19 November 2010

Rehab? Yes, yes, yes!

In 2002 Alcalá became one of the first towns in Andalucia to launch a programme of Rehabilitación de Viviendas del Casco Histórico, the rehabilitation of dwellings in the historic part of town. The aim of the programme was to restore dwellings deemed unfit for habitation (infravivienda), thus providing quality housing for local people, creating work for local builders and  labourers, and generally improving the appearance and ambience of the old town.    

Because of the way old Alcalá was built, with houses piled on top of and extending sideways into each other, working out the boundaries of individual dwellings created a bureaucratic nightmare for the project manager, Gabriel Almagro, and his team.  To complicate matters further, the Spanish law of succession states that on the owner's death a property is divided equally between his or her children and can't be sold without the consent of all parties.  With families of ten or twelve children common until relatively recently, and the diaspora of Alcalainos across the globe over the past century, it is often impossible to find out who owns a building, let alone trace them.

As well as private housing, the project included the restoration of the 17th century Casa Diáñez on the Plaza Alta,  whose ground floor now contains the administrative offices of the housing programme and the upper two floors will, we are promised, eventually become the town´s museum and exhibition area.

In all, a total of 31 dwellings have been restored.  The first ones were already occupied by tenants, who were rehoused locally while their homes were renovated.   Other formerly empty properties were allocated to low-income households at rents between 100 and 200 euros a month, with an option to purchase at subsidised prices.   

These subsidised dwellings are known as VPOs, Viviendas de Protección Oficial, and they cannot be sold on for profit until after a defined qualification period has elapsed - usually 30 years.  Under the Spanish Constitution, "All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing.  The public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and establish appropriate rules to uphold this right."  After a property boom which led to astronomical house price increases (10% a year between 2000 and 2007), VPOs are virtually the only way for first-time buyers on an average wage to own their own home, unless they can get help from their families.  Demand always exceeds supply, and they are usually allocated on a lottery system.

But there are still an awful lot of empty properties in Alcala.  Some are for sale, but many are just standing there, slowly disintegrating.  Property ownership in Spain is traditionally seen as a means of financial security, an inflation-proof insurance against possible hard times ahead.  So people hang on to property they don't need, rather than sell it and invest the money elsewhere.  These absentee owners should be required by law to maintain empty properties in a state of good repair, failing which a bit of aggressive compulsory purchase by the Ayuntamiento would not go amiss.  We've still got plenty of unemployed builders ...


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