Until shortly after the start of the pandemic, Alimentación Corcobado was a family supermarket located at number 2 Calle del Olmo. After the retirement of its owners, well known for delivering their purchases to the older neighbors in the vicinity, the premises they occupied have been converted into accommodation for tourists.
Like Corcobado, at least another 350 businesses in Lavapiés have been transformed into homes, without having the corresponding change of use license to do so, since 2018. It was on that date that a small group of residents in the area began to observe , investigate and denounce this phenomenon of loss of commercial fabric that, according to what they indicate, began to become visible in 2015 to accelerate alarmingly four years ago and that, after a small stoppage forced by the coronavirus, has been activated again.
Throughout these years, the aforementioned neighbors, who act in a network and prefer to remain anonymous, have compiled a detailed catalog of premises at street level now converted into accommodation and from the monitoring carried out on them, they also conclude that 90 % of them are currently offered as homes for tourist use (VUT), an activity that they carry out illegally as they lack the necessary license.
That catalog picked up on a map like the one shown below, allows us to get a clear idea of the magnitude of what these neighbors denounce, a reality that for the Madrid City Council does not officially exist, it is not aware of it.
(Enlarge the map and click on each of the marked points for details, location and, in some cases, also photographs)
The information that the aforementioned neighbors have been collecting has given rise to complaints both in Urban Planning of the Central district, due to the de facto change of use of the premises, and in the Activities Agency (dependent on the Department of Urban Development) in all the cases in which they have been able to contrast the offer of the old premises on vacation rental platforms.
However, their work has been of no avail, at least so far. With most of the files that were opened thanks to their complaints already closed -they assure that due to administrative inactivity during the pandemic-, they have to reactivate case by case, both those before and those that continue to be produced daily.
In those they are: they refuse to let their neighborhood run out of proximity businesses before presenting a battle. They say that their way of life is at stake in a game that they are losing by a landslide due to the slowness of a bureaucracy that does not make it easy for them and some politicians who “could do more to ensure that the law is complied with, because legislation on the topic exists.”
A difficult process and not always possible from legality
In summary, it can be said that in order to convert a premises into a home, a long administrative path has to be followed -which in the Central district of the capital usually takes years- and that there are many premises that will never be able to achieve it due to their own characteristics.
In order to qualify for this, the premises must have a minimum of 38 square meters (25 m2 to make a study), not be below street level or even a few steps, have three or more meters of facade and a minimum height between 2.20 and 2.50 meters; have ventilation and natural light holes equivalent to 12% of its surface, in addition to the fact that the neighboring communities in which they are located do not prohibit it in their statutes.
Then, although the transformation can start with a mere declaration of responsibility, municipal technicians must verify that the changes made are in accordance with current legislation, after which a first occupation license must be requested, a notary certify the change of use in the deeds of the property and leave a trace of all this both in the property registry and in the cadastre.
As if that were not enough, it must be taken into account that the vast majority of buildings located in the old quarters of cities have some type of Heritage protection. Those of Embajadores-Lavapiés have it, so legally modifying any element of a façade is very complicated.
A reality that officially does not exist
According to data from the Madrid City Council, as of July 1, 2021 in Embajadores there would be 2,857 premises, being the neighborhood of the Centro district with the largest number of them, of which 1,494 were shops and 547, hospitality establishments. The rest would have different uses. According to the neighbors, statistics and reality differ.
Urbanismo de Centro, between January 2015 and December 2021 and in the entire district, not only in the Embajadores neighborhood, only knows that 106 premises completed their change of use to housing: “five in 2016; 12 in 2017; 14 in 2018; 13 in 2019; 28 in 2020 and 34 in 2021”. A clearly upward trend but insignificant according to official data that has little to do with reality.
Along the same lines, from the Department of Urban Development of the Madrid City Council they report that “in 6 years (since 2015) the changes in use throughout the city do not reach 3% of the premises”.
Anyone who walks through the streets of Embajadores-Lavapiés might think that, based on the many metal shutters that they will find lowered in the area during business hours, there are a large number of available premises waiting for tenants willing to open a business in them. Well, they exist, they exist, but the dimension of that perception is false.
The methodology that the residents of the neighborhood apply to detect premises transformed into housing and premises transformed into housing and dedicated to tourist rental is simple: on the one hand they constantly step on some streets that are known as the back of their hand and, on the other, they browse the internet looking for tourist housing ads.
After that work comes the one of photographing the works that are produced in the premises, the disappearance and appearance of doors in facades that are usually protected, the changes of windows, the placement of air conditioners and smoke outlets…
Next, they make written inquiries to Urbanism about the cataloging of each premises and proceed to collect links to the ads found on vacation rental platforms.
With all this material they build the documentation that serves to substantiate the complaints they present to the relevant agencies.
“In some cases the de facto change of use of a premises is very obvious because it is preceded by works that affect the elements of the facades, in others it is only necessary to look at how the shutters of the shops remain closed in perpetuity no matter how long , frequently, they stay up to the signs that indicate that there is a bookstore or a food store there. If ventilation holes suddenly appear in a closure, be suspicious.”
“Try calling the phone numbers of the supposed plumbing on Calle Salitre to see if you can give a notice so that someone can come and fix a tap for you,” they challenge. Picked up the glove, the aforementioned phones are not operational.
Causes and consequences: gentrification, speculation and touristification
Pablo Martínez, urban planner and researcher at the National University of Distance Education (UNED) does not beat around the bush and points to terms such as gentrification, speculation and touristification to explain the phenomenon of the change to housing from commercial premises that is taking place in a intensive in the centers of some of the main cities, with the case of Embajadores-Lavapiés as a clear exponent. All of this seasoned with a “neglect of public policies when it comes to analyzing and acting on these processes” and with Airbnb and the rest of the vacation rental platforms acting as catalysts and accelerators, he indicates.
Martínez, who, along with 10 other researchers from the ‘Like a local’ project, is preparing for the next June 23 and 24 a congress in Lavapiés -of free attendance- on the effects of tourism on local communities, seeks sociological explanations for the urban effects observed in cities and catalogs the disappearance of the local commercial fabric, “the one used by common people”, as part of everything that makes the “urban habitability” of certain areas increasingly difficult, where “finding services” is complicated, “socialization spaces disappear”, “the way residents relate to space, the city and the neighbourhood” and all this has as a consequence that the inhabitants abandon their traditional homes.
“The dynamics of daily life are replaced by a commodification of the city related to tourism,” he points out.
For the neighbors, a smaller number of residents living in the touristic city centers -whether in converted premises or in the hundreds of tourist flats that are in the neighborhood’s residential buildings- is a smaller number of clients for traditional commerce, which makes it more profitable to transform premises into homes and make them available to tourists.
If this reality is met with “the desire to accumulate capital of those who manage the VUTs,” according to Martínez, we are talking about a “cannibalistic situation” that transforms the people who live in the neighborhoods and their way of life.
“A tourist does not buy in a haberdashery, so the mantra put forward by those who claim that tourism helps revitalize neighborhood commerce is false. The only thing it does is standardize the businesses that exist in any city and drive out traditional stores. Those who visit Madrid do not seek traditionalism but shops where they see themselves reflected”, he concludes.
For this researcher, housing for tourist use “does away with neighbourhoods”, both with its neighbors and with its businesses. Through his work and that of his colleagues, he intends to empirically demonstrate what is happening, with the aim that his studies can influence the decision-making of municipal officials.
Pablo Martínez believes that “through public policies and neighborhood fabric” it is possible to reverse the process we are talking about.
For their part, the residents who have been denouncing what is happening in their neighborhood to the administration for years affirm that “being surrounded by tourists leads to uprooting.” They do not consider themselves victims of what is happening in their streets, but define themselves as “survivors” who are not going to allow this phenomenon to corner them.
“We fight and we will fight until we have to leave, but not before demanding that the authorities listen to us, that they know our name and the problems that affect us and that they stop considering us as the mere file number generated by each of our complaints”.
In Madrid, authorizations for the change of use of premises to housing are the responsibility of the districts. In the Center they assure that they carry out inspections both ex officio and when there is a complaint involved and that “if a premises does not have the corresponding title that allows it to make the change of use, a file is initiated to restore legality”,
How many inspections of this type and records have been made in the Central district in recent years? “The district does not have that data. We would have to look at file by file”.