Capsule hotel in Japan Wikimedia Commons
Last summer, the company Haibu 4.0 began to announce the ‘hive flats’ in Barcelona, small capsules of about two square meters to rent for €200 per month ($229). The project, which is illegal according to the Spanish housing regulation, has opened a debate about the right to decent housing. The enterprise claim to be a solution for people with financial difficulties while, based on the conditions of their ‘flats,’ it seems more likely that the aim is to do business at the expense of people’s misery.
"The Japanese have taught us that we can live with as little space as possible in rooms similar to ours [the capsule apartments they announce], always respecting the fellow community," states the company in its website reefing to the capsule hotels in Japan where customers sleep in small bed-sized rooms.
The difference between the Japanese hotels and the capsule apartments is that instead of being used in the tourism sector, the enterprise claims the capsules to be "a housing alternative". According to them, this initiative aims to have a social component. "It can be a temporary solution for people with limited economic means to sleep in a private place instead of a hostel with large rooms where everyone has to bear the snoring of their neighbors," is written in its web.
The promoters of the idea, Marc Olivé and Edi Wattenwil, have insisted in different interviews that the ‘hive flats’ are a “good temporary solution for people with financial difficulties” and they claim it as a place of “coexistence” where people can improve its economic situation. “When you learn to live in small spaces is when you realize the empathy and solidarity of the human being,” they say in the web. However, despite the ‘good intentions’ claimed by this project, most of the reaction from the institutions and civil society have been of solid rejection for going against the right to decent housing.
The dimensions of these cubicles (1.20 meters wide, 1.20 meters high and 2.20 meters deep) are not suitable for claustrophobic people for obvious reasons since they resemble a coffin more than anything else. They only include a single bed, a folding mini-table and a small storage space under the mattress, while the kitchen and bathroom are shared with the rest of the ‘community’ members. The price to pay for all these ‘commodities’ is €200 per month ($229) including water, electricity, and internet. As for the requirements to become part of the ‘hive’, it is necessary to be between 25 and 45 years old, to have a wage above €450 per month ($516), and no criminal record or pets.
Barcelona City Council has made very clear since the project was made public that no district would ever give a license to the ‘hive flats’ since they do not comply with the law. According to the current regulation of the minimum conditions for habitability of housing and the certificate of habitability, a room for one person must have at least five square meters and the law does not allow housing overcrowding.
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, stated that "fortunately it is forbidden to cram people and the legislation does not allow this type of housing." Before becoming mayor, Colau was a housing activist and one of the founders of the ‘Platform for People Affected by Mortgages’ (PAH by its acronym in Spanish), a Spanish organization formed to stop evictions and campaign for housing rights that acquired an important social role after the economic crisis.
However, the current regulation did not prevent the company from starting to build the ‘hive flats’ in a space designed for shops without having applied for the habitability certificate. After this provocation, Barcelona City Council requested the corresponding court to stop the works and the court authorized the police forces to seal the establishment, although the company argued later on that the construction just consisted in the ‘show flats’ and sued the City Council.
The enterprise has claimed to have received more than 500 applications to rent a capsule and they have created a website promoting ‘hive flats’ in Paris, arguing that if Barcelona City Council does not allow them to work there, they would move to other European cities (although it is quite questionable that other EU cities are going to accept this type of housing).
Without denying that there is a problem of access to housing in Spain, it is necessary to identify adequately the causes. On the one hand, the massive tourism that is growing in cities like Barcelona has as provoked that many owners chose to rent their apartment to tourists through platforms such as Airbnb making the price of housing more expensive so that the residents have difficulties to stay in the neighborhoods close to the city center. On the other hand, there is a big problem with rent speculation to the extent that Spain is one of the countries in the EU with more empty houses due to the housing bubble.
So indeed, there are many people having economic difficulties and the rents are higher than they should be. Does it mean that people should give up their rights and settle for any type of housing? Absolutely not, Spain needs more regulation to improve access to housing and prevent speculation, which is the opposite of lower the standards of people’s housing rights as the capsule apparent project intended. Fortunately, regarding the appearance of the ‘hive flats’, the law has won the battle against the immoral business for now.