Friday, July 8, 2011

Chaos: Spanish Building Permits

There is a small natural preserve called Les Muntanyans on the Costa Daurada.  It's in the municipality of Torredembarra, a seaside resort near Tarragona, between here and Barcelona.  Les Muntanyans sits at the edge of Torredembarra and consists of a salt water marsh that has been fought over for some years now.  A developer wanted to get his hands on it to build 500 apartments.  But some local citizens formed a group and protested. 

This area is a lovely natural preserve, one of few like it on the coast.  It is also a flood zone.  So there were two very good reasons not to build apartment blocks.  Quite frankly, it amazes me how many modern buildings in Spain sit at the bottom of a ravine or on a flood plain that floods repeatedly, year after year.  Every time there is a storm, you see on the news the same places being flooded.

In this case, although the city hall had given permission to build, the citizen group fought in court and just this week it was announced that they won.  Chaos averted.  For now.

But I know of another place much closer to home where chaos was not averted.  It is here, at the apartment I’m staying in for the summer while I rent out my own house in order to earn money to pay the mortgage.  My life is complicated.

My friends who own this apartment are also finding things complicated.  In Spain there is a document called the Cèdula d’Habitabilitat without which one cannot sell nor legally rent a dwelling.  The Cèdula certifies, among other things, that the building is habitable and, in the case of apartment buildings, that it is handicap accessible.  Whereas an older building would be exempt from accessibility requirements, this small apartment building is fairly new and very habitable, but parts of it, including this apartment, are not handicap accessible and thus the problem.

It is hard to understand, much less explain what the designer of this building was thinking when he worked out the plans.  It seems that the average person with no architectural background and some building experience could have done better and have satisfied the regulations.  After all, the apartments are just little boxes.  But instead, the rather strange, convoluted design makes it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to enter this apartment.  You exit the elevator and are faced with five stairs you must descend, then one more leading into the very narrow entry to the door of the apartment where I am staying.  The descent is too steep for a ramp, and the entry to the apartment is too narrow for a wheelchair.  Why is strange design?

Between Manel and me, we have bought two apartments and two houses and have sold two apartments in Spain.  For none of these transactions was a Cèdula d’Habitabilitat required, even though, I am told, it existed back then.  In those days, it was simply ignored.  Now you can’t sell without one, nor rent out, nor have utilities turned on.  So what does an owner who cannot get a Cèdula do?  For the last year or two, there has been no recourse.  Country properties have been the hardest hit because most of them were built or enlarged without permit.  Virtually none of the country properties in this area have sold in over a year.  Meanwhile the government laments the lack of activity in the economy.   

I thought my friends should try to get the city hall to support a request for an exemption.  After all, they approved the building plans, so surely they have some responsibility for the outcome.  But it seems that one of the other owners in the building has built something onto their apartment illegally, without a permit, so that the city hall says it will take no responsibility for the entire building.  Does this make sense?  Well, never mind.  I guess my friends are preparing to make a claim against the architect; they can’t sue the builder because he declared bankruptcy a while back.  But that won’t solve their problem of making the apartment accessible so they can sell it.

Me, on the other hand, I have a Cèdula for my villa.  No problem.  All I need is a buyer who wants a cute little house with a pretty, green garden, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Mediterranean Sea, and certified habitable!