Alejandro Miranda: Flat sharing in Madrid – Thresholds of privacy and intimacy

Flat sharing is a common living arrangement in many large cities. I have been exploring how this strategy is used by locals and foreigners while conducting fieldwork in Madrid. Although many have the impression that flat sharing is something migrants do with people of their same nationality, I have found that this is not always the case as many share with people from different countries. Sharing a house with strangers or friends is rather atypical in Latin America because living with family members is the most common arrangement. Many of the migrants from Peru and Ecuador that I have been meeting in this city share accommodation with members of their extended family (particularly during the first years after arrival), but there are also many who have learned to live with strangers.

I’ve been spending time with a Peruvian couple who share a flat in a suburb in south-west Madrid. Amanda (all names here are pseudonyms) decided to buy her own place more than a decade ago, partly because she felt stable in her job. She was working for a supermarket chain and was promoted after a few years. She now recalls how her sister said to her: ‘do you think you are going to live with the salary they pay to supermarket employees?’, but persisting in that job gave her prospects of progress. These were also the years in which she obtained the Spanish nationality which, apart from its legal and civil implications, has played an important role in how Amanda projects her future. As most Latin American migrants in Europe, she was initially ambiguous about the length of stay in the country of arrival: ‘I thought I was going to work in Madrid for a few years, make some money and then go back and set up a bakery in Trujillo’, she mentioned—but after some years she became a permanent resident in Spain. And having an ongoing contract in the supermarket made her think about the advantages of buying a property. Why to pay rent if she could be already paying the mortgage of a house she’d eventually own?

These motivations came to her during the real estate boom in Spain that collapsed with the economic crisis of 2008: credit was relatively easy to obtain and many like Amanda decided to buy instead of paying rent. This economic climate was crucial for her access to credit for buying a house. Yet, the meanings attached to having a stable job and acquiring the Spanish nationality were at the core of her decision to look for a home in Madrid and, somehow, for making herself at home in Madrid. She also thought that, in case of need, she could always sublet her flat. After all, she was used to sharing accommodation with other people, but always from a subordinated position because she wasn’t the one leasing the apartment: a situation that she describes as ‘being the tenant of a tenant’, the last link in a chain.  

The economic crisis of 2008—just about a year after she got the credit for her flat—had dramatic consequences in the real estate market in Spain. Amanda considers herself one of the ‘lucky ones’ who after la crisis is still living in her property. Since paying the mortgage by herself has been quite difficult, she has been renting two out of her three-bedroom flat. Subletting is not legal and some people consider it risky. Still, a mix of precariousness and dense networks of family, friends and acquaintances make it possible to rent one’s bedrooms to people one barely knows, provided that there is a minimum of trust. Throughout all these years Amanda has rented these bedrooms to (mostly female) friends, or friends of friends. The lease, which is a mere spoken agreement, has generally lasted for a few years at the time and led to some solid friendships as well as less agreeable experiences.

Landlords and tenants

Amanda got married to José a couple of years ago. They grew up together in the same neighbourhood in Trujillo, Perú. She went back to visit her mother after several years of absence, met her childhood friend and after dating for two years (each one residing in a different country) decided to marry. José moved to Madrid some months after their marriage and has been dealing with intermittent work contracts since his arrival. Amanda continues working in the supermarket, but their household budget is very tight. This is why they have two trusty flatmates who are acquaintances of their friends.

The main advantage, Amanda says, is that they do not spend much time at home. One of them is a Spanish young man who works night shifts as a security guard and sleeps during the day. The other is a Canadian teacher of French who spends three days a week in Madrid and then goes back to Zaragoza, where her partner lives. In this way, the place is all by themselves at different moments of the week. Sharing a flat is a compromise between affordability and discomfort: it allows them to pay the mortgage while losing a good deal of intimacy. Similarly, for the tenants it provides affordable accommodation at the cost of having just a bedroom in which to sleep. They have sustained this arrangement for more than two years and it seems to work well for all the parties involved. Years ago, before José moved from Peru to Spain, Amanda had a series of housemates that stayed for several years. But this last arrangement has resulted especially convenient for them because their tenants do not spend much time in their flat. This is very significant because in this way, the space still feels theirs.

In the words of Amanda and José, this is not so much about feeling at home, but feeling at their home—which is a matter of using the space in specific ways. Each bedroom is, of course, the realm of ultimate privacy, a space where each of them has full control. And while the other remaining areas (living room, bathroom, kitchen and corridor) are shared, they are used differently by landlords and tenants. The bathroom and corridor are essential to everyone and therefore used at any time—although the landlords use it much more often than the tenants. Contrastingly, the kitchen is sparsely used by the tenants and is clearly the territory of José, who does most of the cooking for he and his wife. ‘These guys sometimes go to the kitchen to make themselves a coffee, but nothing beyond that’, Amanda says satisfied.

The fact that the tenants do not use the kitchen or the living room is sustained through ‘invisible boundaries’, thresholds that allow the people living in this flat to use the space in codified ways. Let’s take the kitchen: although the tenants eat outside home, they still need to cover basic needs of nourishment. Amanda mentioned that her tenants store bottled water and snacks in their bedrooms. As for the fridge, each of them has a separate shelf that is barely used. In one of my visits I was chatting with José in the kitchen and a quick look sufficed to understand the order in the fridge: an almost empty section with an abandoned bag of powdered parmesan cheese, another shelf with a dozen zero-percent fat yoghurts. Then the remaining shelves and corners that look like the stereotypical family fridge with its veggies at the bottom, bottles of soft-drink and milk on the side, a crate of eggs, butter, cheese and so forth. The only product that José points at when opening the fridge is a bottle of Inka-Cola: ‘sabor nacional, ¿la has probado?’ (national taste, have you ever tasted it?), he proudly highlights. He then explains that he keeps the ají (chillies) in small plastic bags in the freezer. The potatoes, always available in stock, are stored in a metal rack in a corner of the kitchen. ‘Here in Madrid I haven’t been able to find more than five types of potatoes. Five types! While in Peru we have thousands of different types of potatoes!’. The kitchen is clearly his domain, he knows what is in the pantry, what he is going to cook during the rest of the week and what needs to be bought from his mental shopping list. The kitchen is apparently open to everybody, but through his everyday cooking José enacts it as a particular space.

There is a type of intimacy that he obtains from cooking by himself. He tells me how spending time alone in the kitchen is a significant part of his weekly routines: the mobile playing tunes from his own youtube channel, the pot cooking the rice, another one simmering a pollada, for instance. He points at the steam accumulating in the kitchen. This feeling also comes from the way stuff is arranged, his obsession of leaving things in specific places because ‘I need to find them next time I want to use them’. There is a sense of familiarity and control that he exercises in this kitchen—one that none of the others, not even Amanda, are able to recreate in here. He says that cooking is sometimes a pleasurable experience. This is drawn, in my opinion, from the ability to spend time in a space in which he has direct influence. This is one of the few places in which he finds privacy.  

Flat sharing in Madrid and elsewhere has a lot to do with precariousness. Job insecurity, poverty, the obligation to send remittances to one’s country of origin and the intention to save up money are some of the main motivations behind it. Additionally, undocumented migrants in Madrid are unable to sign a lease because of their irregular stay; they rely on the sublet market. More generally speaking, flat sharing is perceived by many as a way to find affordable accommodation in a place that may be relatively close to one’s work, school or family. It is, above all, a strategy that seeks a compromise between affordability and discomfort, as sharing one’s home with strangers, friends or family establishes distinct degrees of privacy and intimacy that can be exercised in a domestic space.