Abandoned houses in Coimbra

An old university from the 16th century, precious buildings, old traditions… This is one of the first impressions one can have of Coimbra. Students in Harry Potter like cloaks, the Estudantinas singing traditional songs…
And yet, there is something bizarre when one arrives in Coimbra, as visible as all this harmonic image: next to the old and precious buildings, entire streets with broken windows, destroyed walls, locked doors and abandoned cats climbing out of some fissures: vacant, deserted houses.
And indeed, this little town with its barely 143.000 inhabitants counts 11.740 abandoned houses, according to the latest information of the Câmara Municipal Coimbra, based upon statistics from 2011. Since then, the situation has probably become worse, with the growing problems of the crisis.
But what about all those people who used to live there?

There are no homeless people on Coimbra’s streets, no beggars, no visible poverty. The only observable things are the ruins of a once flourishing society. What happened?­­­­­­­­­

Of course, there is the Portuguese’s quality of life, a high rate of unemployment and  diminshed wealth, not enough money to pay the rent – obviously, this problem has gone worse with the crisis. But the crisis only made the problem become even more visible, even though it had boiled like that for many decades, explains Francisco Queirós, councilor of Coimbra.

In fact, the city center is not attractive anymore for most of Coimbra’s inhabitants, since the buildings there have not been renovated for a long time and do not correspond to the people’s demands anymore.  When walking around in the city centre from 21 to midnight,   one can find oneself totally alone. Maybe not totally alone, you still have tomcats, echoes of fado houses, sad winds blowing through empty houses. Usually it only livens up at Tuesdays and Thursdays when students usually like to party. Them and their jolly singing,  bottles shared and city centre for few hours does not look lonely and sad.

The great majority of the apartments have extremely bad isolation and no heating. During the winter months, there is a lot of humidity inside, and the cold is a constant problem. The bad isolation also will let you hear every little noise from the street, also during nighttime. In some houses in the Baixa of Coimbra, “the bathrooms are not even belonging to the 21st century”, says Queirós. Under these conditions, the population migrates to the city’s suburbs. Obviously, one prefers a recently built house to one that is already 60 or 70 years old. But why are the old houses kept in such a bad estate?

In some cases there are very rich people who own 10, 20 or even 30 houses here in Coimbra, especially in the Baixa or in the historical center, and they just leave their houses there, and the Câmara can’t make the renovations, because they are owned by someone else.”
The IMI (Imposto municipal imovéis: a municipal tax that every owner pays for his house/s) has to be paid as far as trimestraly, if a house is empty for over a year. However, corruption or cheating hinder this law to be applied as it should.               
In contrast, poor house owners who have interest in renovating their house in order to rent it, don’t have the means to do so.  “But there are also a lot of people who inherited houses from their grand-parents for example, and who don’t have money”, explains Queirós: “If someone constructed a house, a hundred years ago, the heirs are the children, then the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, which means that a house is owned by twenty or thirty heirs and this is very difficult: who will take care of the house, if it has so many owners?”                                                                   

Another aspect that Queirós points out, are the big commercial shopping centers, such as Continente or Forum: “This almost killed the traditional commerce”, he says. Indeed, a lot of little stores, especially in the Baixa, had to close for people preferred big supermarkets and went to live next to them, in Coimbra’s periphery. This ends up in a vicious circle. The centre is less animated, and gets hence even more unattractive, which doesn’t give a chance to the little shops to survive.
So much for the structural problems in general. But the crisis does make a difference to it. Francisco Queirós calls it the “new poverty”. Meanwhile the traditional poverty continues existing, there are now new parts of the society who get poor: individuals who have a very high academic degree, who have a PhD for example, and who remain unemployed and poor. Elderly people get less retirement pension and lose their belongings, young people can hardly pay their studies and will have enormous difficulties to once earn their own money. It has become a frequent situation that two or three generations live under the same roof, because they cannot pay the rents anymore. Nine or ten persons living in a flat with barely two rooms.
The new poverty is a hidden poverty: the affected ones feel ashamed and would not dare to show their neediness. For politicians, this is rather convenient. They do know about this situation – it concerns the whole country, in fact, and not only Coimbra – but hidden as it is, there is no direct urge to do something about it. Meanwhile, the European Union keeps on prescribing austerity.
Francisco Queirós has a big folder on his desk. It contains requests for dwelling from about 500 families in Coimbra. They are not homeless yet, but living in the described situation, or in completely degraded houses, or else, paying their rents making debts. “The big majority of these people are families with single parents, that is to say, for example, a woman, 35-40 years old, with two children. This is the most frequent case.” Francisco Queirós has a concerned look talking about this folder. “We these 500 requests for a home, to whom we cannot give an answer”, he says. Various programs for rehabilitation of abandoned houses have been cut. The Municipality of Coimbra owns about 1000 houses that could be rehabilitated, but gets no financial support to do so.
While entire families are waiting and hoping for a home, Coimbra’s city center remains abandoned and empty. 

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