San Sebastián Is a Paradise for Landlords — And Right-Wingers Want to Keep It That Way

Juan Karlos Izagirre

Tourist hot spot San Sebastián has Spain’s highest house prices, pushing out many locals. Ahead of today’s elections, Basque left party EH Bildu is calling for action on rents — but the campaign has been dominated by attempts to demonize the party.

An electoral poster hangs for EH Bildu on May 26, 2023 in San Sebastián, Spain. (Unanue / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Interview by
Ben Wray

Spain’s local election campaign ends today, and politicians of all stripes have had just one party’s name on their lips: Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu).

A left-nationalist party in the Basque Country, EH Bildu has been at the center of a storm whipped up by the conservative Partido Popular and its far-right ally Vox. The two parties have decided to throw everything at a scaremongering offensive about EH Bildu’s list of local candidates, forty-four of whom (out of almost 4,500) have served prison sentences for crimes related to the activities of Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the armed-struggle organization that long fought for Basque independence.

ETA laid down its arms over a decade ago and ceased to exist in 2018. But resurrecting its ghost is a political attack aimed not just at EH Bildu, but primarily at Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Since January 2020 his Socialist Party (PSOE) has led Spain in a coalition with left-wing Unidas Podemos, but their administration has also relied on EH Bildu’s votes to pass key legislation. This is the pretext for furious frothing at the mouth from Spain’s post-fascist right wing: their debate during this campaign has centered on whether EH Bildu — the second-largest party in the Basque Parliament — should be made illegal.

Most of the forty-four candidates concerned were convicted for purely political activities. Yet faced with this storm of criticism, seven who served sentences for crimes that caused harm to people announced that they would withdraw from the election, as a gesture toward EH Bildu’s commitment to “exclusively political and democratic means.”

This isn’t just a fight about the past, or even the national question, but the housing issues at the center of the local election campaign. In April, Sánchez’s government passed a new housing law with EH Bildu’s support, which includes a 2 percent rent cap this year and 3 percent next year in “rent stressed” areas, but it is up to regional governments across the country to decide whether to implement it. So far, the centrist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the bigger partner in the Basque administration alongside PSOE, has refused to do so, despite the Basque Autonomous Community being among the most expensive regions for rent.

The city of San Sebastián (Donostia, in the Basque language) is particularly unaffordable. Indeed, it has the highest house prices in Spain, at €5,191 per square meter, which is over €1,000 per square meter more than the next-most expensive city, Barcelona. The tourist hot spot, which boasts a long stretch of beach in the town center and attracts global movie stars to its film festival each year, is also a landlords’ paradise and has been dubbed “a city for the rich.”

For residents — and the thousands of young people who have been pushed out of the city in recent years by the forces of gentrification — the housing crisis, mass tourism, and the cost of living are at the top of the agenda in the local election campaign.

EH Bildu’s candidate for mayor of San Sebastián is Juan Karlos Izagirre, a doctor who already served in this post from 2011 to 2015. He spoke to Jacobin’s Benjamin Wray about what it will take to make San Sebastián a livable city again.

Ben Wray

Nagua Alba, former general secretary of Podemos Euskadi (i.e. Podemos’s affiliate in the Basque Country) said in an article supporting your candidacy that she fears that San Sebastián is becoming like Venice, where residents are completely marginalized. Eneko Goia, the current PNV mayor of San Sebastián, has said that is a “ridiculous” comparison, because unlike Venice the number of residents in San Sebastián is still growing. Who is right?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

San Sebastián, in terms of size, isn’t Venice, but we’re seeing a phenomenon common in other tourist cities, where housing is moving from mass residential use to other uses that have nothing to do with housing, but more to do with the profit that can be obtained by using it for other services.

In San Sebastián, the gentrification effect is already real. There are neighborhoods, such as Gros and the center, where 20 to 25 percent of the population has had to move.

For us, politically, a city has to be built on neighborhoods in which the people who live there are people who are rooted in their neighborhood, who feel part of their neighborhood, who are proud to be from that neighborhood. Little by little, flats are being emptied and these flats are being used either for speculation or as tourist flats.

So, the dimensions are not the same as in Venice, but the tendency is the same as in Venice, Barcelona, and other tourist cities in Europe.

Ben Wray

Mass tourism is notorious for being dominated by big multinationals, with very low pay and precarious conditions, and is carbon intensive. Is another tourism possible, or is mass tourism inherently tied to neoliberal globalization?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

EH Bildu is accused of being against tourism, and that isn’t true. We are tourists; we like to get to know other cultures. We think that tourists who come to San Sebastián should be well looked after, and then when they go back home they will speak well of us and our culture.

