Gentrification in Madrid – are higher rent prices killing the city?

February 12, 2018

Is gentrification a problem in Madrid?

Maybe, or maybe not. Depends on who you ask.

Here’s the deal…

A few years ago I moved to a new neighborhood.

My flat is on a small street in Tetuán, an area I had barely visited before moving there.

And I immediately noticed something strange.

Two blocks to my right, I have fancy steakhouses, 4-star hotels, bars with exquisite design, overpriced cocktails and “a concept”.

Two blocks to my left, the neighborhood changes fast: I’ve got a Paraguayan dive bar, a couple of dingy massage places, some really run-down buildings.

Actually, one of the neighboring apartment blocks spontaneously collapsed a couple of years ago… now only its skeleton remains, waiting to be turned into something else.

Besides the run-down houses, the barrio is full of those old-timey businesses of the type where an elderly shopkeeper stands behind a counter all day, giving awful customer service and waiting for some retirees to come in and buy a girdle or a pair of orthopedic loafers.

It’s old-school AF, and I like it that way.

gentrification in madrid
This building just collapsed one day. And the ones next door don’t look so good either. Barrio de Tetuán, Madrid.

In any case, my block is right in the middle.

“On the front lines of gentrification”, commented one friend when he came to visit.

However, in the years I’ve been in the barrio, that line doesn’t seem to have moved at all.

The dive bars are still going strong. The girdles are still flying off the shelves of the tiny shops on Bravo Murillo. There seems to be little new construction.

Little gentrification of any kind.

But is that the whole story of gentrification in Madrid?

Probably not…

Rent prices around the city recently hit an all-time high – even higher than the peak of the real estate bubble in 2008.

But is it gentrification?

Let’s see…

I’ve got a couple of definitions for gentrification here.

Wikipedia says: Gentrification is a process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents.

Oxford Dictionaries says: The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.

I guess that sounds about right.

However, when I see people talking about gentrification in Madrid, their arguments seem to be along the lines of “I can’t afford a studio in Malasaña, and a couple of old man bars have recently closed, so it must be gentrification.”

Funny thing, though…

I’ve been in town for more than a decade now, and I could never afford a studio in Malasaña.

Back in the day, I couldn’t even afford a tiny room in a shared dump anywhere central.

What’s a guy to do?

I ended up living in Vallecas. It was a good experience, all told. I stayed there for about 7 years, right up until I moved to Tetuán.

So…

While it’s true that Malasaña was once untouched by gentrification, that time was probably long before you got here. Say in the 80s or early 90s, during the movida. Or maybe before – maybe the movida was the first wave of gentrification.

In any case, back when I moved here in ’04 it was nothing like now, but it was still the coolest barrio we had.

(By the way, don’t even get me started on Chueca. If your heartfelt piece on gentrification doesn’t mention Chueca, you can – as the serious sociologists say – suck it.)

Is any neighborhood in Madrid still untouched by gentrification?

Some people, of course, are quite worried about what they see as the problem of gentrification in Madrid.

They’re looking for “untouched” neighborhoods so they can wander around and say “Ah, so this must be the authentic Madrid experience… Real, old-fashioned Spanish lifestyles!”

However, everything we now see in Madrid is gentrified as hell compared to a few decades ago.

Lemme say it again: gentrified as hell.

Chueca used to be the kind of place you wouldn’t go at night without fear of being stabbed. Around the 80s, I think that was.

And Lavapies was the worst of the working-class areas, where people lived in poverty in the corralas.

When people think of untouched Madrid, they’re probably thinking of something quaint that looks like it’s still the 90s – certainly not something that looks like it’s trapped in the 40s.

Because the 40s sucked.

And compared to the 1940s, even my neighborhood must seem like a paradise of gentrification: no more sharing the street with herds of sheep, indoor plumbing in every building, air-con in the bars.

But that’s also a product of large-scale social progress in Madrid and Spain.

Compared to several decades ago, there are millions more middle class people than there were. Here and in every other country in Europe. And so, logically, the cities have improved across the board.

And where are the new middle-class people supposed to go? Not to huddle around a wood fire in some casas bajas, that’s for sure.

Anyway…

Contemplate something for me, just for a minute

Imagine you’re living in my neighborhood, and you’re thinking of opening a business. (I’ve thought about it more than once, but prefer being a digital nomad.)

