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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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