Expats are moving to Portugal, taking gentrification with them

Jamie Dixon landed in this hilly seaside town nine months ago, ditching her luxury trailer in Malibu for a two-floor rooftop apartment that’s twice the size for a fraction of the rent.

Her escape from her native California came amid growing costs of living, encroaching wildfires and a waning sense of safety after the burglary of a neighbor’s home. The fitness-trainer-turned-startup-worker decided it was time to reinvent herself in a foreign land, but like many American expats she didn’t want to feel too far from home.

In this wealthy enclave about 15 miles from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, she found her slice of California on the west coast of Europe: ocean breezes, mountain views, hot spring days on palm tree-lined promenades, and the glow of sunsets that seep into the night.

An expatriate family in their home

“Things were just becoming too much back home, but I didn’t want to leave everything about L.A. behind,” said Dixon, 37. Dressed in yoga pants and cross-trainers, she sipped white wine at an organic cafe that overlooked waves crashing into Big Sur-like cliffs a short walk from the rental she shares with her actor husband and 7-year-old daughter.

“With Portugal,” she said, “we could keep the parts we liked and leave the rest.”

In top photo, two women carry surfboards at a beach. In the bottom photo, swimmers dive into the blue waters.

Cascais, a wealthy seaside enclave in Portugal, reminds California expatriates of home.

(Jose Sarmento Matos / For The Times)

Dixon has plenty of company in a country that has become an international destination for tourism and residency alike.

This once seafaring empire known for Port wine and Fado music can feel a lot like California. Except it’s much more affordable on a U.S. budget. That’s one reason the slender nation on the Atlantic has attracted — and even advertised to — Americans who are packing up.

In the last decade, the overall population in Portugal has declined even as the number of foreigners has grown by 40%. The ranks of American citizens living in this land of 10 million shot up by 45% last year. Within the mix of retirees, digital nomads and young families fed up with issues including the costs of housing and healthcare, Trumpian politics and pandemic policies, Californians are making themselves known in a country once considered the forgotten sibling of Spain.

People congregate at dusk by a river, with views of a bridge

The boardwalk at the Tagus River is a favorite of locals and newcomers alike. In the background is the 25th of April Bridge.

(Jose Sarmento Matos / For The Times)

“I’d say 95% of my clients are now Americans,” said André Fernandes, a 38-year-old Porto-based real estate broker who, upon seeing the surge in interest in his homeland, moved back from New Jersey three years ago and switched from installing fire sprinklers to selling housing. “In the last week, I’ve called or emailed with people from California, Arizona and New Mexico.” One recent client, he said, was a Netflix writer.

Portugal emerged from the financial crisis of the mid-2000s as one of the European Union’s poorest nations. With the economy in shambles, Lisbon lawmakers drafted immigration laws to aggressively court foreign professionals, from the wealthy, who could essentially buy residency by purchasing land, to remote workers, who could secure a path to citizenship by earning money abroad but spending it here. More recently, the nation, which for the last seven years has hosted the Web Summit tech conference, has fashioned itself as a tax haven for crypto investors.

The government estimates that foreigners have invested more than $6 billion in Portugal since 2012 through property purchases alone. The closely related tourist and rental industries brought in more than $10 billion last year and, before the pandemic, represented 15% of the nation’s GDP. (During the same time in the U.S., tourism accounted for less than 3% of the economy.)

For Dixon, a fourth-generation Californian, the visa process was textbook. She and her husband, Joey Dixon, had to open a Portuguese bank account with savings equal to about $21,000 — about twice the minimum wage — and lock into a yearlong lease.

Joey Dixon, who has appeared in “Yellowstone” and “S.W.A.T.,” is starting an acting school for other Hollywood transplants. His wife, who at first went through bouts of loneliness, now comes home to plastic containers of homemade soup at her door from the neighbor below, an older Portuguese woman, and has befriended a nearby couple and their child who moved from New York and started a relocation company.

A woman hugs a young girl in a pink dress as a man and another woman holding a boy look on

Jamie Dixon picks up her daughter from school in Cascais, Portugal.

(Jose Sarmento Matos / For The Times)

A few blocks down the street, the Dixons have met a California couple — one of them works for Adobe — who recently made the move. A family from Seattle is expected to arrive in May and will occupy the first floor of the Dixons’ three-story gated apartment building. Seeing an influx of Americans, their daughter’s school recently hired an English teacher and now has bilingual instruction.

“My Portuguese is still bad,” said Dixon, who has taken classes but uses her favorite phrase to describe her attitude toward the slow journey of integration: não faz mal (“no big deal”). She hopes to speak enough in five years to pass the citizenship test, which would gain the family European Union passports. With them comes the freedom to move and work throughout much of the continent.

“You just don’t know where America is headed these days. Are we going to be fighting with each other forever? Are we in the Cold War again with Russia” Dixon said. “Getting that second passport would be a relief.”

But resentment of newcomers is growing. Angelenos can’t always escape — and sometimes are at the root of — questions over gentrification, income disparities and immigration. The phrase “expat” itself has become loaded in Lisbon, a city that attracts tens of thousands of working-class immigrants from Brazil, Ukraine, Romania and India. In Facebook groups and cafe meet-ups, well-to-do Westerners debate over how to define themselves. On the streets, Portuguese activists have protested against evictions and skyrocketing rents caused in part by foreigners with banks that count in dollars and pounds.

“There’s no doubt that the foreign investment has greatly helped Portugal’s economy and made the cities more beautiful,” said Isabel da Bandeira, an activist who co-founded the Lisbon housing rights group Aqui Mora Gente (People Live Here). “But this process has also hurt the long-term residents who don’t recognize parts of their communities anymore or can’t afford to live in them.”

Across Lisbon, the largest urban center with 550,000 people, it’s hard to miss the Californians. The city, where tourism has boomed over the years to the point that entire streets in its historic core are made up exclusively of hotels and Airbnbs, has attracted monied newcomers from across the world, including the United Kingdom, Cape Verde, South Africa and Russia. But Americans are now growing at the fastest clip when it comes to foreigners buying expensive property, surpassing the Chinese.

A blue, white and yellow tram next to a building and pedestrians

A tram goes up a hill in the historic Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal.

(Jose Sarmento Matos / For The Times)

An article last year in the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de Notícias extolled the ties between California and Portugal. “It’s fundamental to put Portugal on the map for Californians,” Pedro Pinto, the Portuguese consul general in San Francisco, said in the piece, as he suggested a direct flight from Los Angeles to Lisbon was in the works (there’s already one from San Francisco).

California has long drawn the Portuguese. Spain and Portugal claim 16th century colonial explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who was the first European to land on California’s shores, as one of their own. In the mid-19th century, droves of farmers from the Azores made their way to Central California. In San Jose, the Little Portugal neighborhood pays homage to the region’s immigrant history. But today, the transplants go the other way and are of a different variety: upper middle class or wealthier with online jobs or well-managed retirement accounts.

After years of divisive politics, failed wars, worsening wealth gaps and fights over national identity, Americans are perhaps more flexible in their patriotism and willing to make a home beyond their borders. For residents of California, where the best and worst of America appear to constantly collide, the shores of Portugal have offered a respite.

From the retiree villages of Mexico and Central America to the red-white-and-blue enclaves scattered throughout Asia and Europe, Americans have long had a curious and at times contentious relationship with the world and its cultures. They are often viewed as wanting to cast other nations in their image, a criticism cleverly distilled in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American.” They want the exotic so long as there’s a scent of the familiar.