Lisbon is basically bribing foreigners to help revive its housing market – and it’s working

Picture-perfect Lisbon has had a new lease (ha) of life after changes to the property and rental markets. Image: Pedro Szekely

Sometimes in life, it’s good to give your property market a bit of a kick up the backside: get growth firing, keep house prices ticking up, and make sure that there’s plenty of buying and selling and new developing going on.

To anybody living in London – or indeed, most of the rest of the UK – this is a pretty horrifying idea. Indeed, many of us have rejoiced at news suggesting property prices might finally be starting to fall – particularly at the upper echelons of the housing market, where sales of the most expensive properties in London are down 44 per cent over the last year compared to the previous year.

But Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, knows what happens when the opposite is true. For decades, properties across the capital – and particularly in its gorgeous historic centre – were crumbling, peeling, dilapidated, and run-down.

Strict government-enforced rent controls meant that there was no incentive to improve properties that were let out to tenants – or even merely to keep them looking up to shape. And thanks to high tax rates targeting the housing market, it often just didnt seem worth selling a property. 

Enter a CityMetric hero of sorts (there’s nothing we love more than a good city mayor). António Costa was elected mayor of Lisbon in 2007, and quickly got to work deregulating the housing market – perhaps a surprising move, given his credentials as a Socialist Party mayor.

António Costa, now Portugal's Prime Minister. Image: FraLiss.

Rent controls were stripped back, and the long system you used to have to go through to get any planning permission to improve and upgrade a property was made less complicated. At the same time, Costa also cut taxes – most prominently the sales taxes affecting property sales, and VAT levied on new property developments.

Suddenly it became easier to improve a property, knock down a bashed-in old building and build a new development in its place – or even just sell a property on to someone else without getting hit by a huge extra bill.

At the same time, though, the national picture was changing. 2012, possibly the worst year in the story of southern Europe’s debt and the Eurozone crisis, saw Portugal saddled with punitive austerity measures as part of a £65bn bailout package from the EU and the IMF.

So Portugal came up with the ‘golden visa’ programme, in which foreign investors could get a residence permit for Portugal in exchange for throwing a load of money at the Portuguese economy.

Off its main squares, Portugal's back streets were being neglected. Image: Luca Galuzzi.

Though there were all sorts of ways to do this – you could donate €250,000 to a museum or a heritage centre, or you could simply transfer €1m into a Portuguese bank. But thanks to a condition whereby investors have to spend at least a week in Portugal in the first year, and two weeks across the following two years, the most popular way into the golden visa scheme was to buy at least €500,000 worth of real estate. After all, Portugal’s a pretty nice place.

According to the Portuguese government’s own figures, 4,423 such visas have been given to foreign spenders since the scheme was introduced in 2012 – and though the Chinese were originally the vast bulk of such investors, the Turkish have recently surged to take up the offer.

More than £850m has been invested in property through the golden visa scheme in the past year – adding up to just over £2.5bn since the scheme launched.

And it’s worked. Average property prices in Lisbon went up by six per cent in the last financial year, and by 16 per cent over the past three years.

Aggressively photogenic Lisbon. Image: Yasmina2410.

The oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon’s heart have perked up, retaining their hilly, cobbled, winding charm but shedding the certain is it going to fall over, am I safe walking alone here at night, clapped-out chic these areas used to have.

Of course, the visa scheme and Costa’s deregulatory measures as mayor cannot be taken in isolation. Portugal has pushed tourism, and Lisbon’s tourism business has grown by more than 50 per cent a year for the past three years.


Investing in and improving property has also become more lucrative as services such as Airbnb make it easier for anyone to let out a flat in Lisbon’s old core to city-breakers and summer holidaymakers.

This is all good news, bringing a city that was on its knees economically back to greater health, and keeping its streets in good state by giving property owners an incentive to perk things up.

But Lisbon now needs to be careful. Though the city is still a relatively affordable place to buy property – at an average of £1,193 per sq metre, in comparison to £11,321 in Kensington and Chelsea, or £6,959 in Wandsworth – the incomes of local people haven’t necessarily kept pace with that growth.

If Lisbon can keep a happy equilibrium between supporting government-promoted, deregulation-backed growth in the housing market and avoiding a London-style, income-draining housing crisis where rents and mortgages soar out of the reach of ordinary people, then it’ll have managed something formidable.

In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting down the back of the sofa for that €500,000.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.


Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.