“Sustainable tourism” — which everyone is talking about — means that tourist growth should never come at the cost of damaging the urban environment or the people who live there. At the moment there are some neighborhoods where residents feel that they have been hurt, because basic services have been reduced, because the facilities do not respond to their needs but to tourist demand.

We do think that it is possible to create sustainable tourism, which is what has not been done in recent years. How do we change this? We think that we have to identify the under-stress neighborhoods, and we have to make concrete policies so that those who live there regain their sense of belonging and are well cared for. That means making a series of investments in facilities and services for residents.

The measures we need include not building any more hotels for the moment. We want an in-depth study of how much tourist load each neighborhood can bear. There are areas that can no longer support more, but there are others that can. In the meantime, a moratorium; no more hotels.

And then, in the past seven or eight years, San Sebastián city hall has also done something harmful, which is the growth of the tourist flats. When I was mayor, tourist flats were limited to the first floor; now you can use any floor of a residential apartment. The problems multiply, so we think that we have to recover the first-floor policy, and we also have to put a horizontal limitation: there must be a minimum number of meters between one tourist flat and the next. There are now streets in San Sebastián where all the doorways have tourist flats.

Next, there must also be a review of the licenses granted. There are vulture funds that have applied for a tourist flat license and they do not even intend to provide tourist flats. They know that with this license, the price of the flat is inflated.

Another measure is to address the influx of people into certain public places in San Sebastián, which is massive at the moment. We think that groups of tourists who go with tour guides can be regulated, so that they have a maximum number of participants and that there is a maximum number of tours per day.

Also, for us it is very important that the information offered by the tour guides is regulated, because we have detected that the information offered has nothing to do with the history or the culture of our town. They make up all sorts of things!

Finally, we think that the tourist offer is currently centered on two or three neighborhoods, and it focuses a lot on the pintxos (tapas) and gastronomy. This is nice and should continue to be offered, but San Sebastián has other attractive places people should see, too.

It is possible to have sustainable tourism, because the Donostiarra (people from San Sebastián) don’t mind that people come and see the city; the problem is the tourists who come occupy the houses where they were living, and they have to go to another neighborhood. Or, locals want to access their home and can’t because there are tourists that invade the doorway. They don’t want these things, so we have to make sure that both parties are comfortable.

It can be done. When I was mayor from 2011 to 2015 it was very difficult, but we brought together the hotel and catering sector with the residents of the old part of the city to draw up regulations for the terraces. It was a horrible job, because everyone was defending their own positions, but we managed to reach a consensus.

It is an example of how things can be done that are not just in favor of big business, because normally the regulations are organized in the interests of the hotel and catering sector.

Ben Wray

Tourist flats are big business. One analysis found that landlords charge three times as much in San Sebastián for a tourist flat than for private rental accommodation, and private rents are the second most expensive in Spain. How can rents be controlled?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

What we have realized is that the vulture funds cannot be given a free hand. What they have done here is to buy entire buildings from one day to the next, and then raise the rent by 50 percent. People can’t pay; they leave, and then the funds make a hotel or tourist flats out of that building, or they leave it there in reserve to speculate and raise the price. This has to be stopped.

There’s different ways of doing that. There is a law from 2015, from the Basque Parliament, that allowed, for example, that if the property remained empty for more than two years, you could force it to move to the normal residential market, so that it cannot be used as a tourist flat. This has not been applied in San Sebastián, but it can be applied and we would do so.

Also, the Spanish Parliament has just passed a housing law that allows for price caps. That is, if a fund or someone buys a flat, they can’t tell the tenant, “Well, I’m going to raise it by 50 percent.” If this law was applied to the whole of San Sebastián, the rent rise has to be a maximum of 2 percent, the following year it will be 3 percent, and from then on it will never be higher than the inflation rate. And on top of that, if you put a new building up for rent, you can apply a reference price. That is, the price is set by the administration, not by the owner. And you can, in addition, use taxation to incentivize if the price is lower, or penalize if the price is higher.

Then, it is also important to build new housing, but it must be public rental housing, and there are good examples like in Vienna, where half of all housing stock is public housing. The vulture funds are also coming into Vienna, but the price of rent is determined more by the public sector, because the government owns half of the dwellings. In San Sebastián, public housing is currently less than 2 percent of all dwellings.

Additionally, the public rental housing needs to be in different tranches. That is to say, there is public housing of €200 per month in San Sebastián for people who have very few resources, but we also have to consider public rental housing at prices of €700–800 for people who have more income, but who cannot afford to pay €1,500. We have to open up the range of public housing. We do this by buying housing that already exists, which is very expensive, or building new housing, but with the objective that it has to be public.

