The living room is full of toys. Cartoons are on the television. A two-year-old boy is crying while his mother attempts to calm him. In the street, the boy's father spends the morning looking for work. It would be quite the typical 21st-century Spanish home if it were not for the fact that this family is living there illegally. They found the place empty and moved in around a month ago. They cleaned it, installed plugs and fitted radiators. They have bills to prove they pay for water and electricity, but they don't pay rent. And they are not the only people in the neighborhood; the majority of the 70 houses in this Valdemoro estate to the south of Madrid have inhabitants, but only three are legally occupied.
"We don't want to steal anyone's house but we didn't have anywhere to stay and these houses are empty; it's crazy," says the woman, who does not wish to give her name. The family came by the property when they learned that people were squatting in the houses, abandoned for almost four years and stripped by thieves. "We heard that people who were considered normal citizens had been occupying the place. They let us in through the garages. We didn't have to force the door of the house."
The family only receives the 426 euro subsidy for people whose unemployment benefits have expired. Two years ago she worked in administration and her husband was a plumber. "We decided to have a baby because it seemed like the moment. And then we lost our jobs." With no income, the family faced a 130,000-euro mortgage for a 22-square-meter studio flat. They couldn't stop paying because her father was a guarantor. Neither could they live there: "Social services said they could take our child away because it was too small for three people."
"We don't want to talk for fear we'll be kicked out, but we want people to know that we're not scum or slackers. We were middle class before the crisis and now we have to walk with our heads bowed because of the shame." Her husband says they have tried to contact the real estate promoters, Castellana Inmobiliaria, to offer some rent. But the company has disappeared and its phones are disconnected. This newspaper managed to contact Orbis Habitat, a company in the process of liquidation registered in Barcelona to Gregori Ferrer Bertrán and Gregorio Ferran Benítez, who also own Castellana. Orbis declined to comment.
The Valdemoro promotion was an attractive one: 230 square meters on two floors, a garden, loft and two garage spaces. "But only three or four places were sold," says resident Manolo Orellana. "We paid 320,000 euros. But the rest of the houses were laying empty and were stripped by thieves - right down to the solar panels." Orellana says he understands that people are in dire straits but he is angered by some, who have illegally tapped the electricity supply.
Local police chief Alberto Albacete says the authorities are doing everything they can with the legal means available. "When there are people in a property it is legally considered their home and we can't evict them without a court order. We can only ask the promoter to make a complaint, which the town hall is trying to do."
Albacete says the police have been busy since Castellana left the properties to their fate, initially trying to stop robberies and then trying to prevent squatters. But once they are in, they can't be got out. All the police can do is patrol the area.
"Squatters have always been viewed negatively, but with the crisis this view is changing, and society will end up accepting them," says Julio Alguacil, a sociologist who specializes in planning issues and teaches at Carlos III University in Madrid.
We don't want to be here. I lost my job as a mechanic and we had to move out"
However, the neighborhood doesn't appear threatening. Some people have stuck their names on the mailboxes with Scotch tape. Some houses are being done up, like that of Silva, a Brazilian preparing the ground for his wife and child. "We don't want to be here. I lost my job as a mechanic and we had to leave our apartment. I owe three months' rent and will pay it when I can. We've run out of friends who can help us out." He is putting together a bed for his daughter but she can't move in yet because of the cold. "Some nights are really bad," says Silva, pointing to a bed with a bible on the sheets. "You have to guard your spot; there are lots of people looking for somewhere to stay."
Carlos Antonio Leite is in a similar position, repairing a house for his wife and two children. He works at a fitting garage for 700 euros a month; too little, he says, for rent and bills. "Some workmates gave me the cables to get the wiring done inside the house, but it will all be legal. I've already filled in the papers for [power company] Iberdrola."
"The last thing I want to do is steal anything. I just want a normal life," says Silva.
A few feet away from his house, a placard advertises the promoter's pilot property. A green sweater flutters from one of its windows. It has also been occupied by squatters.