There is a house where the humidity of the years has seeped through the walls, painting the roof black, from where rain falls into buckets. Plim, plim: this is the sound that can be heard there, and that was heard even more strongly with the floods. A sound that spreads throughout lot 70 of the Bairro das Amendoeiras, in Chelas, where the cold of winter announces itself.
This is the home of Francisca Chagas, also known as “dona Chica”, a 75-year-old woman who has been fighting for years for the right to decent housing.
Francisca often stops to cough. It is a dry, constant cough that stops her speech: it is the cough of someone suffering from bronchitis, the disease that is aggravated by the cold she feels inside her own home.
The reality at Francisca Chagas’ home is extreme, but not unique.
Everyone feels more or less cold at home in Lisbon. So much so that it has already become quite normal for many. “Aren’t we all cold at home?”, asked a resident of Lot 70 when Mensagem knocked at her door.
A reality that refers to a term that has been studied in recent years in Lisbon, Portugal, and Europe: is energy poverty.
Researchers Bouzarovski and Petrova define it as the “inability to obtain a socially and materially necessary level of domestic energy services”.
Sara Freitas, the technician at Lisboa E-Nova, an energy and environment agency, chooses to explain that “it has to do with families not being able to face the necessary expenses to provide thermal comfort”.
The cold in Lisbon’s houses is a complex problem, which results from several factors, but that a Lisboa E-Nova survey revealed: about 40% of the 1508 respondents feel uncomfortable in their homes in winter, especially in the parishes of Beato, Alcântara, São Vicente, Ajuda.
Lot 70 where the cold and the rain come in
In Francisca’s house, the rain even fell on the electricity meter. The solution they presented to her was to put a wooden beam over it.
Beyond her door, the problems continue. Outside, traces of the rain that poured down on Lisbon still run off the walls, hitting the parapet of the degraded balconies.
On the ground floor, Alcina Duarte also suffers in winter because of the windows, which have never been replaced since the 25th of April 1974. In her room, humidity covers the walls in black.
Since its massive occupation after the 25th of April, no one remembers that Lot 70, which today belongs to the IHRU, was ever subject to works.
Francisca collects all sorts of documentation to present to the Parish Council: photographs, medical certificates?
A procedure notice dated 31 December 2021 for the rehabilitation of plot 70 in Bairro das Amendoeiras stipulated a deadline of 365 days for the execution of the contract. One year later, there is still no news – nor any response from the IHRU to Mensagem’s requests for clarification.
Bad construction to blame for the cold
In Plot 70, one of the main reasons why it is so cold in our homes is highlighted: bad construction.
This lot was built shortly before the 25th of April 1974, a period characterized by a surge of clandestine construction and self-building that began in the second half of the 20th century, in Lisbon and Porto.
In 1970, 40% of Portuguese houses were not even licensed nor did they comply with criteria relating to thermal comfort. One of Estado Novo’s solutions to the housing problems was to freeze rents but this also had negative consequences, such as the lack of investment from landlords, which led to the degradation of housing quality.
Legislation on thermal comfort and energy issues would only appear in 1990, becoming more demanding in 2006. Most of the buildings in Lisbon are therefore older.
The result is this: in 2021, 69.5% of the evaluated houses had an energy classification between C and F (the least efficient classes).
In the Lisboa E-Nova survey, 59% of the people answered that their house had some construction inefficiency.
This is especially true in the parishes of Beato, São Vicente, Santa Clara, Santa Maria Maior, Estrela, and Marvila.
A problem for all of Lisbon
Many people complain about the energy inefficiency of their homes. And that is exactly what they answered when Mensagem asked them to tell us about their cases.
The problem of energy inefficient houses is spread all over Lisbon, in different ways.
When Filipa Silva saw her rent rising, she moved from São Pedro de Estoril to Avenidas Novas. She was lucky enough to find a flat with more affordable rent on Rua Latino Coelho, but with one problem: the cold.
The old windows in the marquise and the dining room are not insulated and date from the time the building was built: 1970. Here, it’s not only the cold, it’s also the humidity, especially in the marquise. “The rain on winter days comes inside,” says Filipa.
A resident of Avenida dos Estados Unidos, who preferred not to be identified, even says: “The insulation is terrible and I often wake up in winter with damp bedclothes”.
