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Racism in Spain’s rental market: “They asked me what color my parents were”

Experiment reveals that finding a place to rent in Spain is harder if you are not white, with some ads advertising properties “only for Spaniards”

Three victims of racist realtors in Spain.
Three victims of racist realtors in Spain.

Three people aged around 30, each with a stable job, walk into several real estate agencies. One of them is shown many apartments and is offered the chance to get in touch with one of the owners. The other two are shown only a few places and told that “things are very bad” in the market right now.

The difference between them is this: the one who is shown dozens of places is white, and other two are not.

This type of discrimination is linked to prevailing prejudices that we are not going to pay

Vladimir Paspuel, Ecuadorian-Spanish Rumiñahui Association

This experiment, conducted by the anti-racism organization SOS Racismo, has been repeated multiple times and the results are nearly always the same.

The idea behind the test was to expose a “very hidden form of discrimination,” Mikel Mazkiaran, secretary general of SOS Racismo, told Verne.

“If a person goes to a real estate agent and is told there is nothing to rent, their only option is to believe it. The only way of proving that racism exists is, by contrast, putting various people in the same situation,” he explains.

In the most recent experiment, published in 2016, the organization made 462 calls to 250 real estate agencies in seven regions as well as personal visits to 20 agencies in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastián and Vitoria. According to the findings, 70% of people who were not offered a single option were foreign-born, and those from Sub-Saharan Africa were the worst received.

A new bubble

The cost of rent in Spain continues to rise thanks to extremely high demand, especially in cities where the boom in tourist apartments has reduced the number of rental properties. Finding a place to rent is hard for everyone, but it is even harder for people who face yet another barrier: racism.

“This type of discrimination has existed for a long time and it is linked to prevailing prejudices that we are not going to pay, that we are noisy,” says Vladimir Paspuel from the Ecuadorian-Spanish Rumiñahui Association. “The situation today, where it is increasingly difficult for everyone to rent, has made this problem more evident.”

Immigrants are also over-represented in the rental market given that it “tends to be harder for them to buy a home,” explains Mazkiaran.

In September and in early October, ads appeared on the property website Idealista announcing apartments “only for Spaniards.” Idealista told Verne it tries to eliminate all “homophobic, sexist or xenophobic comments” that appear on the page but that it can’t stop users from republishing the ads.

Ads published on Idealista. The first comment circled in red reads: “Preferably Spanish” and the second: “The owners do not want students or foreigners.”
Ads published on Idealista. The first comment circled in red reads: “Preferably Spanish” and the second: “The owners do not want students or foreigners.”

SOS Racismo exposed a problem that affects thousands of people in Spain. Cheija Abdalahe, Elizeu Carlos and Rosemary Wong are three people who have experienced first hand the racism of Spain’s rental market.

Cheika Abdalahe, 31

Cheija Abdalahe.
Cheija Abdalahe.

Abdalahe’s family fled Western Sahara in 1975 after it was occupied by Morocco. She was born in the Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf and moved to Spain with her parents 11 years ago. Now they live in the Basque city of Bilbao, where they have spent the past three years looking for a new home. On September 1, they finally moved out of their small damp house that was giving her sister allergies.

Abdalahe says that she heard it all as she went from realtor to realtor to find a new place. “You also meet really nice people, but I have heard some surreal things,” she tells Verne by phone. She says one time she was asked where her parents were from. “I said they were Spanish because my mother has Spanish nationality and they asked, ‘Yes but what color are they?’”

According to Abdalahe, realtors would often pretend to take down her number.

“You feel really impotent,” she says. “There were times my parents asked what they had said at the real estate agency, and we tried not to answer them because we knew it would hurt them.”

Elizeu Carlos, 28

Elizeu Carlos.
Elizeu Carlos.

Carlos arrived in Portugal in 1996 after fleeing civil war in Angola. In Portugal he completed a degree in computer engineering and then decided move to Madrid. He began looking for a room in the Legazpi area on Idealista last April, but found that places suddenly became unavailable the moment he showed interest.

In one instance, Carlos wrote to a woman about an ad for a room but “a few seconds later they told me it was rented out,” he told Verne. He asked a white friend of his to write to the same woman to see whether the story was true. The woman replied that the room was available and invited her to see it.

“I got angry and I wrote to her again saying she should have been honest and say she didn’t rent to black people,” says Carlos, who published the WhatsApp exchange on his Instagram account.

“People speak about Madrid as a very multicultural city and I was surprised that this happened to me,” he says. Carlos has since found an apartment with “open-minded” housemates.

“When you are black, the flat you are asking about becomes suddenly rented. This immediate response is due to a logic we call RACISM.” The screenshots of Carlos’s WhatsApp exchange were shared by the platform Es Racismo (It’s Racism)

Rosemary Wong, 51

Rosemary Wong.
Rosemary Wong.

Racism is not unique to big cities. When Wong moved to Hellín in Albacete for work, she wasn’t even allowed to walk in the door of one property.

Wong, who immigrated to Bilbao from Peru in 1989, says she once called a real estate agent from a phone booth about an apartment. “I don’t have much of an accent so the man gave me no trouble and asked me to come see the house,” Wong told Verne.

But by the time she had crossed the two streets to see the place, it was no longer available. “He made a face as soon as I arrived and told me it had been rented,” she says. “I said that was not possible but there was nothing I could do. He didn’t even open the door to the building.”

“These experiences mark you and from then on you’re afraid when you call, wondering what trouble they are going to give you: if they are going to charge you more, if they are going to ask you for more months’ deposit,” she says.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

How to fight discrimination

Mikel Mazkiaran from SOS Racism says it’s “very complicated” to take legal action against racism in the housing sector. While a professional can be given up to four years in prison for discriminating against someone because of their race, sex, religion, ideology or sexual orientation, this cannot be applied to a person renting out a room because it is not considered a professional activity.

“The criminal code is applicable, for example, to a person who doesn’t let someone in a club because of their race because they are denying them a professional service,” says Mazkiaran, but not to an individual renting a room.

In the case of real estate agencies, the relationship is between three people – the owner, possible leaser and agency – and the agency can say that they received a verbal order from the owner not to lease the property to foreigners.

To take a stand against a case of racism, Mazkiaran suggests making a formal complaint against the realtor. “This is not just a way of presenting a formal protest because it has documentary value.”

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