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Contested 'beehive' housing arrives in Barcelona on the sly

The housing initiative by the Spanish start-up company Haibu, which means beehive in Japanese, is made up of around 20 tiny living pods, which include a bed and nightstand.
The housing initiative by the Spanish start-up company Haibu, which means beehive in Japanese, is made up of around 20 tiny living pods, which include a bed and nightstand. The housing initiative by the Spanish start-up company Haibu, which means beehive in Japanese, is made up of around 20 tiny living pods, which include a bed and nightstand. AFP
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Barcelona (AFP)

For the past few weeks Harry Kajevic has been sleeping in a 2.4-square-metre capsule flat in a clandestine location.

He is one of the first residents of a "beehive"-style housing project, inspired by those in Japan or Hong Kong, which has opened in Barcelona despite not having a permit from the city authorities.

The initiative by the Spanish start-up company Haibu is made up of around 20 tiny living pods, which include a bed and nightstand.

They are housed side by side in a building with a shared kitchen, bathroom and terrace -- all for 200 euros ($225) a month, at least in Kajevic's case.

Furniture is sparse, limited in the communal area to a few tables, chairs and a wardrobe for each resident which is too big for the rooms.

Haibu, which means beehive in Japanese, argues that the project is a solution to a shortage of affordable housing in the Spanish city.

But Barcelona's left-wing city hall says that such tiny accommodation is unfit for humans and violates local building laws.

"For me, this is decent housing. I go out into the streets clean and fed, I rest when I sleep," said Kajevic, a 42-year-old burly Austrian truck driver, who just moved back to Barcelona after a previous period in the city.

Faced with the opposition of city hall, which forced Haibu to close its showroom, the project's promoters are cautious.

For fear of being spotted, entry to Haibu's first "beehive" is through a shop. The blinds of the building, which is still undergoing work, are drawn to hide the tenants' presence.

And promoters of the housing project switch their mobile phones to flight mode when they go to the building because they are afraid of being tracked.

- 'Better than the streets' -

"It's alright for a while, until I find something better," said Hector Cabanol, boiling water in a microwave in the communal kitchen to prepare an instant coffee for lack of a stove.

The 36-year-old electrician, who got divorced last year, earns 800 euros per month at his part-time job.

Almost all his salary, 600 euros ($900), goes to pay child support for his daughters and a mortgage he still shares with his ex-wife.

"If it wasn't for this, I don't know what I would do. I survived by dipping into my savings, but they ran out. This is better than being on the streets," said Cabanol.

At the end of last year, the average rent in Barcelona was 954.29 euros, a 40-percent jump over the end of 2013, according to figures from the regional government of Catalonia.

Real-estate websites rarely list rooms for rent in a shared apartment for less than 300 euros a month.

But 30 percent of all workers in Spain earn less than 1,230 euros a month, making it hard for many to find a place to live even if they work full-time.

Last year, more than 37,000 evictions were carried out in Spain due to unpaid rent, nine percent more than two years ago, according to court figures.

Several charities in Barcelona say that the city's homeless figures have risen since 2015 as rents have soared.

- 'Not dignified' -

But the capsules violate the law, which states that a person must live in at least five square metres (54 square feet).

Not even the largest pods aimed for couples are that size.

The smallest are two metres long, 1.2 metres wide and just 1.2 metres in height, meaning an adult cannot stand up in them.

The monthly rent varies between 125 and 325 euros depending on the size, number of residents and location.

"They are slums, they are not dignified housing," said Barcelona's councillor in charge of urban planning, Janet Sanz.

"We agree that there must be affordable housing but there are limits," she added.

Haibu presents the project as a social initiative. The company says it will offer residents professional counselling and that it will not exceed a five-percent profit.

"The goal is for people to come for just a brief period, get on their feet financially and move on," said Marc Oliver, one of Haibu's founders.

The company cannot sign rental contracts, so instead it sells a monthly membership fee in a legal association which gives people the right to live in the housing.

Haibu is registered as a foundation in the Netherlands. It says it has 1.2 million euros to invest and employs 40 people.

Despite the risk of legal action, Oliver said the company was "charging ahead".

"We have opened this beehive and we are going to open 17 beehives in total in Barcelona.

"As they close them, we will open more," said Oliver, who plans to set up similar projects in Paris, Washington or Copenhagen.

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