After rehousing: the Portuguese Special Rehousing Programme in the eyes of former slum-dwellers

Por Joana Catela

Based on eight months of intensive ethnographic fieldwork in two municipalities in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, the results of this research were presented at two international conferences: “On Time: The Biennial Conference of the Finnish Anthropological Association” and “ASA19”. This research is part of project exPERts, which will have its final conference in October 2019 at ICS.

Enacted in 1993 (Decree-Law 163/93), the PER (Programa Especial de Realojamento) was the largest public housing programme ever developed in democratic Portugal. The declared policy goal was the eradication of the slums existing in Porto and Lisbon (with an estimated population of more than 150,000 residents) and the resettlement of former slum dwellers in council housing estates.

Against the background of international events and Portugal’s adhesion to the European Union, the PER was launched to upgrade the country’s image and to accommodate urban renewal projects. However, in the late 1990s it was already considered an old-fashioned housing programme for its inability to provide a comprehensive strategy of urban and regional development and for the sanitary discourse adopted in regard to the rehoused population. Because the government only provided for the necessary funds for rehousing, implementation depended on the efforts employed by each municipality and different results were achieved.

In order to explain these variabilities, two case studies were analysed due to their specificities (and not with the objective of comparing integrally two different counties). Cascais (a municipality praised for its good practices during the implementation of the programme) and Alta de Lisboa (a rebranded territory in the Lisbon municipality where social mixing of former slum-dwellers and free sale buyers was projected).

These two territories were researched using a multi-sited ethnography method. Participant-observation and semi-structured interviews were carried in one of the 34 social housing neighbourhoods, Cabeço de Mouro, located in the hinterland of Cascais. Municipal workers from both Lisboa and Cascais municipalities involved in the PER were interviewed, as well as former slum-dwellers and officials from social institutions presently working in the field. Considering these two very different examples, the ethnographic methods were adjusted to the different settings in order to gather relevant information regarding the territories.

Although in Cascais the process was different – but not flawless, because it also promoted dispersal and displacement of slum communities into the hinterlands of the municipality – and involved a thorough preparation of resettlement in the early phases of implementation, the initial ‘PER Team’ mentality weakened over time. Residents frequently complain that they ‘were dumped in the middle of nowhere’ and about the exponential rent escalation over the years. At first, there was a strong dissatisfaction with some of the new neighbours (who came from other ‘bairros de barracas’, in Portuguese, or shantytowns, in English) and with the distance from the city centre (which is still an issue because this area is underserved by public transportation); but above everything else, they all fear being evicted if they cannot afford to pay the rent.

Although residents were pleased with the new houses, most of them remember life in the “barraca” and at Bairro das Marianas with nostalgia. They miss their personal space, outdoors sociability, their small backyards where they could grow some food and a life with less financial responsibilities. Residents still maintain strong bonds with former neighbours from Bairro das Marianas, but almost 20 years after being rehoused, one resident says that most neighbourhood problems are solved and that ‘they are all family now’. In fact, in Cabeço de Mouro, of the 222 resettled residents, 189 came from the largest slum in the municipality, Bairro das Marianas.

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Cabeço de Mouro. Author: Joana Catela (12/7/2019).

Interestingly, all the residents we spoke with remember the PER workers by name and some of the questions they were asked, as well as visiting the houses before resettlement. In interviews with municipal workers who worked under PER, there was a general frustration with the loss of local offices operating in resettlement neighbourhoods and with the recent focus in the financial dimension of social housing , in opposition to the more social investment prevalent during the implementation of the programme.

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Cabeço de Mouro. Author: Joana Catela (12/7/2019).

In Alta de Lisboa, the implementation of PER was devised under a public–private partnership model (Plano de Urbanização da Alta de Lisboa – PUAL) signed between Câmara Municipal de Lisboa and SGAL in 1996, a private company responsible for implementing the programme. The municipality of Lisbon provided for the necessary land in the former Musgueira neighbourhood – where 14.755 residents had already been censused and also where the municipality had been ‘dumping’ residents in public land – and was responsible for creating the administrative framework to streamline the implementation of the programme locally. SGAL, on the other hand, would be responsible for the design and implementation of PUAL.

After an unsuccessful rebranding operation aimed at removing the social and economic stigma linked to this territory, in the early 2000s, when the first free sale buildings were completed, Alta de Lisboa was already associated with a social housing neighbourhood. Unable to tackle the consequences of a national financial crisis, the idea of co-existence of different socioeconomic groups which oriented the creation of PUAL was replaced by a highly fragmented territory: the new residents who avoid public spaces and services and who use their apartments mostly as dormitories; and the rehoused community, from a lower social and economic background, which is very visible in coffeeshops and local grocery stores, but which also avoids direct contact with the remaining residents. As a police officer told us, ‘There are two types of people living in Alta de Lisboa: the original residents, who feel invaded; and those who have decided to buy an apartment here, who feel deceived.’