In any case, if you opened a business in Tetuán…

Would you make it worse than other nearby businesses, to avoid gentrifying the area? Or would you try to make it better?

Would you open up a new old-man bar? Or would you make it somehow gastro and hipster, to appeal to a younger crowd that’s not pinching pennies on a pension?

cuatro torres madrid four towers
These four towers are a symbol of the new Madrid. Cuatro Torres Business Area.

And what about if you’re building houses?

Are you going to spend your time and money building some dump that nobody will want to live in? Or are you going to improve on what’s already there so you can charge competitive prices?

If you’re a landlord, are you going to keep renting out a flat at prices from 20 years ago? Only if you’re an idiot or obliged to by law.

The old-school bars are closing, of course. But that could well be because their owners are retiring. Most small businesses aren’t intended to last multiple generations, and your corner bar is probably no exception.

On the other hand, the old-school houses are simply falling down – or being demolished once they become unliveable.

In their place: new construction. New buildings, which “conform to middle class tastes”.

So is gentrification killing Madrid?

Maybe…

But the idea that prices are going to stay low forever – and that nothing’s going to change – is a bit naive. If you want to read more about that, check out this article in the New Yorker: Is gentrification really a problem?

Like with the debate over tourism killing Spain, I can’t think of much of a solution to gentrification either way. (Prohibit people from moving? Control rent prices? That would just raise other problems.)

And as the New Yorker article points out, gentrification is complicated and not even sociologists really understand how it works.

Any neighborhood at any given time is getting better, or getting worse. Getting more expensive, or getting cheaper.

And here in Madrid, I’m sure rent prices are going to go up a bit more before they hit the top.

But then again, I remember those 7 years of economic crisis, when pawn shops were popping up everywhere, local housewives were turning tricks to pay the mortgage, and my neighbor practically begged me to rent her daughter’s 3-bedroom flat for 365€ a month.

(It was a dump, and I didn’t. But still. At that price I was tempted.)

Anyway, I was here for the crisis.

And believe me, kiddo… watching the economy collapse around you for several consecutive years was no fun.

No fun at all.

Despite the fall in rent prices.

That’s all I’ve got for today.

I’m out,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What do you think about gentrification in Madrid? Do you have any specific stories to share? Hit me up, right here in the comments… Thanks!

P.P.S. It’s also possible that I’m part of the problem here. Am I gentrifying Tetuán with my big ginger beard and my middle-class tastes? I’m not sure. I’m actually kind of proud to have finally reached the middle class in a country where salaries are generally low. But I still have no urge to pay Malasaña prices. So I guess I’m up here gentrifying things. Oh well.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Another great article Daniel, bringing back memories of when I was living there. I haven’t been back since 2005.

    Best,

    Bonnie

  2. “If you’re a landlord, are you going to keep renting out a flat at prices from 20 years ago? Only if you’re an idiot or obliged to by law.”

    Maybe we could write a similar sentence about job salaries:

    “If you’re an employee, are you going to keep salaries at prices from 20 years ago? Only if you’re an idiot or obliged to by law.”

    Well, it might be the case. Before euro earning 200k pesetas a month was a good salary. As it is now.

    Maybe it´s not that rent prices are skyrocketing in Madrid, maybe salaries are not accompanying those rent prices. In a small town like my hometown (Salamanca) earning around 1k or 1.2k euros a month makes you a middle-class person who can afford to rent a flat by your own. Try that in Madrid.

    Salaries in Madrid (or Barcelona) are not getting the bump that other big cities are getting in other countries. If you work in SF or NYC you make more money by average because the cost of living is very high.

    1. Yeah, that’s very true. The data I’ve seen says that the average salary is still lower than pre-crisis, whereas rents are higher. I’m not sure about the peseta days but I’ve noticed no improvements in salaries in the 13 years I’ve been here. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Hola Daniel
    La palabra gentrificación, palabra que la RAE curiosamente recomienda sustituir por “ elitización” o “ aburguesamiento” y creo que estas dos palabras en castellano dicen mucho del carácter de esta actuación, se refiere al proceso de revalorización de un barrio de clase obrera y generalmente céntrico que posteriormente vera desplazada su población original por otra de mayor nivel adquisitivo. Es decir, una zona, generalmente degradada, con una población sin muchos recursos económicos (como el barrio de Lavapiés original) se rehabilita para dejar paso a otro sector de la población.

