Yes, it is not a misprint: 20$ a month to own a house. The City Council of Marinaleda, a small town on the Spanish province of Seville gives away the land to anyone who needs a house, together with a grant, and in exchange requires that the new owner help work on its construction or pay for someone to do so. Marinaleda’s mayor explains the miracle.
47 year-old Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda and the maker of the miracle that all neighbours have a house practically free of charge.
With his left arm totally extended and the index finger pointed to the line of attached cottages of blindingly whitewashed facades, the mayor of Marinaleda looks like Christopher Columbus pointing out the New World. “There they are,” he says. Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo presents his masterpiece without ceremony.
Journalists have come to this Sevillian town of 2,650 inhabitants to check in situ if it is certain that their neighbours - as if they were members of Astérix and Obélix’s Gallic village - possess the secret of the magic potion able to solve the Spaniards’ most worrying problem, one that is placed even ahead of unemployment according to statistics: housing.
While most Spaniards are wondering if apartments could be made of gold ingot instead of bricks, as the average price of a second-hand house is $282,000 - equal to nine years’ salary - and politicians try to fight the problem by adopting measures as polemic as temporary expropriation of any empty apartment in order to rent it out - such a Bill will soon be approved in Catalonia, in Marinaleda it only costs $20 a month to buy a house. This is not a misprint: exactly 15.52 European Euros including the 50 cents charged by the bank to leave the receipt.
That is to say that the monthly payment of those attached cottages the mayor shows us - 880 square feet distributed in two floors with three rooms, living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and a small terrace plus 980 square feet of courtyard - costs the same price as two movie tickets with its corresponding serving of popcorn, as a one hour singing lesson or a one-way bus trip from Madrid to Salamanca. The same house, but with a courtyard half the size in Villaverde, the cheapest neighbourhood in Madrid, would cost $557,000 and would take a monthly mortgage of about $2,688 lasting 30 years.
“Article 47 of the Constitution,” says Sánchez Gordillo, who believes it is mandatory to remember what such an article states before revealing the mystery of these houses at sales price. He recites it for us by heart while sitting down at its office on City Council. On the wall a portrait of Che Guevara hangs, and the room is presided by an old republican flag (i.e. the flag of the Spanish Republic toppled by Franco after a bloody Civil War). “All Spaniards are entitled to enjoy a decent and appropriate home. Public powers will promote the necessary conditions and will establish the pertinent norms to make this right effective, regulating the use of land according to the general interest to impede speculation. The community will share all increases generated by the urban use of public land.”
The urban policy of this town is based upon these words, says Marinaleda’s mayor. What they are doing, he assures us, is simply to apply to the letter what the top law of the country dictates. “The land to build is a necessity, a right, and it should be a common good as water or air,” and it explains his vision about property. It is practically the same proclamation raised in France by the so-called Children of Don Quixote, a popular movement born to denounce that one million Frenchmen don't have a house, which has succeeded in obtaining a rosary of promises from the Paris government, among which the recognition that housing is a right the same as education or public health, as well as the possibility of suing authorities who don’t provide a roof to persons in need of it.
Therefore, the first step in Marinaleda’s road toward the Utopia of “homes for all for $20” was to obtain municipal land, either buying it or expropriating it, and to declare it suitable for development through public ownership. “All this land belongs to the City Council,” Sánchez Gordillo says, pointing out to an aerial view of the town which measures the equivalent of 40 soccer fields, able to hold about 1,000 homes.
The Council will provide any inhabitant of this community who needs a house the land to build it for free. “Land is about 60% of the final value of a house so by giving it away, its final price is already reduced by more than half,” says this man who has won all seven municipal elections in Marinaleda since the reinstitution of democracy in 1979 and rules there with the popular adoration presupposed to anyone who always holds an absolute majority. A militant of the Collective Unit of Workers (CUT), a branch of the collective United Left, he defines himself as a “leftist, anti-capitalist, utopian, environmentalist and pacifist.”
Once the most expensive part of the deal - the land – was resolved, they looked for free building materials (the regional government, the Junta de Andalucía, contributes about $15,000 for each house) and proposed that the owners help build their future property from the first brick until the last tile. Anyone who wants a cheap house in Marinaleda knows that he or she has to sweat it out by working on it personally or by being substituted by a father or a brother or sister - more distant kinships are not admitted - or either hire a specialist - paying $51 for a day’s work - to do his or her work. Owners are self-constructors.
350 houses in 20 years
The day we visited Marinaleda a handful of bricklayers are drawing on the land the lines marking the place for foundations. Excavations already allow a glimpse of the future layout, a complex of 20 new homes. Since the mid ‘80s when the formula “a home for $20 a month” was launched - then, before the Euro, 2,500 pesetas - 350 houses have been built under these particular conditions.
The cottages now
The construction workers are professional bricklayers hired by the City Council as reinforcement and they teach and help self-constructors and compensate any lack of skill of some of the neighbours with the trowel. These future owners will start working a few days later. None of them will know which one of the 20 attached houses will be his or her until the end, a system that guarantees that all of them work with the same determination in all houses.
This time among the future owners there are many single people. For instance Mari Carmen Gómez, who was born and raised in Marinaleda. This 29 year-old social worker for the City Council, with a monthly salary of $1,290, has been waiting for more than ten years at her parents’ home to build now her own house. Single people have the same requirements as the others: they have to be registered in Marinaleda for at least two years and not have a house, but before they used to be discarded as priority was given to couples. “Four or five of us complained: ‘Listen, we told them, at our age we want to be independent before it is too late’...,” she says, quite eager to get the keys.
