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How Madrid’s social housing crisis turns paying tenants into “illegal squatters”

27 December 2020

Let’s take a look at Colonia de los Olivos (Colony of Olive Trees), which was built hastily in 1947 to accommodate a post-war migration boom in Madrid. Around 1,000 people have called these temporary blocks their home until their phased demolition more than half a century later, which is still not complete.

This corner of Puerta del Ángel, just east of Madrid’s recently re-wilded river, is quiet at most times of the day but for the occasional dog walker. A light wind blows through the mostly unused basketball court behind the blocks which is also responsible for dust covering the cracked streets where grass and weeds thrive.

© Bego Solís of Vice

THE BLOCKS’ TWO-PHASE CLEARANCE

In 2016, the fortnight-long clearance of some of these social housing blocks came as a celebration for many, who’d been living with three generations of the same family in a 24 metres-squared flats. Cramped living conditions inspired jokes among residents, who nostalgically recall how they could both cook and use the toilet at the same time.

© Bego Solís of Vice
© Bego Solís of Vice

By modern standards, these cramped blocks were vertical slums housing a deeply neglected urban community. But although this corner of Madrid is reported widely as one of the most deprived areas in the city, there is no substantial evidence to support that it’s a dangerous area with drug dealing, as many Spanish newspapers report.

PARTIAL REHOUSING

The rehousing of all 1,000 residents would involve the construction of 213 homes in the same place. The first phase includes 53 homes, the second includes 87, which have now been built, and the third phase with 21 flats and a fourth with 52 flats is still in planning phase. The new colony, when completed, would also have more than 2,500 squared meters of gardens, playgrounds, sports areas, common areas and a large public car park.

Being moved into a brand-new shiny home sounds great, apart from that many of the residents still living in these old post-war blocks are not entitled to relocation. The residents of Colonia de los Olivos who were fortunate enough for their homes to be destroyed in the first two phases of demolition now live in bright white flats built in the exact same spot where their former homes stood.

The new housing requires the demolition of the original housing. The first phase of demolition was in 2008, the most recent in 2016, and the last phases have been postponed. And so two blocks still stand; they’re damp, crumbling and mostly bricked up – many residents having abandoned their homes, but some residents remain because they’ve essentially been forgotten.

THE FORGOTTEN RESIDENTS

Among those residents are many who were stopped from paying rent years ago and, in the eyes of the conservative City Council, they’re now squatters. Numerous residents claim that they haven’t been given the option to pay rent since 1999, when the building’s ownership changed hands. Since then, tenants who had been paying rent up until this point have been left in a legal loophole, where they’ve been told by the City Council that they’re now ‘illegal’ tenants with many being handed an eviction notice.

FROM TENANTS TO “SQUATTERS”

The story of Colonia de los Olivos sounds eerily familiar to the situation involving 250 residents (40 are children) in one Malasaña building, who were handed an eviction notice a few weeks ago.

Many residents have been living here for decades and were paying the asked-for rent, but when the Madrid government forcibly purchased their building from a private landlord in 2011 for a little over 10 million euros from the council’s budget, claiming it of historical significance, the residents entered a state of precariousness and were stopped from paying rent immediately with no explanation or further instructions.

Almost 10 years later, children have been born and grown up in what so many newspapers are calling a ‘squat’. The fate these residents had been anticipating for ten years finally arrived, and their eviction is now imminent, with nowhere else for them to go.

Although the town hall has verbally offered a select number of residents temporary shared accommodation for between one and three months, nothing has been signed. When they are evicted, many of the 250 tenants will end up homeless and, for the 40 children living here, this will undoubtedly change the course of their lives.

The Colonia de los Olivos and the Calle Luna 32 Malasaña building are two council-owned properties where tenants were stopped from paying their rents year ago. Many didn’t question it, assuming their rent would be recovered in due course presumably thinking, “how could the City Council be so reckless?” But years down the line, there became an unspoken pact of silence between tenants and the landlord. With tenants already tight-rope walking the extreme poverty line, they’re now unable to cough up a back-payment this large.

Then, years later, the tenants are suddenly accused of living there illegally, squatting in what were once their rightful homes and are handed an eviction notice thus taking them off the list for the social housing they were once rightfully entitled to.

STOP EVICTIONS NOW

In most European countries, it’s very difficult if not impossible to evict minors or vulnerable people, but not here here Spain – a law banning the eviction of vulnerable people is still yet to be passed by the current coalition government. We’re also still in State of Emergency, which means there is meant to be a moratorium on evictions, yet over 7,000 evictions across Spain have taken place this year so far, most of which happened during the pandemic.

MADRID’S LACK OF SOCIAL HOUSING

Social housing in Madrid is at an all-time low, with the conservative Madrid City Council having sold off most of Madrid’s social housing to Blackstone, an American vulture fund, since 2008.

According to the 2020 Amnesty International report on extreme poverty, social housing stock in Spain currently accounts for only 2,5% of all dwellings. This is compared to 30% in the Netherlands, 24% in Austria, 17.6% in the UK or 16.8% in France. In the last 12 years, over 600,000 homes across Spain have been repossessed and 30% of all empty housing in Europe is in Spain – around 3.5 million homes.

THE RIGHT TO HOUSING

The authorities in Spain do not see housing as a human right, but rather as a consumer good, and with the full depths of the Covid-19 economic crisis yet to be felt, now more than ever the Spanish government needs to pass a law banning the eviction of vulnerable residents – especially by the government itself.

This country simply cannot afford to make the same mistakes all over again: people are already slipping through the cracks faster than most of us have ever seen.

FOLLOW

  • Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca (Twitter@PAHCentroMadrid) a Spain-wide anti-eviction activist group aiming to delay or stop evictions.
  • Sindicato de Inquilinxs de Madrid (IG: @InquilinatoMadrid), a Spain-wide grass-roots pressure group providing legal aid and support to those threatened with evictions.
  • Altera Desahucio (Twitter: @AlertaDesahucio), a Madrid platform giving live, up-to-date information on evictions.

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For four years, I’ve been driven to bring you real-life stories told by the very communities that don’t receive the coverage they deserve. Understand how racism, exploitation and poverty are pre-assigned fates chosen by those in power, and how communities experiencing this are overcoming it together. 

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