WESTBURY, New York — To push back against housing poverty in Portugal, Just A Change works to restore and build homes for impoverished Portuguese communities. Housing poverty in Portugal is consistently a prevalent problem, but organizations like Just A Change hope to fix it.
Housing, Poverty and Development
In 2017, almost 113 million people were the risk of housing poverty or social exclusion. Around 23% of the total population cannot keep their homes heated while 200,000 cannot shower. Additionally, more than 50,000 do not have piped water and a sewage system. To demonstrate these disparities, mortality rates increased to 28% during the Portuguese winter as a result of the lack of housing insulation.
The development of Portuguese infrastructure and production pushed economic growth. Those who don’t receive benefits from the new improvements face higher living costs and challenging housing markets. Despite heavy agricultural production and education improvements, food insecurity and low incomes push young Portuguese workers away. Those who cannot afford to leave face desperate housing conditions and poverty.
Just A Change
Just A Change (JAC) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization founded in Lisbon to rebuild and renovate homes for the Portuguese living in housing poverty. Since 2010, it has renovated more than 279 houses and 70 institutions, helping more than 4,600 people in 22 municipalities.
JAC helps people with their housing projects and usually targets old, poorly constructed houses lacking basic living conditions. Benefactors are often elderly, and many lack the financial means or strength to rebuild their own homes.
Just A Change operates in multiple municipalities nationwide to implement their housing projects. It starts by presenting its approach to local municipalities. Local governments usually already have a good understanding of the problems in their communities. These municipalities establish an intervention protocol defining the budget, number of houses and project timeline.
The municipalities then help set up the logistical part of the intervention like lodgings and meals. They often rely on local support. JAC, in turn, oversees the purchase of materials, professional contractors and the construction process.
An Interview with Rita Lucena
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Rita Lucena, head of communications and fundraising at Just A Change, said the housing crisis throughout Portugal requires different intervention processes depending on if a region is urban or rural. She said rural regions are increasingly empty and their populations are aging. There is no fundamental need to supply more housing in these lands, but instead, help renovate and maintain their houses, which are often old buildings lacking modern infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the needs of urban areas are more diverse and challenging. House transactions in Portugal reached a record $10.1 billion in home sales in the second quarter of 2021, the highest since 2009. In a nation of just more than 10 million people with an aging population, Portugal is doing its best to attract new talent and labor by offering immigrants low tax rates and a laid-back lifestyle. However, Lucena said soaring prices due to foreign real estate investments push families and locals away from cities.
“Housing is a constant subject of discussion and new policies. Responses arise both from central and local government authorities but also private and social entities,” said Lucena. “We had municipal elections across the country on September 26, so housing was the main subject of discussion in every district.”
She said this has dramatic effects on housing poverty in Portugal because mainstream society has little awareness. She also shared that one of JAC’s challenges is influencing Portugal’s legal framework on this matter and helping local actors incorporate JAC’s collaborative approach.
The Impact of Housing
Lucena said that JAC’s renovation work helps provide a safer and healthier quality of life. Including families in the renovation plans helps give them a sense of self-realization. She believes by upgrading the population’s living conditions, her organization reduced poverty and criminality and improved public health and energy efficiency. “Lacking proper living conditions is one of the most devastating types of poverty as it affects all aspects of life,” said Lucena.
With more than 5,000 volunteers, Lucena said JAC’s teams can provide a multi-faceted approach to home renovation by capitalizing on the diverse range of skill sets in their teams and partnerships. One major partner, the Energias De Portugal, helps the organization with its project’s energy efficiency and thermal insulation by assisting with efficient water heating systems, solar panels or other equipment.
Another partnership is with Entrajuda, a non-profit that helps other nonprofits find solutions and engage with partners. Lucena shared that financial benefactors like Leroy Merlin, Sonae, Jerónimo Martins, Prio and other donors help complement the JAC’s operations. She believes they are essential to the housing intervention process after renovations are completed. Lastly, local third sector entities are essential for the signaling and monitoring process and coordinating with the municipalities. Additionally, they help universities to attract new volunteers and publicize fundraising campaigns.
Adapting To A Pandemic
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lucena said JAC had to reduce the scale of its operation. While it had planned to recover more than 80 houses in 2020, it managed to complete seven institutions and 33 houses. However, the organization is still proud of its ability to respond to urgent housing poverty needs in the community.
“As we were all forced to stay at home, the relevance of having a dignified shelter to remain protected from the virus became even clearer,” said Lucena. “So the JAC planned an ambitious 2021, aware it would still be a challenging year, with clear and demanding targets to ensure the renovation of as many homes as possible, generating impact in each intervention.”
She said since 2021, it has operated in 13 different locations and mobilized more than 300 volunteers. She shared that it adapted the working teams to reduce the number of volunteers. Additionally, it followed strict sanitary protocols to ensure protection for the beneficiaries and volunteers.
Future Plans and Outlooks
Most recently, Lucena said JAC finished a very demanding nationwide intervention. It then plans to resume an intervention project in Lisbon and Porto focused on urban housing poverty. Besides these operations, Lucena shared that JAC is looking to expand operations to other parts of the country. She said it is studying a replication model where each city and municipality would have its own JAC hub. These hubs would implement JAC’s programs and intervention activities autonomously, reporting yearly to their headquarters in Lisbon. If successful, Lucena hopes this model would then be expandable to other countries.
Photo: Provided by JAC