House-hunting young people or how to play the hunger games

Illustration © Cinta Fosch

A combination of low wages and skyrocketing housing prices is increasingly hampering young people’s emancipation. Until now, government policies have failed to guarantee access to affordable housing, while new distorting factors are emerging that are driving up prices.

The chances of being young and owning your own home have dwindled inexorably over the years. Being young increasingly means having no savings, looking for a job or working in a job market with low pay, and looking for housing or paying speculative real estate markets that are charging too much. Whether we are already aware of the issue or not, and do not wish to continue reading about it, it is now undeniable: the king is naked. When selection processes and group visits are carried out just for viewing a flat[1], it is worth comparing the housing market to The Hunger Games. The reality is far from the farce portrayed by some media[2].

In Catalonia, according to official figures, the purchase price has risen 50% between 2015 and 2022. The efforts made by young people aged 16 to 29 to access housing, i.e. the percentage of their income allocated to housing, is 45% in the case of renting and 34% in the case of mortgages. In the Barcelona metropolitan region, in the scenario of two individuals earning minimum wages (2,160 euros per month), 47% would be spent on renting or 38% on buying. In 2022, the gap between young people’s purchasing power and prices was of such a magnitude that the cost of renting could often be equivalent to 106.6% of the net salary received by a young person in Catalonia, according to the Observatorio de Emancipación of the first half of 2022 from the Spanish Youth Council (CJE). And note that the major problem ahead is the new class gap between young people with opportunities thanks to the wealth inherited from their parents and those who will not inherit anything at all[3].

An unbridled market is the antonym of happiness for young people who need to have a stable home and to live with the people they love. According to the latest figures from the Spanish Youth Council for 2022, the emancipation rate in the European Union between the ages of 18 and 34 is 32.1%, while it is only 15.9% in Spain. In Catalonia, which was 25% in 2014, it reached a critical point of 15.5% in 2021 and, in the first quarter of 2023, it stood at 20%, according to figures from the Catalan Youth Agency. Let’s move away from percentages and speak clearly: only two out of every ten young people are emancipated in Catalonia. If the reader is a young person, they will know firsthand that all this forces them to share housing: in Spain, 34.5% of emancipated young people who live in rented accommodation share, according to figures for 2022 from the CJE.

The counterpower needed

How can inequalities be redressed when dealing with a necessity and a fundamental human right such as housing? The answer is not simple, but in addition to regulating prices and the market so that it is accessible, a counter-power is needed to make it much more difficult for landlords to carry out this kind of rich vs. poor exploitation. The reality, however, is that the lack of information means that tenants are often unaware of their rights and obligations and, together with discrimination, this leads to many abuses of tenants committed by landlords, or by tenants against subletters. The Sindicat de Llogateres [Renters’ Union] brings together young people, striving to keep them in their homes in the face of the onslaught of landlords pursuing maximum profitability at the expense of young people’s precariousness. In countries such as Austria and Denmark, tenants’ organisations have existed for more than one hundred years, and the Deutsche Mieterbund – the German Renters’ Association – has three million members and considerable bargaining power[4].

This is even more urgent for young migrants, among whom we have observed an alarming situation. While there is a network of accommodation for migrant minors who have arrived alone in Catalonia, from the age of 21 onwards they have no accommodation or benefits to support themselves. Added to this is housing discrimination: in Barcelona, for every ten applications sent by a couple with Arabic names, there are ten fewer responses than for a couple with Catalan or Spanish names. Twenty-eight per cent of those surveyed acknowledged that ethnic profiling is common and that real estate agents accept or facilitate the discrimination demanded by the owner in 86% of cases. Thus, a young migrant from an impoverished, low-income country will be doubly discriminated against.

To avoid doomsday scenarios, we must dream a little: if young people had a choice beyond the market’s obligatory choices, what type of housing would they want?

According to surveys carried out by the DESC Observatory and the Consell Nacional de la Joventut [National Youth Council of Catalonia] in 2020, young people show a preference for renting, 19-20% higher than the rest of the age group. The typical explanation is common knowledge: when you can leave your parents’ house, a shared rented flat is what you can afford and does not “tie you down” like a mortgage. By contrast, when you have a better job, are living with a partner or are thinking of having children, you buy a house. But the percentage of young people in favour of renting is much higher (65%) when the survey puts them in a position to rent without the current climate of instability and unaffordable prices. Undoubtedly, renting also wins out over the complications posed by buying, as the solvency required to access loans to buy a home is a major factor. For this reason, the government is now tentatively seeking to address this issue by adding a guarantor to the signing of mortgages taken out by the under 35. There is also an underlying trend that reinforces renting as a form of access to housing, for “not so young"[5] people too. For example, in the metropolitan region of Barcelona, 64.6% of young households aged 16 to 34 live in rented accommodation, but 49.5% of households of people aged 35 to 44 also rents[6].

Traditional strategies are perpetuated

Might young people be interested in inexpensive, stable, public renting with a collective housing design? It is hard to say if this option is not offered. We need to change the mindset, to get the government on young people’s side and to fulfil a real government responsibility. The Wikihousing[7], project, for example, is a pilot project for a group of young people to build their own houses, with their own hands, on land available in Barcelona for public housing. This innovative solution[8], which has been give recognition, is a year-long venture that will ultimately lead to the self-construction and co-management of a real prototype of affordable and ecological housing. Housing cooperatives’ housing projects under a “cession of use[9],

scheme, with stable – not speculative – forms of access other than buying or renting, are also on the rise and can play a key role in housing for young people.

