IF YOU HAD WALKED the streets of Lisbon at the end of last year, just after Portugal voted to reelect its surprisingly successful center-left coalition government, it wouldn’t have taken long for you to notice something strange. The people spilling out of the capital’s beautiful old apartment buildings were very often, very obviously, tourists—not locals on their way to work but usually groups of well-to-do 20-somethings looking for an upscale café or jumping on electric Uber bicycles to find some attraction. When you did see the rare old woman still living downtown in the ancient city, she was usually trailed by a young man with an expensive camera trying to get a shot of the workaday Portuguese life that had all but vanished.
As Lisbon rapidly transformed into a tourist destination over the past decade, the number of Airbnb units skyrocketed, driving up the cost of housing and pushing longtime residents out of the city center. When 2020 started, some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were one-third short-term housing; in the worst-affected part of town, around 55 percent of residential units had been converted to makeshift hostels and hotels. Then the virus came and all the rentals dried up. Now Lisbon is taking advantage of that situation to push some of these units back into the long-term housing market. The city government is renting empty apartments directly from property owners, then turning around to rent them to Portuguese workers and students at subsidized rates.
“The pandemic offered us a great opportunity to try to resolve a lot of problems at the same time,” Fernando Medina, the mayor of Lisbon, told me on a phone call. “Airbnb had become incredibly important to our economy, but that had put serious pressure on the middle-class and young people trying to live here. The market was inflated, and the housing stock available to permanent residents had shrunk.”
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