Spanish fixer-uppers for tenants willing to work


Lots of children dream of their own bedroom. Ten-year-old Judith Rodríguez’s dreams centered on a different room of the house.

“When my daughter first visited the apartment and realized she was finally going to have a bathtub, she almost lost it with happiness,” says her mom, Mireya Rodríguez. “A bathtub had always been her dream.”

It’s the first time this single mother has been able to afford her own place. On a Tuesday morning, Ms. Rodríguez is cleaning and arranging her spacious two-bedroom, which needs a coat of paint and some minor repairs. The upkeep is part of the deal with the landlord, who is accepting rent below market value, $136 per month, in exchange for fixing up the unit. Ms. Rodríguez and volunteers from the nonprofit Todos con Casa, which brokered the deal, are ready to get down to work.

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Todos con Casa, or “A Home for All,” links landlords with people in need of affordable housing. To Todos con Casa, there’s a solidarity in the relationships they’re creating – among landlords, their tenants, and the nonprofit which binds them – and a model that could help other communities.  

According to a Eurostat report, 43% of Spaniards spent more than 40 percent of their earnings on rent in 2016, compared with an average of 28% in the European Union. In July, the government announced a plan to build 20,000 homes for social housing in four to six years. A decade after the global financial crisis, tourism-led gentrification, persistent high unemployment rates, and stagnant wages are accompanying a boom in rental prices. This is forcing tenants out of homes or making it difficult for some to afford an apartment. Nationally, millions of homes stand unoccupied and developments uncompleted, a vestige of the pre-crisis housing construction boom – even as the need for affordable housing grows.

When Spain’s housing bubble burst 10 years ago, Victoria Sánchez lost her job at a real estate agency in Valencia and could no longer afford the apartment in which she and her 8-year-old daughter lived. Ms. Sánchez knocked on doors and left notes in mailboxes, promising to fix up someone’s house if she could affordably rent it. One day, one note was answered.

Ms. Sánchez got back on her feet and found a new job as a real estate agent in Jerez de la Frontera, her hometown. It looked as if she was picking up where she left off. Until she was forced to turn down a single mother as a client because she didn’t have a job contract.

“When I met that woman with a 3-year-old-baby, I saw myself in her. That moment changed my life,” Ms. Sánchez says.

SMALL GROUP, MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE

Todos con Casa soon followed. When an acquaintance told her about an empty apartment, Ms. Sánchez and some friends fixed it up and rented it to someone in need. Since 2015, Todos con Casa has renovated 16 apartments, helping single women, families with children, elderly people, and teenage Moroccan immigrants who had to leave shelters for unaccompanied minors when they turned 18. This month, the association will start working on three more empty houses. In Jerez de la Frontera, a city with the fifth highest unemployment rate in Spain, Todos con Casa tenants pay between $57 and $226, significantly below the average rental here, around $452.

“Some tenants tell me they hadn’t slept in years,” Ms. Sánchez says. “Being able to pay for their own place allows them to feel independent. They become more relaxed, they start looking for jobs with a newfound determination, their children look happy.”

While Todos con Casa’s volunteers clean windows, examine electrical wiring, and measure the rooms of Ms. Rodríguez’s house, she meets her landlord for the first time, thanking him for the opportunity. The apartment belongs to Juan Antonio Palacios, a 42-year-old who moved back in with his parents after he became unemployed. Mr. Palacios reached out to Todos con Casa when his previous tenant didn’t take proper care of the home.

“Todos con Casa is helping me and I’m helping someone,” Mr. Palacios says.

He signed a three-year transfer agreement. “From the start, I tell the homeowners this is first and foremost a solidarity network,” says Ms. Sánchez. “Then it becomes clear it’s extremely important that the two parties meet and hear each other’s story.”

A few landlords have benefited from a unique loophole: In Spain, homeowners on the verge of foreclosure may still rent their property to someone else while the bank has yet to assume ownership, a process that can take two or three years.

Less than a year ago, Todos con Casa received a grant from Cádiz provincial authorities, which allowed Ms. Sánchez to get paid and to hire an assistant. The rest of the team is made of volunteers, all current or prospective tenants of Todos con Casa.

“I believe the biggest strength of Todos con Casa lies in the fact that tenants are also volunteers, fixing the houses where they’re going to live or helping to fix the houses of other tenants. That brings a sense of dignity, instead of a feeling you owe people because of their charity. It’s also about generosity – we receive a lot and give a lot in return,” says Ms. Sánchez, who herself is a Todos con Casa tenant.

Occasionally, the landlords become volunteers as well, like Mr. Palacios. His father has also contacted the association to ask how he could help. And sometimes, homeowners will help tenants find jobs.

AVOIDING EVICTIONS

Todos con Casa acts as an intermediary between tenant and homeowner, making sure the rent gets paid. That isn’t always easy, Ms. Sánchez explains, adding that the nonprofit does not evict tenants.

“I believe opportunities shouldn’t have a limit. When something goes wrong, I sit with tenants and discuss what needs to change. Sometimes, the association pays the landlord in advance. I will never say to a tenant he needs to leave. It will be up to him to figure out he has exhausted all possibilities and can no longer keep the commitment,” Ms. Sánchez says.

In the last few months, Ms. Sánchez has been contacting other housing organizations across Spain in the hope that similar initiatives can foster a national movement demanding change in the real estate and rental markets.

“First, homeowners lost their houses; now tenants can’t find apartments. This needs to stop. I don’t agree with squatters, but if it wasn’t for that movement [of protests after the 2008 crisis], Spain would be facing a civil war over housing right now. The government needs to protect the people the way associations like Todos con Casa is doing,” Ms. Sánchez says.

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