Geographical and temporal limits, unfamiliarity with the characteristics and needs of the communities, punctual number of contacts with slum-dwellers before rehousing, lack of community involvement in the resettlement and alienation of municipal services from SGAL construction processes, were the main factors behind an ineffective rehousing process in Alta de Lisboa.

The timing to eradicate tents, the very high number of families to relocate and the very high number of houses we built. And so this machine had to be a bit more oiled and as you know participatory processes are productive but much longer. They have benefits, but they couldn’t … They were not compatible and therefore the city council gave GEBALIS the task of welcoming and preparing people for resettlement. We were told to focus on what our main object was: to relocate. (…) the implementation of these two programmes [PIMP and PER] has been planned almost, as I say, by a “cerzideira”, I don’t know if you know what a” cerzideira” is. A “cerzideira” is more than a seamstress, she is one that reconstructs fabrics by interweaving threads. In detail. Why? Because if we had all the land freed up it was easy, we could build a neighborhood there, relocated all the families that had to be relocated in those buildings and demolished the slums.’ [Head of the housing division at Lisbon City Council]

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Social housing neighbourhoods (PER 7 and 10) isolated from the rest of the territory (Alta de Lisboa). Author: Joana Catela (26/11/2018).

As with Cascais, the residents from Alta de Lisboa also remember life before rehousing with nostalgia and regret how the process was conducted by the municipality.

There, people were more friendly. We didn’t close the door. We pulled a curtain with a stretcher – if there was no elastic stretcher – and we would open the door back and the neighbors would come in and out and so would we. (…) People there liked the neighbourhood. A lot more. Because here we were mixed with other several other neighbourhoods; all in one. Everything, everything is different here.’ [Former resident from Musgueira Norte]

There is no one who promotes contact. So there is this little contact. There is a punctual contact. Or… Or some people who lived I do not know where and now they are living here and there is that contact. Or a little contact with some locals, because of the coffeeshop, who always go to the cafe, but there is no such contact, as there is… like this neighborhood with that… with this PER, with that other PER. But there is no that contact. I think… that is something that has not been done, but nowadays… nowadays the level of security in Alta de Lisboa is much higher.’ [Resident from PER 7]

We felt a shock at first when people came to live in, but they weren’t taught, right? What it’s like to live in buildings. Everyone was used to having no one on top; to have only the neighbours aside and that proximity. And that was a very big shock. Integration was difficult. [Resident from PER 7]

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Condomínio de São Gonçalo and PER 4. In the centre, Santa Casa da Misericórdia’s Centro de Promoção Social (Alta de Lisboa). Author: Joana Catela (18/6/2019).

Due to the porous relationship between inside and outside the home, the ‘interconnections between individual trajectories, kinship and the state’ was still more present in the ‘barracas’. In the case of slum-dwellers, a loss of this constellation of meanings based upon the residents’ production of a type of subaltern citizenship in the metropole was shattered under PER. In Alta de Lisboa, the past, the present and the future aspirations of these former dwellers were scattered on a bondless territory marked by barren plots and socioeconomic avoidances, which Grupo Comunitário da Alta de Lisboa – an assemblage of social institutions established in the territory – struggles to curtail with projects aimed at empowering the rehoused community and creating opportunities for both populations to get to know each other.

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Picnic organised by GCAL in Parque Oeste, Alta de Lisboa.
Author: Joana Catela (25/5/2019).

Projects such as PER – with their municipal variabilities and rigid bureaucracies – essentialize particular conditions and decontextualize suffering. They seldom recognize that its cause might be a consequence of the actions intended to relieve it, both in the aftermath and during haste implementation. The programme, which is still to be finished in some municipalities, has not diminished vulnerability in many situations nor achieved social justice for countless residents.

Considering the results obtained by this research, the Nova Geração de Políticas de Habitação (a new set of political tools promoted in 2018 to ensure the access to adequate housing) that has come to amend PER and the knowledge that ‘technology itself becomes a political terrain for the negotiation of moral political questions’, we ask: how and when does a house become a home?


Joana Catela joined ICS as a Post-Doctoral Researcher in October 2018 to support the project “exPERts – Making sense of planning expertise: housing policy and the role of experts in the Programa Especial de Realojamento (PER)”. During 2019 she has conducted a multi-sited ethnography in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area (Cascais and Alta de Lisboa) focused both on the enactment of municipal workers’ expertise and on the effects of PER in the rehoused community. 

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