    Nada que objetar si la gentrificación se limitase a proporcionar mejores infraestructuras y servicios a un barrio carente o falto de ellos y así aumentar la calidad de vida de sus vecinos, pero desgraciadamente no es así. Una vez el barrio se mejora, mágicamente comienzan a llegar cadenas hoteleras que construyen hoteles para turistas y se sustituye el comercio tradicional, esos viejos vendiendo fajas y zapatos ortopédicos, que da vida al barrio por otros de diseño en los cuales no sabes muy bien que se vende y los bares sencillos son sustituidos por locales donde es posible tomar té hecho con agua pura de la Antártida pero no una simple caña. El barrio se hace famoso y acaba apareciendo en los “must see” de los blogs y revistas de viajes. Esto lleva a que los habitantes originales sean sustituidos por nativos que quieren vivir en un barrio de moda y por turistas que se alojan en los nuevos hoteles o en bloques de viviendas de los que se ha echado a sus habitantes de toda la vida, ya sea por lo civil o lo criminal. Estos bloques posteriormente son rehabilitados y ofrecidos en alquiler en paginas cómo AirbnB pervirtiendo el sentido original de esta última. Por último consigues un barrio sin vida propia, artificialmente mantenido por turistas y una población que no siente el barrio como suyo. No estoy en contra de que los barrios se modernicen y mejoren, quien puede estar contra eso, pero si a que esto provoque un cambio en su mayor parte artificial en las fisonomías sociales, culturales y demográficas de los barrios. Un cambio que bajo mi modesta opinión tiende a uniformar la ciudad y implica pérdida de diversidad humana y social. Y no es algo que solo ocurra en Madrid, si no que es algo que observo en todas las ciudades que he tenido la suerte de visitar.

    Te puedo hacer una pregunta Daniel ¿ No crees que la gentrifficacion está llevando a que todas las ciudades del mundo se parezcan?. En todas, encuentras las mismas tiendas para adolescentes, las mimas marcas de comida rápida, los mismos tipos de comercio basados en el consumo por el consumo.

    Como siempre gracias y perdón por la extensión

    1. Hey Julio, yes, I think gentrification is happening everywhere. And you could just as easily call it “progress”. Anyway, they’ve been talking about the gentrification of Lavapies for about 10 years, and I still think it sucks. Tetuán doesn’t have much “aburguesamiento” yet either. Thanks for commenting!

      1. ¿En serio crees que Lavapiés no se gentrificado en estos últimos 10 años?. Hagamos un experimento bajando por la calle Embajadores, tiendas que venden al peso cereales de todo tipo y de cualquier lugar, desde quinua andina a trigo malayo crudo, barberías para hipsters, librerías especializadas en libros ilustrados, bares de diseño, el propio mercado de San Fernando. O el hotel que se está construyendo en la mismísima plaza de Lavapiés. Sin hablar de la brutal subida de los alquileres. Sabes que a unas amigas mías, les querían cobrar 60 € por un agujero de 30 metros cuadrados en un 4 sin ascensor. Se de vecinos que se quejan de que sus vecinos han desaparecido y que ahora solo se cruzan en la escalera con turistas, es verdad que no llevan barba pelirrojas
        Si es verdad que por su propia idiosincrasia es un barrio muy luchador y resistente pero ….
        Siempre es un placer leerte

  4. Very interesting article ! I have been living in Malasaña for a year now and I need to find a new flat… which will certainly not be in Malasaña because of the huge rise of rents 🙁 I am sad about it but you are right: it is a good thing for Madrid to experience a growth, let’s just hope that salaries will rise as well…
    Regards,

    Marine

  5. Daniel, you bring up some excellent points, and questions.

    I can’t help but feel that those rallying against gentrification, are all too often against an aesthetic, rather than helping solve any sort of social problem. People getting upset about things changing, certain bars closing, makes me think of how many middle class background expats have a tendency to fetishize the “authentic Madrid” which is really just the working class and it’s trappings.

    1. Yeah Veren, it’s easy to fetishize a working-class lifestyle you’ve never lived, and to go around taking photos of other people’s “authentic” lifestyles… probably harder to actually scrape by in a crumbling house for a few decades. Thanks for commenting!

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