20% of Housing in Spain is Vacant

20% of Housing in Spain is Vacant
And unoccupied homes could rise from 3.1 million to 6 million within a decade
El País: En España un 20% de las viviendas están vacías
Juan Carlos Martínez reporting from Madrid January 8, 2012

More than 5000 census agents for the National Institute of Statistics (INE) take to the streets armed with satchels holding portable devices with optical pens. Their objective is to collect information about the near 26 million existing homes in the country, with which they will produce first the Building Census and then the Popular Census.

They’re taking an X-ray of a decade in which a real estate bubble blew up, and four years ago burst, undermining the growth prospects of the Spanish economy. They’re collecting data for a census which in some months, after the agents’ field work has been refined, will confirm, as much as possible, how 4.6 million homes were built in this period while less than 3 million were purchased. It will clear up doubts about the quantification of new unsold housing stock which drove mad the developers and above all the financial institutions that lent them money for construction and run the risk of not receiving full repayment.

“Although the population data will take priority, we hope the information about buildings and homes will be ready for publication before 2012 is out,” commented NIE’s Subdirector General of Sociodemographic Statistics, Antonio J. Argüeso. At that time one of the most anticipated statistics, the number of empty homes, will be revealed. Such homes are neither principal nor secondary (year-round or seasonal) residences, nor are they rented; rather, they have been shut, bolted, and barred by their proprietors.

Ten years ago, there were 3.1 million empty homes, 15% of those in the census. This time, the number will be, without a doubt, much higher. Given the 1.6 million which have never been bought and which for statistical purposes are considered empty if they are no longer under construction, some sources we consulted hazarded a guess that between five and six million homes are empty, which would be over 20% of all residential real estate. One need only cross the land registry with the census and count the residences in the former which don’t have a corresponding entry in the latter. Logically, no one is living there.

Argüeso did give one contingency: “It’s relatively easy to know if a home is currently occupied or not, but it’s more difficult to know whether it’s occupied seasonally: how do we know which is the vacation home if we are not otherwise informed?”

The resolution of such mysteries depends on the work of the 5000 census agents, who began one month ago. They use a computer program developed by INE which has the data from previous land registries and municipal censuses.

“It’s been a painstaking crossover. There are no problems with the land registry, but the census directories can be inexact, depending on the municipalities’ capacities to confirm the data citizens provide about their homes. So we estimate that 70% of the crosses are perfect, and in some central areas of big cities it can be 90%,” Argüeso said.

In the first phase, that of the Census of Buildings and Homes, the agents’ objective is to compare data recorded on the application with what they encounter on their routes. If they coincide, there are no big problems. They just have to follow the outline provided by the program to fill in the blanks about a home or its premises. If not, the agent has to see which blanks are left over or empty and find a solution.

Some data is easily found with a simple look at the entryphone from the street. Others are not so easy: for example, whether the property has independent stairways to access homes (left-right or inside-outside), whether there are homes in the basement, whether or not a floor is empty, and other curiosities like the year of the building’s construction and whether there is centralized hot water. Sometimes information from the doorman, concierge, or a neighbor who is present is decisive.

“No one has lived there for years,” a doorman said some days ago to a Madrid census agent who was interested in an open mailbox stuffed to overflowing with advertisements and a letter or two, an obvious sign of a vacant home. But sometimes it’s not so clear, and they can’t get adequate assistance from a third party.

According to the census, a home is “a premises that is structurally separate or independent from others, which whether constructed, reconstructed, transformed, or adapted, is conceived with human habitation in mind, or even if not so conceived, has a person habitually living in it at the time of the census,” according to the agents’ manual. Places which were initially residences but are now devoted to other ends are not counted.

There are four categories of family homes: principal or habitual residences; secondary or seasonal residences (such as vacation homes); empty homes (which are never occupied); and residences which are rented in the short term, such as student flats. These last cannot be confused with the schools themselves, which if classified as residences would be collective homes, the same as convents, hotels, and prisons. People in collective residences live together but are submitted to common regimens not based on family ties or convenience.

During the initial field work, the agents run into the part of the work they’ll have to deal with later in the Population and Housing Censuses. Sometimes, after all the blanks are filled in correctly, the application randomly requires that the use of the home be specified. If it’s a principal residence or there is doubt about whether or not it’s occupied, the agent will have to bring the proprietor (by hand or through a doorman or mailbox) an envelope with a census questionnaire he is obliged to fill out.

These samples will bring together three million homes whose owners have been pre-selected for a “mega-sample” providing specific data about 12% of the population. Thus nearly 6 million citizens’ answers will be extrapolated on a national level about the conditions of homes and the people who live in them.

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