In 2020, the European Commission published the strategy A Wave of Renewal for Europe – Greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives, one of the pillars of the European Green Pact, aiming to decarbonize buildings through energy rehabilitation.
The following year, the Long-Term Estratégia de Longo Prazo para a Renovação dos Edifícios (Strategy for the Renewal of Buildings) was approved in Portugal, to reduce the number of hours of discomfort in housing by 56% by 2050, a year in which a total renovation of 748 million square meters was planned.
But still little has been done.
There are some government programs with support to make buildings more efficient, but they don’t always reach everyone, as Filipa Silva well knows: “I researched on energy support, but as everything is always given to the owners, we left it aside”, she says.
That’s one of the problems: to be entitled to this support, you have to be the owner of the house.
Furthermore, the programs of the Environmental Fund (like the “More Sustainable Buildings” program) always imply some investment on the part of the person concerned. In these programs, the expenses are co-funded by reimbursement: the works are carried out and paid for first, and only then the person can apply for the support.
The Vale Eficiência program, which aims to deliver 100,000 “efficiency vouchers” to economically vulnerable families by 2025, has a value of just 1,300 euros, which translates into very few improvements, besides the fact that the person has to own the house.
For Luísa Schmidt, sociologist, and researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS-UL), this support should reach everyone, not least because Portugal has great potential in two areas in which one could invest in the energy efficiency of homes: cork and solar energy. “It would be an incentive to research in cork,” he exemplifies.
Portugal is the European country with the most hours of sunshine and the fewest photovoltaic panels. And it is for this very reason that Luísa proposes that the panels should be acquired through leasing contracts (which allowed the temporary use of the panel, paying a monthly rent) to reach more people. “We’re missing an opportunity”, she says.
The cold (and the heat) that kill
With the lack of support, how do people survive the cold? Alcina Duarte has an answer to that: “We have some blankets”, she says. “If we are cold, we go to bed and watch television”.
It is another problem that the Lisboa E-Nova’s survey shows: “culturally, we still have this tendency to adapt to the cold”, explains Sara Freitas.
Luísa Schmidt and Ana Horta confirm in A Pobreza Energética em Portugal study: heating equipment is used more restrictively on colder days. The reason? It’s economical.
In 2011, a social tariff was created for natural gas (at the moment, the discount value is 31.2%) to support more vulnerable domestic customers, and in 2020 a social tariff was created for electricity (33.8%).
But the costs are hard to bear for many – not least because the majority of the Portuguese population still uses bottled gas at home, which is more expensive than piped gas and is not yet covered by social tariffs (the natural gas network covers only 34% of households).
Taking into account the differences in purchasing power across countries, Eurostat’s 2019 data points out that in the second half of 2018, Portugal was the country where electricity was the most expensive for households, with gas prices also among the highest.
In the Lisboa E-Nova survey, 14% of respondents admitted to having been late in paying for energy services (although it may also have been due to forgetfulness), with a higher prevalence in Santa Clara, Campolide, Belém, and Beato.
Alcina, like her neighbor Francisca, suffers from the cold, but these days she is still not thinking of turning on the heater. Francisca was forced to do so, worried about her health.
“The cold is a public health problem and the bills are never done,” says Luísa Schmidt.
A study published last year, which looked at flu seasons between 2008/2009 and 2018/2019, concluded that flu and cold are associated with more than three thousand deaths a year.
But the truth is, it’s not just the cold that’s a concern: it’s also the heat. “In summer, it is very hot indoors,” says Francisca Chagas. So does Filipa Silva who, with the sun beating down on the windows, sees her living room becoming a veritable “greenhouse”.
It is a phenomenon perhaps more forgotten, explains Sara Freitas. “It’s something that isn’t talked about much but the two situations [the cold and the heat] have a very big weight”.
The heat is something more surreptitious and not as addressed. “Cold is something more immediate, while heat is even culturally endured differently. But suffering from too much heat affects fertility, the psychological part, sleep…”, adds Sara Freitas.
In the Lisboa E-Nova survey, 32% of people answered that they feel uncomfortable with the heat in summer. The problem is more evident in the parishes of Areeiro, Misericórdia, Campolide, and São Vicente.
The Parque das Nações area is also problematic, says Sara. “What used to be an area cooled by the winds coming from the other side of the city ended up with a conglomeration of buildings that hinders this cooling effect and forms one of the largest heat islands”.
