“Everything is very hard for me, but I want to move forward and I think I am going to succeed,” says Merci Rúa, a 30-year-old woman who is trying to raise two children, one of them disabled, on just €300 a month.
Finding a home was looking impossible in Spain’s booming rental market. But thanks to Victoria Sánchez, the founder of the association Todos Con Casa (Everyone with a Home), she is now sitting on the terrace of her apartment in Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz, Andalusia.
We were living with my grandmother and we had nothing. It’s still hard for me to say that this is my home
Tenant Merci Rúa
For three years, Sánchez’s association has been working in Jerez de la Frontera to help find homes for people who have few financial resources but the “strength and willpower to get ahead by themselves.”
The organization’s eight volunteers fix up apartments left empty by their owners, and in exchange, the owners rent them out at a modest price to people in need of affordable housing. The association has renovated 12 homes so far and rented them out to families with children, elderly people, and immigrants who have had to leave shelters once they turned 18.
“This isn’t a real estate agency. We are not looking for property owners who want to get rich but rather those who have a social commitment,” says Sánchez.
She speaks with the conviction of someone who has gone through the same struggle. Nine years ago, Sánchez lost her job at the real estate agency where she was working in Valencia. She left notes in people’s mailboxes with the message: “I’m Victoria, a single mom with no income, but I promise I will fix up your house if you rent it to me.” One day, someone accepted her offer.
More than 10 companies – most of them local – now collaborate with Todos con Casa
“I learned a lot from that. I know how difficult it is to ask for help,” she says. Thanks to one homeowner’s trust, Sánchez was able to get back on her feet and find a new job in the real estate sector in Jerez de la Frontera. But the experience had changed her: “In the property market, there are people who don’t even get considered because of their appearance or income. I decided to do something about that.”
In May 2015, with help from two friends, she decided to renovate her first home, an empty property belonging to an acquaintance. “It was a self-taught project, watching DIY tutorials on YouTube. We even asked a nearby construction worker to help us fix a wall,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Since then, the initiative has grown stronger thanks to mounting community support. More than 10 companies – most of them local – now collaborate with Todos con Casa. Home-improvement giant Leroy Merlín and cement maker Holcim provide some of the materials they need for their work, while RACC helps with insurance coverage. And after receiving a grant this year from Cádiz provincial authorities, the association is now able to reach more people.
At the moment, the group is sprucing up a one-bedroom ground-floor apartment. They have had to fix the electrical wiring, paint and redo the kitchen. The new tenant is Joaquín Fontiberio, a retiree, who is covered in sweat from tirelessly working on the last details. “The condition is that everyone who wants a home has to collaborate, this couldn’t work otherwise,” says Fontiberio, who has already helped get another home ready for someone else and will volunteer again on a third.
Rent under €200
When the association finishes tidying up the place and putting in the furniture, Fontiberio will pay no more than €200 a month to live there. “It’s something I can afford. With my pension it was impossible to pay €350 or €400, which is the cheapest you can find around here,” he explains.
The affordable rent is made possible because homeowners sign a three-year transfer agreement with Todos con Casa. During this time, the association selects a tenant, acts as an intermediary and ensures that rent is paid to the homeowner.
José Arana has rented his home to a Romanian family for €130 a month. “The previous tenant left the apartment in a terrible state and I decided to join this initiative. Now I charge less than the mortgage payments but I met the tenant and I wanted to help him. I feel happy,” he explains, in reference to Virka Memis, a Romanian man who arrived in Spain 16 years ago.
Memis and his wife Gabriela are both unemployed and struggle to provide for their four children, aged between five and 11. “We go begging just to survive, but the only thing I want is to get a job that will fill the fridge for my children. I’ll do any type of work,” says Memis.
He himself helped repair Arana’s house and has also worked on apartments with Todos con Casa. “We are here to help one another,” he says. Indeed the 32-year-old Memis has developed a close relationship with his landlord. “Pepe [nickname for Jose] is like a friend to me, he even gives me work during harvest when he can. We are very grateful.”
“There are Spaniards who earn €800 and are not happy about it. I’m not asking for that much, just a job to get ahead,” he adds.
Merci Rúa found herself in a similar situation last July. But after helping to renovate a place, she is now enjoying her first home and paying €200 a month. She is hopeful that this is the beginning of “something better,” although she still has a hard time believing her luck: “We were living with my grandmother and we had nothing. It’s still hard for me to say that this is my home.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.