This overly long stay at the parental nest for not having a home is endemic among most of the Spanish youth. Spain and Italy are the European Union countries where parents tolerate children at home longer - they become independent at 32 - and so in spite of the fact that it is also the place with the biggest rate of homes in the world: 23,700,600 million, 51 houses per 100 inhabitants.
But contradictions do not stop there. How to understand that there are three million empty houses but construction advances at a frantic rhythm – 500,000 houses in 2004, 800,000 in 2005, 850,000 in 2006... - when the generation of supposed buyers, baptized as “mileuristas” (that is, people who only make 1,000 euros a month, the equivalent to 1,290 US dollars) for their scarce purchasing power, do not have access to them? The cause is this “fucking speculation,” says undiplomatically Sánchez Gordillo. “In Spain people do not buy houses to live in but to speculate, they buy for 5 and sell for 30.” [37% of the Spaniards know of somebody who has bought and sold a house just for business].
At first sight, Marinaleda seems armoured against profit with urbanism. City Council sends packing all construction builders who call asking for land to build due the enormous demand of British citizens eager to live near the Malaga coast - only 62 miles away: “Here there is no land, zero land,” is the reply they get without further detail.
Even if the land, the materials, all manpower and the project - carried out by the municipal architect, - are free, all houses have a fixed final price of $48,040. This is the amount that theoretically the owner should pay for the cottage.
To this total amount the City Council subtracts the days a self-constructor has worked at building his/her house. The Carmonas, for instance, who pose smiling in front of their home jingling the keys they received two years ago, “invested” 400 workdays. At $51 a day of work, they got rid in an instant of $21.400 from the debt. So they owe $26,640.
But as their monthly bill is $20 ($240 a year), they will need about 111 years to pay the total cost of the house. Until then, the Carmonas won’t have in their hands the title deed crediting them as owners nor will they be permitted to sell it until 2117. The idea is that their children inherit the legacy: both the debt of $20 a month and the cottage.
With a monthly wage of $1,935, the Carmonas - José Antonio, a 34 year-old bricklayer and María Dolores, a 31 housewife - who have a six year-old girl and are about to have a second child, live a comfortable life just impossible in another place. Talk about that to Juanjo and Mercedes, a couple from Madrid, 38 and 35 years old: he is a computer programmer and she is a clerk. With $3,870 of joint monthly salary they pay $645 mortgage instalments for their 600 square feet flat bought in 2001 and use the rest for their family, which includes a son, to live. But now that they just had twins and she has to stop working they will have to pack and leave in search of some Marinaleda.
31 year-old single mother Ana, a city council clerk, makes a $645 a month salary which does not even suit her in this town where housing is a bargain. She can’t build her cottage and has no relatives who could do it for her, nor money to pay for a substitute. The mayor has calmed her down: “Don't worry, we will see how we fix yours.”
From his top hat he always picks up a solution adapted to the circumstances of each one. Otherwise, 48 year-old Jesús Díaz, married and a father of two children, would not have a house. Crippled in his left leg by a childhood poliomyelitis and with a $385 disability allowance a month, he wasn’t able to work nor to pay somebody for himself. So he was allowed to act as a night watchman. Today he is the proud owner of number 52 at Pepe el Gallo neighbourhood. “I think we don’t value here what we have, hope we never lose it...,” he says pointing at his house.
Sánchez Gordillo guides us on the way to the houses.
“Let’s turn over there, we’ll go by Che Guevara square.”
“To the left?”
“Of course, to the left. If it was to the right we couldn’t have put it such a name,” he jokes.
All the streets of Marinaleda changed their denomination in 1979. General Mola changed to Boabdil; General Sanjurjo became Federico García Lorca; Franco’s square turned into Salvador Allende... An offended rightwinger showed up in town and fired some shots. The façades are punctuated by coloured posters with slogans as “Marinaleda is fighting for peace,” “Turn off your TV and light up your mind” or “I love you free” inside a symbol representing a woman.
In order to understand the miracle of houses at $20 a month, it is necessary to know the peculiarities of municipal politics whose cornerstone is the assemblies. All matters - budgets, housing, and employment - are subject to the verdict of people who vote by a show of hands during the 100 general assemblies that take place every year. A good part of the local economy rotates around the popular cooperative, installed at a town property where they grow and pack artichokes, peppers and other vegetables. In fact the property belongs to the Duke of Infantado but the people of Marinaleda began exploiting it after years of strikes and occupations.
Even though the town’s per capita rent doesn't top $9,300 by person/year and 800 of its 2,650 inhabitants live on the subsidy the regional government pays to temporary agricultural workers. It is precisely on that dependence from public funds where experts see Marinaleda’s weak point and the impossibility of exporting its urban plan model to the rest of Spain. “These place’s experiences have to be observed with a lot of caution. They are usually societies that survive artificially thanks to grants. Their well-being is fictitious,” explains Gregorio Izquierdo, director of the Institute of Economic Studies. “In fact the original owner of the land who was expropriated at a lower value than that of the market is subsidizing the acquisition of houses by the rest of people.”
“This model is not exported because of an absence of political will. They really are not interested,” retorts the mayor.