If that were all to happen, it would not be so easy for the vulture funds, because they can have a flat for rent for €2,000, but if you are offering the people of San Sebastián rents for €700–800, who is going to go to the vulture funds?

Ben Wray

The housing crisis in San Sebastián didn’t start yesterday. You were mayor from 2011 to 2015. How do you reflect on your time in office? Could you have done more?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

We took the mayoralty in 2011, which was a big surprise. We did not expect it. The first problem was that there was a very serious economic crisis that affected our work. To give you an idea: the budgets in 2012–2015 were 25 percent lower than they had been in 2009–2011. In that context, we were quite limited.

Then, it was a period in which we were cornered politically and in the media. If stones came up on the beach, it looked like we had thrown them there. Politically, everything we did was negative; we were under a lot of pressure and we had to work hard to get out of it alive.

In the meantime, there was the peace process here. At the international level, a lot of work was done because the abertzale left [Basque left-nationalist movement] was outlawed, and it was up to us to do a job that a mayor’s office should not have to do.

In this context, what we did was to make a commitment to two neighborhoods in particular, which are those crossed by the Urumea River, which suffered major flooding and where people were left homeless and without premises. We made a commitment to invest to prevent further flooding, to rehabilitate the neighborhood, and to take advantage of this to build public housing.

The most important public housing development in the whole of the southern Basque Country — which includes the Basque Autonomous Community and Nafarroa (Navarre) — in those years was the one planned by us in 2011–2015, and that is still happening now.

How did we do it? We thought that in order to get public housing it is important that you have land. So, we spent these four years acquiring land. Sometimes expropriating, sometimes buying.

We spent practically 50 percent of the investment we made in those four years — in which we had little money — to buy land. We planned development, and 72 percent of the social housing is for rent. We gave two plots to the Basque government, and we kept one for San Sebastián. And on our plot, 100 percent of the housing that has been built, all of it, was subsidized and rented.

Our commitment was clear, we were economically limited, we were under a lot of political and media pressure, but even so we made an important contribution.

Ben Wray

Do you think there is something distinctive about the approach of the abertzale left to questions of urbanism?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

Of course, we have a different way of thinking. The PNV, which now governs most of the institutions in the Basque Country, thinks very differently. Its model is to use housing for economic profitability. In general, its housing developments are in the private sector, with higher prices, and there is a big economic benefit for the companies involved.

We believe that this shouldn’t be the case. If you build housing, the objective has to be to respond to the right to housing of the people who live in your city.

So, there are two different models, and we do agree on this with Podemos and all of the Spanish left, and indeed the Left across Europe.

Ben Wray

There is a protest taking place as we speak called “Donostia is not for sale — for a sustainable city.” There has been important movements that have developed in European cities in recent years to defend the right to the city. Is such a movement important to the politics of EH Bildu?

Juan Karlos Izagirre

This is fundamental. EH Bildu’s way of doing politics is to be in the institutions, yes, but we are also on the street.

Today [May 21] EH Bildu is also represented at this demonstration because we agree with what the demonstrators are saying: that the model that has been built in recent years is taking citizens away from their neighborhoods and their city. And we are committed to another model of the city, in which citizens feel at home in their own neighborhood and feel part of their own neighborhood.

So, of course this matters to us. For example, when the 2011 floods came and we decided to prioritize interventions around the river, and in the new neighborhood of Txomin, with public housing, we didn’t do it ourselves from an office. In the first meeting we had with all the government institutions we said to them: “The residents who live next to the river are missing from here.”

After that, there were always residents represented. They took the decisions together with the rest of the institutions, who brought us direct information, and they relayed back to their neighborhoods the information about the decisions that were being made. That is participation. That is having the people organized, and opening the door for them to be in the places where decisions are made.

Today there’s a lot of talk about participation, but little is done about it. We believe in participation, and that is why popular movements are very important; the more organized they are, the better. I defend well-organized popular movements and well-organized neighborhoods everywhere.

I even told the current, right-wing mayor: “This is a very important tool if you want to govern well. You don’t have to be afraid of them.” Because the right wing is afraid of the popular movement, the right wing is afraid of the organization of a neighborhood. And that’s a mistake, because if you want the decisions that are taken to be shared and to be accepted, and you already have grassroots organization, take advantage of it, because it’s a gem.

So, of course the popular movements have to have their influence. They even have to be in the decision-making bodies so that the city functions better. And those who are demonstrating today, well, we are with them in the streets now, but when we are in the institutions, they will be in the institutions with us. We will open our doors to them.