4 Jul 2011

Houses

On average, Australian houses are massive for Spanish standards.


It is obvious that there is much more land available in Australia and that this is in great part the reason why houses are so big but I think there is more to it than that. Australia is not only a wealthier but a more egalitarian country than Spain.

Although it costs a lot of money to buy a house in either of the two countries, buying or renting a place in Spain is unaffordable for a growing number of people.

Politicians and journalists in Spain have been talking about the economic crisis incessantly for the last two years, the situation goes way back.

It is true that some people did quite well in the last decade.   Money was made during that time by developers, real estate agents and politicians happy to sign whatever construction permit was placed in front of them for “a few gold coins”.  Some of this wealth trickled down to the pockets of builders, electricians and plumbers.

However, the fact is that even during this “buoyant” time, the employment rates and the salaries of almost everyone else stayed stagnant. This included nurses, engineers, teachers, manual workers, lawyers and post-doctorate academics that continued to flee the country in search of a better life.

The term “mileurista” was coined in the ‘90s to refer to the increasing group of people who were earning “mil euros” (1000 euros) a month, despite, in many cases, having a college qualification.    

If, to the low salaries, one adds the instability of the job market, things get worse. A lot of my friends get fired every summer and then re-hired at the end of it so that their employers don’t have to pay for their holiday leave. 

Spain’s overall unemployment rate is currently 20% (It was 16% among women and 13% among men when I left the country 11 years ago). In order to encourage employment, this year the head of the Spanish Confederation of Businessmen Organisations  suggested a new type of contract. It was aimed at young people (anyone under 30) looking for their first job and it involved a 6-12 month contract, with no social security paid by the employer and no right to compensation by the employee in case of unfair dismissal. The salary would be “up to the minimum wage”, which in Spain is 633Euros/month. He may as well have suggested slavery.

In this situation it becomes hard to pay the 600 Euros a month that costs renting a 40m2 flat in a modest neighbourhood of Madrid.

To make things more bleak, now that so many people are losing their jobs, more and more families are struggling to pay their mortgages and getting evicted from their homes. However, some are starting to revolt against this situation. 500 people gathered in the neighbourhood of Tetuán, in Madrid, last week, to stop the eviction of a family who lives in a 45m2 flat.

A platform called “People affected by their mortgage” organised the action.

This platform is asking the Government to introduce a change in legislation so that families that haven’t been able to make their mortgage payments and are being evicted no longer have a debt with the bank once they vacate their home. As house prices have plummeted, currently, even after an eviction, the debtor is supposed to continue paying the debt to the bank.

Of course Spain has things to be proud of. We have one of the best health care systems in the world, a very good education system that made college financially affordable for pretty much everyone, and one of the highest life expectancies in the world. But the provision of housing, which according to our Constitution is a fundamental right, is incredibly poor.

In the first fortnight of 2011, 15,450 families were evicted in Spain.

Every day I look at the beautiful houses I walk past on my way to work here in Newcastle and feel a mixture of admiration for what Australia offers and sadness for the fact that so many other people, in Spain and other parts of the world, are so far from enjoying anything similar.