How Spain is betting on cohousing for its elderly and low earners

The Spanish government wants to invest in cohousing buildings where people of all ages live under the same roof and share common spaces, a dignified way for the eldery to avoid loneliness and a cost-effective form of social housing for those struggling to pay their rent.

cohousing spain
It’s important to distinguish between coliving, which involves sharing bathrooms and the kitchen, and cohousing, where only common living spaces are shared. Photo: LOIC VENANCE/AFP

Spain is renowned for being a very social country where people, young and old, get together outdoors to enjoy each other’s company and pass the time.

But this shared living concept has never been as prevalent when it comes to housing arrangements, with 65 percent of Spaniards in individual flats and 4.8 million people (a tenth of the population) living by themselves.

Enter cohousing, which can be called vivienda colaborativa in Spanish even though the English terminology is preferred, an arrangement that sees residents in a building have their own private accommodation but share common spaces such as the kitchen, laundry or other living areas. 

The Spanish government’s 2022-2025 State Housing Plan includes a proposal to boost this cohousing model through financial aid and a 20-year lease for the tenants, considering that this cooperative living arrangement “enables greater integration and a closer relationship between tenants”. 

What it could mean in practice is people of all ages living under the same roof in a building which resembles university dorms.

They cook together, watch a film together, play board games together, but then have their own rooms or small apartments to retreat to. 

According to Spain’s Ministry of Urban Agenda, existing cohousing spaces in Spain and other EU countries are already proving to be a success, and the model could help to partly solve the country’s housing problems, where rising rents and property prices are making it harder than ever for people to find a home. 

Collaborative living in Spain so far has mainly been created for the elderly as a way of preventing loneliness (2.1 million over-65s in Spain live alone), to create a sense of community and to share energy bills and other expenses such as doctors’ visits. 

What hasn’t been tested yet is how the cohousing model would work if tenants of different ages and backgrounds were all housed in the same cohousing unit, with some experts considering it could lead to confrontations due to generational differences.

Reader question: Can I move into a Spanish care home as a foreigner?

It therefore seems more likely that the cohousing model for the elderly will be promoted mainly as an alternative to care homes, one which offers them more dignity and independence if they are able bodied and the possibility of growing old together. 

Cohousing could also serve to house temporary agricultural workers in Spain, most of them foreign and poorly paid, and who often struggle to find or can’t afford to rent decent housing during their time in the country.

It’s important to distinguish between coliving, which involves sharing bathrooms and the kitchen, and cohousing, where only common living spaces are shared.     

Spain’s government is currently seeking to pass legislation which would bring a series of major changes to the country’s housing laws, from price freezes to €250 rental allowances for young low earners (already approved), big tax hikes on empty homes, rent caps and last but not least, more social housing.

Under the proposals, thirty percent of new builds will have to be social housing projects meant for rental, Spain’s new housing law states, a decision which still has to be approved by the Spanish Parliament. 

Spain has the lowest amount of social housing in the EU with 290,000 units, only 1.1 percent of all properties in the country. 


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Squatting in Spain: Which regions have the worst ‘okupa’ problems? 

Squatting grew by 18 percent in 2021 in Spain, an illicit trend born from the country's housing issues and which sees many 'okupas' (squatters) exploit Spain's lenient legislation. Here are the regions which have the biggest number of squatters as well as differing opinions on how serious Spain's squatting problem really is.

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A graffiti on a rooftop in Barcelona reads "Occupy and resist". Catalonia and Barcelona province in particular have the biggest number of squatters, according to government dataPhoto: Makunin/Pixabay

Squatting has been a highly divisive issue in Spain in recent years.

On the one hand, there are more than 3.4 million empty properties across the country (according to the latest government census) and an increasing number of Spanish families can’t face high rents or pay mortgage payments in an unstable job market. 

On the other hand, critics say there are too many legal obstacles which hinder squatters’ speedy eviction, which okupas who are not necessarily struggling financially are well aware of and duly exploit.

And it’s not just millionaires and investment companies who have been locked out of their properties, but ordinary people who have worked hard to buy a second home.

Even though squatting has been around in Spain long before the pandemic, the data suggests that the problem got worse last year. 

