Rue Amelot

Madrid To Mexico City, Apartment Shopping In Our Airbnb Age

Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the presentation of his book ''Oye, Trump''
Central Mexico City near Zócalo square.
Alidad Vassigh

MADRID — As a freelancer without a fixed salary, I'm rather desperate to buy a studio apartment, something to help ground me in these turbulent times and provide at least some measure of financial security.

So far my search has focused on two places: Mexico City and Madrid. The former has a well-established reputation for affordability, the latter is just emerging from a major housing crisis. Either way, I figured, I'm bound to find something. Unfortunately, though, I've bumped up against a big new factor in the real estate market: Airbnb and its ilk.

In early 2016, I visited several 30-square-meter apartments in the historic center of Mexico City, near the famous Zócalo square. The asking price, in each case, was the equivalent of about 100,000 euros. Truth be told, that's just about what I can fork over. Still, that's no trifling sum. And if I were to spend that amount of money, I'd like my new digs to be more than a dismal dump.

But while that may be an entirely reasonable expectation, it's not, as it turns out, a very realistic one. As I viewed several units on sale in the same building that day, my spirits sank as I wish prices would have done. The apartments were darkish, rectangular spaces with cheap fittings and no street view. Also, the sleeping areas were positioned about two meters from the neighbor's front door.

Neat, bright little flats, I was coming to realize, are a rare breed these days. And the few that are available are worth their weight in gold. Why? Because of their potential as short term rentals.

Too bad. The building I'd visited was a restored 1930s gem, with a nice elevator, beautiful handrails and door knobs, and even a protocol for trash disposal (a triumph in Mexico!). I was tempted.

The real estate agent followed up a few days later with a phone call. "What did you think of our flats?" she asked. I said I'd have to rearrange the decor and rip up the linoleum flooring, so could pay about 80,000 euros for the nicest of the ones she showed me, which had partial views of a church dome outside. I also told her they'd have to remove the white leather and chrome furniture being sold with the flat, as I had no intention of opening a brothel. No sale there.

Mexico City has long been one of the world's more affordable large and liveable cities. But in the past several years, property prices have soared, in part because of a booming urban economy and increasingly accessible loans market, but also because of the rise of online rentals, which has prompted many to pump cash into property. A report from early 2016 estimated house prices to have risen at about seven times the nationwide rate over the past five to six years.

Across the Atlantic, sales and rental prices are rising again.

The trend shows no signs of slowing down. One online notice I saw recently touted tiny flats (from 15 to 24-square meters) inside a 19th-century mansion that is being restored on Gabino Barreda, also in the city center. The project involves a co-living concept that includes co-working and shared-entertainment spaces. Tellingly, the notice also plugged the flats as "perfect for Airbnb."

Across the Atlantic, in Madrid and Barcelona, sales and rental prices are again rising far above the heads of ordinary folk after several years of recession that led debtor families to be thrown out of their homes, often before television cameras. A small studio in Madrid's Lavapies district, a multicultural, shabby-chic neighborhood on its way to becoming a trendy hipster and gay-friendly district, now exceeds 120,000 euros.

Lavapies neighborhood in Madrid — Photo: Nicolas Vigier

"Foreign investors are snapping everything up," a real estate agent told me recently. "Don't expect to find anything (in the city center) under 150,000 euros." It's probably not fair, but the image that keeps popping into my head is of a blond-haired buyer wearing synthetic anorak and asking prepared questions.

The agent said prices were rising more slowly in Barcelona as the city begins restricting online rentals. Perhaps as a prelude to similar moves, I read last week in El País that Madrid may also restrict and tax these rentals.

In Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, one frequently sees sheets hanging conspicuously from balconies, especially in the historic quarter. Neighbors use the sheets to inform passing authorities of "illegal" rentals inside the building. It's the residential equivalent of taxi drivers trying to smash Uber cars.

It all seems to chime with the restless, speculative nature of life in this era of freelance jobs, financial crises, barmy election results and cockamamy referendums. A studio apartment was supposed to be something of a shield against all of that, a kind of "live-in bank account." Now I may find myself shut out of that too.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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