Pressure grows in Lisbon for referendum to tackle holiday rentals boom

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) - Rosa Santos has lived in Lisbon's historic neighbourhood of Castelo for decades but a boom in holiday rentals has made her feel like she does not belong. Plans for a housing referendum are giving her a glimmer of hope.

"Lisbon has stopped being a city and became an amusement park," 60-year-old Santos said as she stood in a square popular with tourists. "I want to have neighbours: young, old, immigrants, foreigners...but people who actually live here."

To help people like Santos feel at home again, a Lisbon housing group is campaigning for a referendum that, if successful, would stop companies offering short-term rentals for tourists, such as Airbnb, from operating in residential buildings.

The group announced late on Wednesday that it had collected enough signatures to request that city hall lawmakers consider the proposal. They will submit the over 9,000 signatures after the summer.

However, the legal process to hold a city-wide referendum can be complex as it must be approved by both lawmakers and the constitutional court.

"There are more short-term rentals than houses for people in Lisbon's historic centre," said Raquel Antunes, part of the group pushing for the referendum. "We need to put the brakes on this."

In the Santa Maria Maior district, which includes Santos' Castelo but also the well-known Alfama neighbourhood, more than 60% of housing is used for holiday rentals, according to the movement and several studies.

New hotels and holiday rentals have mushroomed in Lisbon since 2015, when the tourism boom started to gain pace. Portugal remained one of western Europe's poorest nations and locals with low wages have struggled to cope with the impact on rents and house prices.

In Lisbon, rents have soared 94% since 2015, according to housing data specialists Confidencial Imobiliario. House prices skyrocketed 186%.

The situation is similar elsewhere.

Spain has also struggled to balance promoting tourism and addressing locals' concerns. The Spanish government announced last week a crackdown on short-term and seasonal holiday lettings.

However, the referendum proposal is certain to spark opposition. Tourism was crucial for Portugal's recovery from the 2010-14 economic and debt crisis, and holiday rentals' associations say their work is key for the industry.

Others argue holiday rentals have revitalised the city centre.

As the housing movement made their announcement, a local walked past and said that if it wasn't for holiday rentals old buildings would continue to decay.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Patricia Rua; Editing by David Latona and Keith Weir)