One Woman’s Struggle to Keep a Roof Over Her Head in Lisbon

Maria João has lived in Lisbon all her life and is currently facing an eviction notice. With no viable housing alternative in sight she's afraid of ending up on the street.

Lisbon, like many other cities, has an affordable housing crisis. We hear story after story of people being evicted or priced out of their homes, but more often than not, these people remain nameless and faceless. This is an attempt to grant a face to one of the countless stories of displacement in the city.

I met Maria João in Jardim da Parada, just a few blocks from where she lives. After an initial awkward greeting of keeping COVID-enforced distance and small talk, she walked me to her home, and on the way there pointed out the buildings that were owned by real estate funds and the ones where tenants had gotten eviction notices or had already been evicted.  

Maria João has done extensive research on this matter, as it’s deeply personal to her. She received court documents last December informing her that her landlord, Someran S.A. real estate fund, had initiated legal action to evict her from her apartment and are seeking €90,000 in compensation for damages and unpaid rent. 

She has been living in this apartment in Campo de Ourique since 2013, when Maria João subleased a room in the apartment from a woman who she believed was the property owner, and shared the apartment with other people.

The cover photo was take by Tiago Alfaiate, and all other images were taken by Gloria Dominguez

Adults sharing apartments is an all too common trend in Lisbon and beyond: as rent prices go up, flat sharing is one way to afford life in cities. A growing amount of academic literature explores the development of house-sharing among young adults as a way to make up for lack of social welfare. Further, researchers are digging deeper into the evolvement of “generation rent,” a term used to describe age cohorts (i.e., Millennials and Generation Z, and even Generation X) who are renting homes into later stages of life with little prospect of becoming homeowners. 

Living with roommates has become a rite of passage for any young person choosing to reside in a city or leave their family home. Most of us can recall funny, annoying, or flat-out horror stories of living with roommates. Many of us wear them like badges of city living. However, as housing prices continue to grow and wages remain stagnant, people are continuing to live with roommates into later stages of life.

Maria João has lived with roommates since her father asked her to leave their family home when she was in her late teens. She is now in her early 50s — and until two years ago, she lived with roommates. 

When Maria João moved into the apartment in Campo de Ourique, she had just lost her job at a telemarketing company and was forced to seek out cheaper housing. A room in this apartment, for which she paid €125 a month, was all she could afford with her monthly €400 unemployment benefit. She shared the apartment with six other people: the lease-holder, a woman in her 70s who subleased the rooms to the others, two couples, and a 90-year-old woman, although the people who lived there fluctuated throughout the years.

While Maria João’s room was relatively cheap, it did come with the emotional price tag of having to live in an often toxic environment. Maria João recounted stories of one roommate who would verbally abuse her, with the situation becoming so bad that she filed formal complaints with the police against him.

When asked why she continued to live there, she replied very frankly: “I had nowhere else to go.” For Maria João, it was a case of continuing to live with her aggressor or being out on the street. 

The tentative stability she had built for herself in this apartment was completely fractured when the apartment’s lease holder passed away in June 2019. By this point, her roommates had moved out, and Maria João, having no legal tenure to the apartment, was asked to vacate. 

According to the Portuguese Civil Code, Maria João had six months to vacate the apartment, but the landlords began to pressure her to move out soon after the lease-holder’s death. She sought legal advice from the Parish Council of Campo de Ourique and communicated to the landlord that she wanted to take over the lease. They denied her request and began placing more pressure on her to leave. 

It was at this point that Maria João made the difficult decision to “occupy” the apartment. When I asked her if she was in the wrong to “squat” in the apartment, she replied, “I feel that I’m doing something foolish. When my [lease-holder] roommate died, I didn’t think so, I saw that so many apartments in the building were empty. I thought it was normal to send a letter to the landlord and ask to stay. But the moment they began pressuring me to leave, it really started messing with my head.”

When I asked her why she hasn’t sought out other housing arrangements, she made it very clear that she has nowhere else to go, and that she has no way to afford current rent prices in Lisbon — the city where she was born and raised, and the only home she knows.

Maria João chatting with a friend in her living room

Maria João has been chronically unemployed since she lost her telemarketing job in 2013, despite having a degree in environmental engineering. She has participated in multiple work programs funded by Segurança Social, has picked up a variety of informal jobs, but has been unable to secure stable work.

She currently subsists on €189 a month, her allowance as a recipient of the rendimento social de inserção (RSI – Minimum Guaranteed Income). When asked why she doesn’t just find any job possible, her response was frank: “I feel at risk because at this moment I would not be able to withstand working at a call center, I think I would be fired really quickly.”

Maria João went on to explain that she feels immobilized by her insecure housing status: the fear consumes her so greatly, it impedes her capacity to find work. She is trapped in a limbo of not knowing which step to take next or how to remedy her situation.

That fear is exacerbated by her lack of a family network. Maria João lost her mother when she was very young and had a strained relationship with her father up until his death in 2012. She currently has very little contact with her remaining relatives and can’t count on them for support. 

Despite the odds stacked against her, Maria João has created a community for herself amidst the instability. She attends painting lessons offered by the parish council of Campo de Ourique and has developed a great enthusiasm for the medium. She was a part of a group exhibition held at the Fine Arts University of Lisbon in January of this year.

She is also involved with the housing activist associations Habita and Stop Despejos, and has been seeking their counsel to navigate the legal case brought against her by Someran S.A.

When we arrived at her apartment building, we were confronted with the news that the building’s mailboxes had been changed, and Maria João quickly deduced that the landlord would not give her a key to the new box. This realization visibly unsettled her. 

As we walked up the stairwell, up to the third floor where she lives, it was quite clear that the building was mostly vacant. One of the apartments had the door wide open and was being remodeled. 

When we arrived at Maria João’s apartment, we were greeted by a slightly musty scent and antiquated wallpaper in the entrance hall. 

The apartment is quite large — it has four bedrooms with a spacious living room and kitchen — but is in very bad shape. There are huge cracks in the walls and there is visible water damage throughout multiple rooms of the apartment. Yet, despite its dilapidated state, Maria João has forged a home for herself. She outfitted the apartment with furniture found on the street or gifted to her, and has even created a painting studio in a sunny room.

Maria João in her painting studio

While she knows she will eventually have to leave the apartment, it has served as her safe port amidst the housing storm she is in. 

I asked Maria João, as she has no real legal recourse to be able to stay in the apartment long term, what her ideal solution would be. To which she replied, “to be honest, I am very pessimistic at the moment, I see no equilibrium…” After I pushed it a bit more, she said, “It is to live in municipal housing with stability, or any house with stability, and from there I’ll have the willpower to do anything. It would bring me security and I would stop being afraid.”

Since the last time we met, Maria João has been informed that she has been placed into municipality housing. However, as her current housing situation is anomalous and there is no box on the city council application form accurately describing her current housing status, she listed herself as residing in temporary housing. Unfortunately, the city council only recognizes shelters under this category. When she submitted her paperwork to process her application, the city council provisionally revoked the housing offer. She now has until the second week of April to appeal their decision.

She is currently organizing a campaign with advocacy groups Habita and Stop Despejos to have the city council repeal their decision.  

Maria João is left fighting a battle with two fronts: one to convince Lisbon’s city council to grant her social housing, and another with Someran S.A., who are proceeding with the legal case to evict her.

We made various attempts to reach Someran S.A. for comments, but received no response in time to publication.

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