And with climate change, the risk of death now becomes higher: this year, the European Environment Agency estimated that 90,000 Europeans could die every year because of heat waves.
The solution, for many people, is only one: leave the house for green spaces.
Only 55% of respondents answered that they cool their house in summer, usually using air conditioning. In winter, it’s the oil heater.
There is therefore the idea in the municipality of creating “climate refugees” at the proposal of Livre Party: air-conditioned places where people can shelter from the heat in summer.
Combating energy illiteracy
In the midst of all this, another problem arises: “energy illiteracy”. People often don’t know how to make the best use of their homes.
“We, when we buy equipment, we receive an instruction manual, but that doesn’t happen with a house”, explains Eduardo Silva, from Lisboa E-Nova.
Some practices can help combat the cold and the heat, such as ventilating the house to get rid of humidity and playing with the different types of shading… And there are tricks to “lighten” the energy bill: changing light bulbs for LED bulbs or equipment that is obsolete for more efficient ones.
Only, once again, these changes imply some investments, which not everyone can afford. There are, therefore, organizations that have been working precisely to share information to understand what can be done to improve the situation of each one.
The National Long-Term Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty 2021-2050, which was in a public consultation last year, presented some solutions at this level. “It’s a multi-pronged strategy, like checking which neighborhoods need specific work,” explains Luísa Schmidt.
But it was never approved. “We can’t understand why”.
Lisboa E-Nova, which has been developing local initiatives with Gebalis’ Rock The House program, which promotes energy literacy among children and adults, has been working in this direction.
The energy agency has other projects underway, such as Energia+Cooletiva, with the great objective of reaching the condominiums of some parishes (Ajuda, Benfica, Beato, Campo de Ourique, Penha de França) to analyze on a case-by-case basis how the energy situation of each household can be improved – one solution for the neediest families could even involve the installation of a local energy production system in a school to be used on weekends in their homes.
But it’s not always easy to reach people.
Coopérnico, a renewable energy cooperative, knows this well.
This cooperative is developing the PowerPoor project, which aims to empower families to improve their energy situation, and the Community Energy for Energy Solidarity project, which addresses energy cooperatives and communities to create a toolkit to fight energy poverty.
Both projects include home visits and workshops.
But what this cooperative feels is that it has not been able to reach the population experiencing energy poverty. “We opened an office within the scope of the PowerPoor project, and we advertised in the town halls for users of the social tariff to come to us, but nobody ever showed up”, shares Catarina Pereira, responsible for the project.
Here the problem is another, which Luísa Schmidt and Ana Horta also talk about: it is a certain distrust.
In 2019, Eurobarometer data showed that 54% of the Portuguese said they did not trust public administration. João Braga Lopes, from Coopérnico, is aware of this phenomenon: “There is a certain mistrust, a certain natural resistance and so the people who come to us are not the ones we would like to reach”.
This is why it is important to “stimulate the participation of citizens in the public debate on the fight against energy poverty”, write the researchers. For this, there will always be a need for an “energy agent”, with the task of signaling which families are experiencing energy poverty, and helping them.
This could be, for example, police officers. “They are agents who are in the field and, having this training, they could do this triage of which families are in need and what can be done,” says Sara Freitas.
To complement these actions, Lisboa E-Nova would also like to create a space at the municipal level where people can go to clarify their doubts: an Energy Shop.
“We can’t just sit back and wait for people to show up at the shop, the idea is to cross this work with a territorial proximity intervention,” says Eduardo.
For Luísa Schmidt, the solution is exactly that: “Fundamentally, there is an information point, an office in the town councils so that people can inform themselves”.
This information doesn’t easily reach people – especially those who don’t have access to the Internet, for example. “Imagine an elderly person who is cold at home and doesn’t know who to turn to. There have to be mediators who make this connection between people, the Parish Councils, the Town Hall, the Ministry of the Environment…”
But, while waiting for all these projects to start, what’s next now that we’ve entered winter?
Francisca Chagas is preparing more documentation to present to the Marvila Parish Council, waiting for a change that will finally allow her to live without cold and rain.
“I’m an oncology patient, I’ve had three cancers and when this time comes, age doesn’t go forward, it goes backward,” she says, hoping that one day she will be able to find a refuge from the winter cold in her house.
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