“You cannot evict an idea”: Empty Buildings and Occupations in Portugal
Wandering through the Lisbon city centre visitors are stunned by the enormous number of empty buildings. Statistics speak about nearly 5000 buildings that are partly or completely abandoned, about 300 of them belong to the municipality (http://tretas.org/PrediosDevolutosLisboa). Many are abandoned since years and in a state of severe decay. This causes indignation but also the desire to use these spaces to build up something that serves people.
On Wednesday, 6 June 2012, the Indignados de Lisboa, a group that formed in May 2011, pinned a notice at the door of such an abandoned house, saying that the house is a public building that – like many others of its kind – needs salvages and has not been used for the benefit of the citizens for years. The municipality is given a period of ten days to start works on or to do something useful for the citizens with this house. If this does not happen the house may be occupied at any time (http://saolazaro94.blogspot.pt/2012/06/cml-tem-10-dias-uteis-para-dar.html). By the use of the municipalities coat of arms with only the name changed to “Indignados” the notice is given an official outward appearance and the notice’s text is very close to those that the occupiers usually receive from the municipality. The Indignados de Lisboa are not planning to occupy houses, but their campaign is closely related to a new development of occupations in Portugal.
It is related to the two most prominent cases of occupations of abandoned state-owned buildings in Portugal during the last years. The movement “Es.Col.A” who occupied a school in Oporto which became known as “Es.Col.a da Fontinha”(http://escoladafontinha.blogspot.pt/) and “São Lazaro 94” (http://saolazaro94.blogspot.pt) a building in Lisbon occupied on 25 April 2012 in an act of solidarity with Es.Col.A after its eviction. Each of these occupations received a letter from the municipality quite similar to the notice the Indignados de Lisboa wrote. The occupiers were by law given ten days to move out. After that period the house may be evicted at any time.
Occupations of houses were common in the period after the carnation revolution in 1974. They were widely accepted as a necessity for living at these times, because living space was rare, especially for the people who came back to Portugal from its former colonies. Today occupations are seldom. Fontinha and São Lazaro 94 are the most prominent cases – also because of their political significance.
The Es.Col.A da Fontinha- a former school that had been closed down five years before – was occupied in April 2011 and evicted on 19 April 2012. During this year the project Fontinha developed an impressive infrastructure. The former school was used for example as a cultural space organizing projects for children, cultural events, like theatre and cinema, a social space organizing e.g. joint dinners, and a space for self-organized learning and teaching including a room with computers, and a library. It was thus widely accepted by the neighbourhood and celebrated as a successful project of self-organization. After its eviction, which was accompanied by large protests, the complete infrastructure was destroyed.
Less than a week later, São Lazaro 94 was occupied as a spontaneous action of solidarity with Fontinha. Thisis, however, not the first time. Already in November 2010 the space was occupied for a few days and then evicted. The last tenants had left in 2005. Meanwhile rain came through the open windows and the house further decayed. During the short time of occupation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUkHWnUsKNE) the activists started making the house habitable, including a technical inspection and repairing a water damage. They cleaned and painted the house, and initiated a cultural and social programme and a give-away shop.
In statements about the future of the occupation the responsible for the abandoned house at the municipal of Lisbon argued that she could not treat a group of occupiers different than the mass of poor people who are currently in need of a living space. This argument was also used in November 2010, when the house was occupied for the first time. In fact occupations with a few exceptional cases are illegal and there are some projects for poor people placed in formerly abandoned houses, like a hotel for those people in the neighbourhood that temporarily need to leave their own houses (http://www.publico.pt/Local/freguesia-de-s-jose-vai-ter-o-primeiro-hotel-social-de-lisboa-1548901). Those projects, however, are connected to administrative efforts and are rare given the high number of abandoned houses in the hand of the municipality.
It was also claimed that the occupiers would damage the house. To demonstrate that they did not abuse public goods, but worked in favour of the house, the occupiers handed over four packages with pigeon excrements and dead pigeons they had collected during the cleaning (http://sol.sapo.pt/inicio/Sociedade/Interior.aspx?content_id=51672).
Although occupying buildings is far from being a common practice in Portugal and the occupiers remain a small group, there is broad support of the idea of occupation amongst the Portuguese activist groups. Not only the idea of creating self-organised spaces is welcomed. The occupations once again raised awareness and indignation about the vast amount of empty houses in decay. Even though neither São Lazaro 94 nor Fontinha were occupied for people to live there, they have brought the idea of a right to housing back on the list of important issues of various movements. Political occupations in Portugal, however, remain rare exceptions.