In September 2021, there were a total of 13,389 okupaciones (illegal home occupations) across Spain, according to the latest Interior Ministry stats, an 18 percent rise in the first eight months of the year. 

This increase coincides with the Spanish government’s decision in January 2021 to give greater protection to the country’s squatters while the state of emergency was ongoing, especially for those who had occupied properties owned by banks or large property owners, and if the squatters were deemed to be low earners or had a minor in their care. 

Where in Spain is squatting worse?

Catalonia continues to be the region with the highest number of okupas, with the 5,689 properties that are illegally occupied according to the Interior Ministry’s report, accounting for 42 percent of the total nationwide. The rise in squatting in Catalonia between January and September 2021 was 9 percent and the province of Barcelona accounts for 4,229 of the okupaciones

Andalusia in southern Spain saw an 11 percent increase in squatting between January and September of last year and now has 1,994 houses taken over by squatters. Ansalusian authorities have recently banned okupas on police records from being able to buy subsidised housing (VPO) in the southern region.

The Community of Madrid has the third highest number of properties with squatters in them with 1,282 cases, following a 24 percent rise over the first eight months of 2021. 

In Castilla-La Mancha, which now has 606 illegal occupations, the trend has grown by 31 percent, in Murcia with 476 cases it went up by 69.5 percent in 2021, in the Balearic Islands the total of 407 okupaciones comes after a huge rise of 73.9 percent, and the Canary Islands has 406 occupied homes, although the rate fell by 14.3 percent.

Other regions with a smaller number of squatters have also seen big proportional increases in 2021: Castilla y León now has 239 cases (+62.6 percent), Aragón has 202 illegal squats (+33.8 percent), the same as in the Basque Country (+16.1 percent); Galicia has okupas in 147 properties (+8.1 percent), Extremadura has 116 (+46.8 percent ) and Navarra 100 (+44.9 percent), and the rest of Spain’s regions have under 100 occupied homes.

The Spanish Interior Ministry’s Statistical Crime System (SEC) has been monitoring squatting cases in Spain since 2015, and according to their data, the problem was worse seven years ago than it is now, as their records show there were 22,461 occupied homes in 2015 compared to 13,389 by September 2021.

But according to Spain’s National Organisation of People Affected by Squatting (ONAO), a group created in 2020 to face the “unstoppable advance” of “this criminal phenomenon”, the government is vastly underreporting the actual number of homes being occupied in Spain.

ONAO estimates there are as many as 120,000 properties occupied by squatters across Spain at present.

Squatting, they believe, affects over a million Spaniards, and is a trend on the rise at a rate of 40 new squats reported a day in the last year.

“Squatters in Spain used to belong to far-left groups, anarchists who occupied homes for ideology. There was also a small group of poor, vulnerable people who squatted out of necessity and lack of help from the government,” ONAO president Toni Miranda told Spanish daily 20 minutos. 

“But with the Spanish government’s changes that favour squatting, criminal mafias have joined in to profit from invading homes and charging rent”.

Government data reveals that in 2020 alone, there were 14,675 complaints filed with police in Spain involving misappropriation and breaking and entering cases by squatters, somewhat calling into question the Interior Ministry’s total figure of 13,389 home occupations in Spain currently.

It’s also important to factor in on how long homes remain illegally occupied for. There’s a growing number of asesorías de okupación, anti-squatting ‘consultancy’ businesses that help clients get the squatters out of their homes without having to take the matter to court. 

These anti-squatting services are proliferating and are now present in cities such as Murcia, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza, among others.

Incidentally, there is also a growing organised underground network of ‘squatter offices’ (known in Spanish as a oficinas de okupación) that actually offer legal and practical advice for those wanting to occupy a property.

According to Spanish sociologist and author Emmanuel Rodríguez, Spain’s squatting problem isn’t as bad as it’s been portrayed in the media, claiming instead that police stats reveal that the majority of occupied homes in Spain belong to banks and that higher home ownership rates in the country make the problem appear more serious than elsewhere in Europe.

“Fear of home occupation is an abstract fear as the chances of squatters entering your privately-owned or empty home are very low,”  Rodríguez told El Faro Radio, referring to the total number 25 million properties that exist in Spain, 3.4 million of which are empty.