally, and make changes happen one house at a time. Many local activists and urban planners have already engaged in works to intervene this otherwise irreversible development process for more diverse housing options in downtown Porto.