Why does the public sector not encourage more innovative solutions, and is it better to continue with the same old promotion policies based on doping private operators, encouraging home buying and keeping budgets low? Research by the DESC Observatory points out that, in Catalonia, there is no innovative public entrepreneurship policy along the lines of what Mazzucato and Farha recommend to states all over the world in their latest economic report[10].

The Generalitat Government of Catalonia, responsible for housing and land, is perpetuating a traditional strategy of focusing on a marginal sector of the population, with a reduced housing budget that increasingly takes up more and more of the subsidised rent assistance. This policy fails to have any positive effect, as it is absorbed by owners who collect rents and does not create any multiplier effects for the economy.

Moreover, the public housing stock is scant (1.98% of the total stock in 2022) and the Generalitat Government of Catalonia’s budgets, since 1999, show that investment in housing by the governments of Convergència i Unió [Catalan nationalist coalition] was almost nil and always in a spirit of strategic withdrawal of investment in line with the neoliberal roadmap. If we compare the budget for housing policies with the GDP of the European comparative study that the Observatori Metropolità de l’Habitatge [Metropolitan Housing Observatory] and the DESC Observatory conducted in 2021[11], we can see how, in the period 2000-2019, social spending on housing by the Spanish authorities stood at 0.06% of GDP, while the average for the 28 countries of the European Union was 0.5%.

It is common to hear politicians put forward housing quotas for young people, such as, for example, a reserve of 25% of new social housing[12]. Grand announcements are what they are, but the reality is that young Catalans are over-educated and know how to crunch the numbers: 25% of zero is zero housing. It must be admitted that we have no youth housing policies.

Young tenants need to know their rights and how to defend themselves against any abuse. We keep seeing governments shirking their responsibility to sanction landlords who discriminate against them, which is shameful, especially when it is justified on budgetary grounds, because “having lawyers assigned to this role is too costly”. Is this the message from public servants: is there free rein for speculators because it costs a lot of money to prosecute their illegal actions, such as mobbing or property discrimination? Why isn’t more public housing for young people being built for rent? In 2024, the Territorial Sectoral Plan for Housing in Catalonia (PTSH) is expected to be approved, which will define the policies to be carried out up to 2042. Once it is ready, a specific housing plan of action for young people should be rolled out in the coming years.

Special mention should be made of the snare of university halls of residence, which trap young people in another private profit niche. Sanctions are urgently needed against the emerging supply characterised by unfair prices and clauses, for which there is no information. University halls of residence cannot replace the use of housing, nor can accommodation for tourism uses, which every day reduce the amount of housing for the resident population[13], as the DESC Observatory has also noted in the context of the Balearic Islands[14].

Now that housing laws are being passed with measures to regulate rents, we are seeing a proliferation of unfair seasonal contracts, which are not governed by the most basic principles of the legal framework for urban leases, with prices aimed at foreigners rather than at our young people.

Young people in need of decent housing where they can pursue their life plans are up against so many threats that we need to equip ourselves with the tools and build a real public-community response that is up to the task at hand.


Emancipation Observatory, first half of 2022. Spanish Youth Council.

Situació laboral de la joventut [Young People’s Housing Status]. Observatori Català de la Joventut, first half of 2023.

Del sistema de (des)protecció al carrer: joventut migrada extutelada a Catalunya i vulneracions del dret a l’habitatge. [From a system of (un)protection to the street: migrant youth no longer in care in Catalonia and violations of the right to housing] DESC Observatory and National Youth Council of Catalonia (CNJC), 2022.

Radiografia: Joves Llogateres [Overview: Young Renters]. DESC Observatory and National Youth Council of Catalonia, 2020.


[1] “La missió desesperant de buscar pis de lloguer a Barcelona: preus inflats, estafes i discriminacions” [The desperate mission of looking for a flat to rent in Barcelona: inflated prices, scams and discrimination]. Bàsics, betevé.

[2] Gómez-Serranillos, M. J. “Los jóvenes se resisten a ser propietarios de una vivienda” [Young people are reluctant to become homeowners]. El Mundo, 2018.

[3] Palomera, J. “De la sociedad de propietarios a la gran brecha” [From the Owners’ Society to the Great Divide]. Sin permiso, 2023.

[4] The website of the International Union of Tenants (IUT) offers a wealth of information on tenants’ organisations and unions around the world.

[5] In the UK, this trend has been dubbed generation rent: renting is becoming established over the course of a lifetime as the only housing option. The term describes adults aged 18-40 who cannot afford to buy and who must pay a high percentage of their income on rent.

[6] Figures for 2019-2020 provided by the Observatori Metropolità de l’Habitatge, O-HB(Metropolitan Housing Observatory), at the conference “Childhood and Housing in Barcelona”. Between the ages of 16 and 34, 22.4% of households own their home with a mortgage, 7% own it without a mortgage and 6% live rent-free. Between the ages of 35 and 44, the percentages are, respectively, 36.9%, 9.3% and 4.4%.

[7] Promoted by Straddle3, Societat Orgànica and La Hidra Cooperativa.

[8] Award from the BIT Habitat call for grants for urban innovation initiatives “The Proactive City 2021”, Barcelona City Council.

[9] The Llargavista observatory offers a website and a map showing all the registered housing cooperative initiatives in Catalonia, with information on each project.

[10]  Mazzucato, M. and Farha, L. The right to housing: A mission-oriented and human rights-based approach. Council on Urban Initiatives, 2023.

[11] State of Housing 2021. Catalonia and Barcelona. Metropolitan Housing Observatory and DESC Observatory.

[12] Generalitat Government of Catalonia. Department of Social Rights.

[13] “El mapa dels pisos turístics municipi a municipi” [The Map of Tourist Flats from One Municipality to Another]. Crític, 2022.

[14] DESC Observatory, 2022.

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments