Marinaleda in the House

By Jonathan Donald Jenner

Everyone needs housing, and housing is canonized as a human right across many declarations including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Yet across the globe, housing is largely distributed to individuals on markets, from private owners to private buyers.  Private owners have their own rights, which include the ability to exclude and the ability to set the rent too damn high. Save for those who profit from ownership of real estate, we’re all hurting. As we work to stop our hurting, we’ve got to recognize the good work of activists and organizations who are helping out those hurt the most.  But we’ve also got to bring ideas for structural change to the table, and expand our imagination beyond only shoring up the egregious offenses of an unjust system.  One shining example of a structural alternative to housing comes from the small village of Marinaleda, Spain.

Live in a three bedroom apartment for $22/month in Marinaleda, Spain. No joke & no gimmicks – just a municipal government that serves its citizens, not landlords.

First, though, some American context. Homelessness is tricky to measure, but we know that it’s been growing in the US for the past three decades. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated, before the crisis, that 3.5 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness in one year. For the poor, but housed, the situation is also grim: in California, someone making minimum wage needs to work 130 hours over a month (full-time work = 160 hours/month) to pay one month’s fair market rent (see map below). 41 million Americans spend more than 30% of their income on housing. And here’s Matt Schwartz, of the California Housing Partnership, quoted in Bloomberg: “It’s not just techies fighting over $5,000 apartments – the competition at the bottom end is fierce.”

housing, map

From the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Many good people across the country are fighting back: groups like Springfield No One Leaves, who fight to keep people in their homes when faced with bank foreclosure; folks like Valley Open Doors, who, like many communities of faith across the country, work to provide meals and beds for the homeless through the winter; and the people of Utah, who levied the state to house the homeless. These are great programs run by good folks, but they still don’t solve the essential contradiction between the right to housing and the private, market-oriented structure of its delivery.

Marinaleda, a small village in Andalusia, though, has taken the right to housing seriously.  The process for housing in the town works like this (from the town’s website, in Spanish): Any resident who desires housing approaches the town council, and,provided they are willing to provide their own labor to aid in its construction, the town will help them out.  First, the town acquires land to build a house, which is ‘municipalized’ through a process similar to eminent domain law in the US.  The land is given free to the resident, though this must be qualified – the resident has permanent rights to live on the land, but may not sell it or profit off the land in any way.  In other words, land is marshalled by the community to serve housing needs, not the pockets of the rich.  Using local revenue, and with funding from the Andalusian Rural Employment Plan, the town provides an architect and workers for the house, which can be up to 2000 ft2 and includes three bedrooms and a patio. Once built, the town and the resident decide upon a monthly payment for the house – which becomes municipal revenue – and is somewhere around €15 – €20/month ($16-$22).  In a town of 3000 people, Marinaleda has built 350 houses in this manner.

Can you imagine $22/month rent for a three bedroom with a patio? We can’t, really. But we need to start to.  When we take the right to housing seriously, and dis-embed the profit motive from the delivery of human rights, these kinds of things are possible. (In political economy, we’d say that Marinaleda has successfully separated use value from exchange value in housing, a topic frequently discussed by geographer David Harvey).  And Marinaleda is in Andalusia, which has been hit hard by the crisis: there are 690,000 foreclosed properties in the province, and 37% unemployment (compare to full housing and effective full employment in Marinaleda).

The village and its policies didn’t come from nowhere – they’ve been part of a broad struggle for dignified lives for years, led by their communist mayor – Manuel Sánchez Gordillo – since 1979.  They run a big olive oil workers’ cooperative on land they won after occupying the local duke’s land for years. They have led sit-down strikes across the country, and recently raided grocery stores to stock foodbanks in Andalusia.  Here’s some further reading on this wonderful little town:

And here’s Sánchez Gordillo in a 1985 interview with El Pais:

We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word ‘peace’.

Marinaleda has a lot to teach us about housing, but it also has a lot to teach us about everything.

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