A Hard Hand with the Poor: The (Lack of) Progress at Quinta do Ferro

The battle to ensure decent and safe housing conditions for some of the most underprivileged residents in Quinta do Ferro continues — while the city council lays hurdles in their way.

On a quick downhill jaunt from Largo da Graça towards Santa Apolónia on a brisk Sunday afternoon recently, I found the neighborhood of Quinta do Ferro in a very similar rundown and neglected state it was in September. Many of its residents continue to live in dilapidated buildings, and none of their major grievances appear to have been addressed. 

The neighborhood has continued forward in their battle to ensure safe and proper living conditions for its residents, but they’ve been met with considerable pushback from the Câmara Municipal de Lisboa (CML- Lisbon’s City Council), and they are now facing a much bigger hurdle than they could have anticipated. 

All photos by Gloria Dominguez

Related: Quinta do Ferro: A Neighborhood in Limbo

In the months since I last visited Quinta do Ferro, its tenant and landlord association, Amigos da Quinta do Ferro (AQF), and its partner Trabalhar com os 99% cooperative have continued in their struggle to get their proposed urban rehabilitation project approved and to provide decent housing conditions for its residents. 

Their proposal foresees a complete restructuring of the neighborhood and calls for the collaboration of the city council. It plans for the refurbishment of the existing building stock, the creation of public housing, a public square that links the neighborhood to Rua Leite Vasconcelos – the main nearby artery, as well as a detailed analysis of who lives in the neighborhood.

Site plan of the proposed rehabilitation project for the neighborhood.

They have gone through an arduous negotiation process with the city council, filled with proposals and counter proposals, but they have yet to receive the city council’s seal of approval — and it is unlikely they will.

Atlas spoke with Tiago Mota Saraiva, an architect from Ateliermob who oversaw the rehabilitation project proposal. Saraiva has followed AQF’s process with the CML as he is also a part of the Trabalhar com os 99% cooperative, AQF’s closest ally. Saraiva tells Atlas that since they submitted the project to the city council in 2018, they had not gotten a response as to the status of their project proposal, but in the fall of 2020, soon after Quinta do Ferro began receiving considerable media coverage, Lisbon’s Urban Development department informed them their project was not viable.  

Further, the Urban Development department initiated a process of Operação de Reabilitação Urbana Sistemática (ORU — systemic urban rehabilitation operation), Saraiva says it is “an urbanism instrument, a classic instrument that municipalities initiate to expropriate property.” 

The Instituto da Habitação e de Reabilitação Urbana (IHRU — the government agency that oversees housing and urban rehabilitation) states in their guidelines that, “In the case the municipality opts for a systemic [ORU], its approval constitutes cause for the public utility of expropriation, forced sales, or easements.”

Dense living quarters where multiple families reside.

I also revisited with the president of AQF, José Manuel Rosa, to gain some insight on how their fight has developed. Rosa has a slight defeated tone when I begin the interview, and expresses frustration with the functioning of the CML. “I know they have many divisions and departments, and I’ve learned that division means exactly that divide and separate,” he says, adding, “we have no idea how this ORU will be implemented, but we suspect it is intended to expropriate the property owners so they will hand over their land to other interests.”

Saraiva seconds this sentiment: “My fear is that they will talk to each property owner and offer them the opportunity to co-participate in the rehabilitation works with an X amount; however, those who don’t have the money to invest will be expropriated.” 

Property expropriation is a mechanism that has been utilized throughout Portugal for decades. Recent examples are abundant  throughout the country, such as the expropriation of a former Synagogue in Ourém, where the city council came to this end as the site is of historical significance and they intend to refurbish it and open it to visitors. There is also the example in Porto, where the Metro took hold of 29 properties in order to add the pink line to their train network. In Lisbon, the Metro of Lisbon has expropriated property from the CML for the new circular line. And on Rua do Benformoso in Mouraria, also in Lisbon, the CML expropriated two buildings from the same owner for the construction of a public square and a new mosque.

These processes of expropriations are not always smooth, and the case in Mouraria is still being contested in court, but they are generally executed with the intention of fulfilling projects that are considered to be for a collective public benefit.

Now, in the case of Quinta do Ferro, if the CML does in fact go forward with expropriations, the element of it being for a collective public good has yet to be revealed. Atlas reached out to the Urban Development department regarding this matter but received no response. 

Rosa makes it clear that the CML is not in unison: AQF has received significant support from the housing councilwoman, Paula Marques, but, Rosa o adds, “She alone can’t make miracles happen when the other departments aren’t on the same wavelength.” Atlas also contacted the councilwoman’s office for comment, but they did not reply in time for publication.

While the association’s project has been denied, the CML has committed themselves to ensuring that the residents will not be evicted, and that in the cases where they have to be relocated, they will be guaranteed housing in the same neighborhood, if they wish to stay.

In regards to the position taken by the Urban Development department, Saraiva  says, “I see here a proximity to the position that was held during the Estado Novo, during fascism, which worries me a lot. The understanding that a poor neighborhood can’t propose urban projects, but rich neighborhoods, meaning neighborhoods with large territories and large real estate development funds behind them, can propose projects, and the city council appreciates them and approves them with distinction.” He describes it as the idea of “having a hard hand with the poor, but soft with the rich.”

Saraiva also says that there appears to be concern on the part of the city council of setting precedent in approving the project in Quinta do Ferro. He says people have told him directly and indirectly that, “if this gets done the way you guys want it to in Quinta do Ferro, then someday people are going to organize and believe that they decide everything in the city.” 

Now, wouldn’t that be quite a novelty, a truly democratic city where its citizens collectively guide the discourse of change and progress based on their needs.

Rosa ends our interview with a renewed brio in his voice and makes it clear their fight is far from over. 

“We are going to go forward with other solutions if this here gets buried. We can’t stop, every hour that passes is of great danger,” he says, referring to those in the neighborhood whose housing conditions are a great peril. 

He adds that a scenario where “the interest of the municipality prevails, while the interests of its citizens are destroyed, is a very ugly sight, particularly during an election year.” What’s more, he says, “the world doesn’t end at the city council” — there are other avenues through which they can continue their struggle. 

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