BARCELONA -- Last year, the mayor of the 22,000-person village of Armilla, Granada, realized that a staggering 15 percent of all Armilla's homes were vacant. This is the same town where more than a third of its residents are unemployed, many facing evictions or already living on the street. The town's leaders saw this as an opportunity.
The city decided to perform an experiment in which its leaders approach landlords and real estate agents to rent out their empty places to local homeless families at dramatically decreased rates. They began negotiating with cautious optimism that goodwill and the fact these homeowners were earning nada off these properties would pose persuasive enough arguments to participate.
"The city needs to reach for the solidarity of the people," says Rafael Muñoz Criado, councilor of Armilla's Education, Housing, Trade and Consumer Affairs.
Spinning off the idea of a food bank, Armilla calls it the Banco de Solidaridad. The local government starts by accepting most of the risk, negotiating and processing the rental contracts. All of this is at no cost to the homeowners, and participants from both sides are completely voluntary.
"Normally, [the new tenants] have to pay for a month['s rent] and deposit, but if the people can't pay for it, then the city can offer a hand with that," Muñoz Criado says. Since the program's inception in March, 25 homeless families have gotten roofs over their heads.
But this small success only serves to highlight the scope of the Spanish housing crisis. As critics of Armillia's program point out, this housing bank barely makes a dent.
Last year alone, Spain saw more than 67,000 court-ordered evictions, forcing people out of homes that will most likely be impossible to fill, joining a pool of more than 3.4 million ghost homes across the country, ample housing for Europe's more than 4.1 million homeless. Yet, these shelters continue to stand empty, as many of them have for six or more years now.
Since there is less demand to fill these homes, the market drives down rental and mortgage prices. While prices have dropped since the Spanish housing bubble burst and the economic crisis began, with this level of unemployment and lower-wage jobs, many families cannot prove long-term economic stability or afford the extra month's rent for the security deposit.
To add to this, with still the highest level of home ownership in Europe at 83 percent, Spain simply does not have a culture or habit of renting.
It's not uncommon in Spain -- due to both inheritance and banks rapidly doling out mortgages during the housing boom -- for a family to own more than one house, which they now cannot afford to maintain. These extra homes in Armilla usually rent for between 300 and 400 euros a month. Spanish minimum wage last year and this year stands at 645 euros per month, making it nearly impossible, particularly for minimum-wage-earning, single-parent households, to pay such relatively high rent.
However, Muñoz Criado explains "normally 200 to 250 euros, these families can afford," like Africa, mother of three, who has never earned enough to pass a financial background check. The city co-signed her lease, offering her new landlord a sort of guarantee that she'll be able to cover her 240 euros per month.
Critics say the Banco de Solidaridad is merely putting a Band-aid on the problem. "We aren't against such measures, but it's clearly insufficient," says Eduardo Pérez, press rep from Stop Desahucios Granada (Stop Evictions Granada.) "Fifteen percent of homes in Armilla are empty while there are many people who need a home. This is a clear violation of human rights and of the Spanish Constitution."
Pérez is referring to Article 47 of the Spanish constitution, which reads: "All Spanish people have the right to decent and adequate housing. The public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and establish appropriate standards to make this right effective, regulating land use in accordance with the general interest to prevent speculation."
Pérez is part of a much larger housing movement across Spain that, as he says, is "claiming other urgent measures that could provide solutions, such as banning evictions and enable empty homes for people who need them can access them with a 'social rent'."
Earlier this year, courts in the city of Terrassa, Barcelona, became the first to fine banks for evicting tenants out of flats that then have stayed empty for two or more years. The fines, at 5,000 euros each, can add up as the three banks under scrutiny shared 725 such cases.
However, the administration of Spanish President Mariano Rajoy has been moving in the opposite direction, changing the law about a year ago to make it even easier for landlords to evict tenants after only ten days late rent, whereas before they needed a court order.
While crises often drive creativity, only now is Spain finally seeing this sort of innovative silver lining in its abominable housing market. Some entrepreneurs are trying to take advantage of a bad situation by offering cheeky tours of Spanish ghost towns, while some municipalities are putting rundown hamlets up for bargain prices to folks willing to commit to years of restoration and tender loving care.
Armilla's "home bank" also acts as a way that the city can help prevent illegal, black market housing, which at the heyday of the Spanish housing boom was estimated to be about 60 percent of all real estate. More than just donating the time to process all the legal and bureaucratic paperwork, the city officials offer property owners a sort of insurance that the tenants will pay on time, while the tenants have a legal contract, ensuring they can't be kicked out on a whim.
Soon, it might not just be local homeowners and real estate offices that are joining in this bank of solidarity. As a next step, the city is approaching financial institutions. "People have a bad perception of banks," Muñoz Criado says, which is why he thinks it'd be a logical public relations move for the biggest owners and repossessors of empty casas to join in the local solidarity. While Spanish banks, or banks in general, aren't necessarily known for their generosity, particularly with housing and mortgage matters, Muñoz Criado and company hope the prospect of making any money on these doomed-empty houses might be enough of a motivator.
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Photos: Ciudad, Spain, courtesy of Deserted Places blog; The rapid expansion, suburbanization and gentrification of what 15 years ago was Spain's rich agricultural sector for what are now nearly uninhabited ghost towns is shown in comparative areal shots. Courtesy of Nacion Rotunda.
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