Reclaiming Porto’s historic buildings for social housing

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

“I cannot conceive of managing a city that is prosperous, but only for some. I pledged that I would govern in an inclusive manner.”

Mayor Rui Moreira

Since his election in 2013 Mayor Rui Moreira has enacted numerous major programs to achieve health and inclusivity for all Porto citizens. This article focuses on how he has helped the poorest citizens reclaim their heritage and pride in their city through his visionary program to renovate buildings in the historic heart as social housing. 

Image: Porto’s historic main square where several buildings have been renovated as social housing

Porto is a beautiful port city on the Douro River in Portugal. The historic center, a World Heritage site, was a port during Roman times, and grew in importance and wealth from the 13thto the 19thcenturies.  During the 20thcentury the historic city center became very poor, and buildings became dilapidated. “When I was kid” said Mayor Moreira in a recent interview[1] [the historic center] was the most densely populated neighborhood in Europe. In every house someone would use the beds during the night and others during the day.”

The population in the historic center declined as investments focused on the suburbs and poor residents in the historic center were moved out of their crumbling buildings to social housing at the city’s periphery. 

“You can’t imagine what the historic center was like 10 years ago” said Mayor Moreira.“You would be afraid to leave the house at night, it was empty, there was no one, you couldn’t even go out and walk your dog. It was really bad. And then we thought, we will invest in public space. We started implementing a number of measures in public space, pedestrian streets, you know a lot of Jane Jacobs based thinking. But we soon found out that these days, things are much more complicated than they were in the days of Jane Jacobs. We thought that residents would come back. We found out it's not true. Suddenly the market takes over and when the market forces take over, we saw suddenly, gentrification. Tourists coming…, a lot of artists and a lot of people who want to have a second house.” 

“People who live in Paris want to have a second house.Thirty years ago they were looking for houses in the Algarve near the beaches, and now they want to be in the cities because cities have a lot to offer. They have culture, cities are trendy and Porto became trendy.” 

Tourism and foreign investment played a central role in starting to rebuild the historic city center, once the public places were made more attractive.

“When I started looking into this about 9 or 10 years ago, I found out the people who were still living in the historic city center were the survivors. In the period of 30 years, the Historical Center had lost 40% of the population. Those who were left, they really had no means to escape.”

The City determined to take care of those who continued to live in the city center, allowing them to keep their houses. The City also acknowledges the importance of employment and economic activity for that same population; otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable to keep those people in the city center.

“So then we thought,” said Mayor Moreira, “how can we solve this? What we are doing basically is, we stopped selling property, we started buying back, and we decided to also exercise rights of option. In some parts of the city[2]the town hall has the possibility to interfere in any property transaction. We have only eight days to decide, but we can tell the lottery we want the right to exercise option. And so we started slowly to buy up old buildings in the historic center, and then what we do is to make a small refurbishment.”

Image: Plan of Historic town center showing 66 buildings renovated and inhabited (green), 17 buildings currently being renovated (red), and buildings planned for rehabilitation in the near future (blue).

“We have about 13,000 council houses in the city of Porto” explained the Mayor. “For a city like us, that is a lot[3]. It is about 12 percent of the housing stock of the city. So we tried to identify who are the people who were originally from this neighborhood. Who are the people who still have roots here? Whether it’s their parents or their children or they have some sort of activity in the historic center? So we made a special list, and then we started working with them, and asking if they wanted to go back. Now there is a lot of demand, but believe me in the beginning, people did not want to go back because they were almost ashamed to say that their origins were in the historic center because for them it was still the poor area.”

“That’s how we started rebuilding. And then of course we started working and reinvesting in schools in the area and support for elderly people…”

Mayor Moreira set up a series of tours for me to visit residents in recently renovated historic houses, and a historic house recently renovated and not yet occupied. The tours were led by City housing staff[4], who also acted as interpreters. 

The first newly renovated apartment I was shown, which was not yet occupied, was on Rua da Mouzinho Silveira. The entrance was directly off the street, providing direct contact with social life on the street that is so important for many elders. Here, they would be able to sit in the doorway and talk with people passing by, and walk to the small local fresh grocery store on the next block.[5]

“That house was a ruin before. It was falling down”, remarked Mayor Moreira. “Did you like the apartment?” “Yes, I thought it was lovely”, I replied. It had very high ceilings and large windows. The rooms were fairly small, but nicely finished, and it had very well appointed kitchen and bathroom facilities. The bathroom was quite spacious and would easily accommodate a wheelchair, if necessary. 

Image: Building on Rua da Mouzinho Silveira renovated for social housing

My guides then led me to the back of the same building on Rua da Bainharia where we entered it one floor higher to access several more apartments, one above the other, facing both streets, all very nicely renovated with large windows. 

Image: Social housing in historic building overlooking the main square, Praça da Ribeira

We then visited two renovated buildings facing the main square, Praça da Ribeira, and the harbor at the heart of the most historic part of the city. We visited four apartments and I met the people living there. They were very friendly, most hospitable, and proudly showed us every room, the well-appointed kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and their incomparable views down onto the main square and the harbor and across the river. 

At present, there are 350 occupied social housing dwellings in the historic center.[6]In the last few years, 66 housing blocks have been rehabilitated. The rehabilitation of 17 buildings is ongoing, which will provide 56 housing blocks. The rehabilitation of five more buildings is being considered. 

Image: One of buildings currently under renovation is at the side of the cathedral, and will offer fine views across the city.

Porto also has a tax policy that benefits family houses, and the City has enforced regulations that prevent the construction of extremely small apartments, which are typically used for short-term rentals instead of family dwellings. 

There is a recently approved national law, which grants more powers to the municipalities concerning short term rentals. The City is studying the best way to control the touristic rentals activity, balancing economic activity with the need for new family dwellings. As the law is so recent, the improvement of enforcement has still to be implemented. It is a work in progress.

The new City masterplan, which is still being designed, may include additional rules favoring long term family housing rentals, which will be enforced in some areas.

In light of the tremendous pressure now building from the tourist industry, international short-term rental corporations such as Airbnb, and developers who treat housing as investments, rather than as a right, it is already an extraordinary achievement to have stabilized the existing very poor population, and brought back a residential population to Porto’s beautiful and historic heart. 

Without the City’s investment in city-owned housing for local citizens within the historic center, and controls over the development of short-term rentals, Porto could in the near future simply have become another Venice, too expensive for local residents, a museum of beautiful buildings without local residents who breathe spirit and soul into the city. Under Mayor Moreira’s leadership the City is establishing a strong bulwark to prevent that disaster.


For their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article I wish to thank:
Mayor Rui Moreira
Maria Alexandra Malheiro Neto da Conceição
João Paulo Correia de Cunha
Carla Maria Alves Madeira Marques de Queirós
Susana Filipa da Veiga Reis Bettencourt de Sousa,
Filipa Melo


[1]September 27, 2018

[2]The option to buy applies to heritage sites and buildings, their protection areas, and some designated areas defined as “Urban Rehabilitation Areas”.

[3]Porto’s total population is 238,000.

[4]Maria Alexandra Malheiro Neto da Conceição, João Paulo Correia de Cunha, Carla Maria Alves Madeira Marques de Queirós, Susana Filipa da Veiga Reis Bettencourt de Sousa, Filipa Melo

[5]There are support programs regarding traditional trade.

[6]270 from the EX-CRUARB - Comissariado para a Renovação Urbana da Área da Ribeira - Commissariat for the Urban Renewal of the Ribeira Area and the remaining 80 from the EX-FDZHP - Fundação para o Desenvolvimento da Zona Histórica do Porto - Foundation for the Development of the Historical Zone of Porto