The conflict in the housing protests could continue to grow, because there are more and more people who can’t even have “the feeling of security” that a house inspires, architect Gonçalo Byrne warned in an interview with Lusa.
“The demonstrations are a very obvious symptom of the fact that housing is not only a serious crisis, which is hitting the middle class, but one that is accelerating, in other words, the need for housing is becoming more and more obvious,” said Gonçalo Byrne, commenting on the protest that brought thousands of people onto the streets in various cities across the country on Saturday.
“The demonstrations that had some expressions of greater conflict, I’m not saying violence, this phenomenon may continue to grow, unfortunately, because people, in fact, are living badly and this clearly generates conflictual relations,” said the architect, who next week will pass the baton as president of the Order of Architects (OA) to the board elected on September 21, led by Avelino Oliveira.
One of the last public acts of Byrne’s mandate was to take a stand, together with the Order of Engineers, to demand that the housing problem be seen as “a national challenge”.
For Gonçalo Byrne, the protests, marked by some disturbances, demonstrate “the emotional charge” generated by a situation that had been announced “for quite some time”.
The supply of housing, he stressed, does not cover sectors that are subject to the market law of supply and demand, in a country with “very low wage levels”, which has gone through several recent crises and where there is “a lot of precariousness in terms of family income”.
“They can’t afford a home where they spend more than 50%, 60% – 70% of their monthly income,” when the effort ratio should be, at most, a fifth of their income, he explained: “A family that earns 1,500 euros a month, and I’m talking about a husband and wife – salary levels are very low – should spend, at most, 300 euros on rent for a home, not for a room. And there’s less and less of that, so in cities like Lisbon, Porto and the main cities in the country, the price of housing, including rent, continues to rise.”
Gonçalo Byrne regretted that the discussion of the “Mais Habitação” (More Housing) program, approved by the government, has become radicalized along two axes, between public and private investment. “Above all, in a country where there is no culture of public investment that is part of the solution, as there is in central Europe and which has been established for several years. In Portugal, unfortunately, there is such a culture, but it’s not very significant and so this dialogue has absorbed a lot of the discussion about the housing measures,” he said.
On the other hand, he noted, a decree won’t solve the situation “overnight”, since in the world of construction “there are no immediate answers”.
“The deadlines average between three and four years. We’ve been alerting Parliament to this problem for three years now, to this mismatch between the world of the decree, the temporality of the law and the effect of a law that is going to regulate a construction sector in which, with the hyper legislation that this country has generated over several years, it has created a situation of very easy litigation, which further lengthens these minimum deadlines,” he added, pointing out that in practice, deadlines easily slip with the current legal framework.
Gonçalo Byrne admitted the use of exceptional mechanisms to solve the housing problem, but expressed concern that the urgency would jeopardize the quality of the building.
“This urgency is achieved by launching a call for tenders based on a document that is a simplified preliminary study. This is an extremely embryonic stage of a project, or a possible project. Defining quality, in terms of costs and specifications, with a simplified preliminary study is not possible. Or rather, it is possible with tolerances of around 30% or more in terms of risk,” he said.
The architect recalled that the issue is all the more important at a time when construction must be environmentally sustainable, in order to respond to the “extremely ambitious goals” set in the fight against the climate crisis, in order to increase the life cycle of buildings.
Asked about the reuse of state buildings or vacant property for housing, he replied that the country’s vacant stock is “three times greater than the most pressing housing needs”.
According to Gonçalo Byrne, the state already tried to start solving this problem five years ago with a program that never got off the ground.
“And it continues to have a great inability to respond from the constructive availability that has to be rehabilitated from the public park. Almost everything goes to the private housing stock,” he said, pointing out that there are state buildings where there is not even proof of ownership. “There are no deeds, because they are very old.”
In rehabilitation, too, the deadlines are long, despite attempts at simplification. “For the first time, there’s a willingness to try to simplify these processes (through a Single Licensing Platform), but simplification doesn’t mean relinquishing responsibility and the government’s immediate response is one that the Association of Municipalities has strongly criticized, because it’s an open door to a great deal of relinquishing responsibility.”
Gonçalo Byrne supports the single platform as an alternative to the existing “paraphernalia of platforms”, but expressed concern about the responsibility that could be attributed to an architect.
“The Prime Minister has just come out and said that there is no justification for so much prior control, so many standards and laws, because these are limitations on the creativity of architects. I think that’s extraordinary, to come out and acknowledge this when there have been so many years of governments creating more standards, and some of them are good, because they have to do with safety issues (anti-seismic, thermal), but how is it that, in a stroke of magic, you suddenly say that the creativity of architects shouldn’t be limited by these standards?” he questioned.
Byrne fears that architects could be signing “suicidal terms of responsibility in the face of a world of 2,200 diplomas” that are still visible. “They continue to sign documents in the absence of a Building Code, which is a claim that has existed for 60 years in this country and nothing has been done to advance it. Now they’re starting to talk about it, like the platform,” he said.
According to Gonçalo Byrne, architects are involved in the platform, but with regard to the Building Code, they have not yet been heard, despite their willingness to do so on several occasions.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, we know that there are initiatives to start discussing the Code, but, again, this idea that a piece of legislation is going to solve the problem overnight is only going to transfer the problem,” the architect argued.