Every day in Spain more than 500 eviction orders get delivered to households, leaving lives broken up like rubble. Sadly this is not a new story – over 420,000 foreclosures and 220,000 evictions have occurred since 2007. The loss of homes comes on top of vicious austerity measures, unemployment levels creeping above 25 per cent and massive political corruption scandals. As greater numbers of the recent jobless reach the end of their two-year unemployment insurance payouts, the scale of evictions ratchets up.
Most Spaniards purchased property because they were heavily encouraged by the state to do so. The institutional drive to increase home ownership dates back to the first Minister of Housing under the Franco dictatorship, José Luis Arrese, who stated in 1957: ‘We want a country of homeowners, not of proletarians.’ Promoting homeownership was a way for the state to abdicate responsibility for providing social housing, turning insubordinate spirits prone to protest about their living conditions into orderly, moral and disciplined citizens.
Decades later, when the property boom began in 1995, public and private interests merged over the enormous sums of money to be made through development. Laws were changed to facilitate building and construction activities – with many of the developers providing tens of thousands of dollars in direct donations to politicians – and profits rolled in as the country’s housing stock grew by seven million units. People heard a single repeated message from real-estate agents, developers, builders, financial entities, news media and public administrations: the price of housing never falls, housing is a safe investment. Even though prices skyrocketed 220 per cent, banks eased people’s access to mortgages while poorly explaining the repercussions of defaulting on payments. In 2007-8 an estimated 65,000 mortgages were even signed in foreign currencies in order to make them cheaper. Through all such ‘persuasion’, buying a home became a social norm: over 80 per cent of households in Spain are owner-occupied, one of the highest rates in Europe.
‘We don’t want to steal anyone’s house, but we have nowhere to go and these chalets are empty. It’s crazy’
But as thousands of people are finding out first hand, home repossession is particularly punitive in Spain. It means not only losing one’s home, but also being in debt to the bank to the tune of their legal fees, the remainder of the mortgage, plus the difference in property value due to devaluation. In many cases, falling interest rates have inflated the original debt. In the case of the Intrago family’s modest flat in a Madrid suburb, as reported by María Carron in The Progressive, even though they had paid $98,000 of a $323,000 mortgage the bank demanded an additional $405,000 after repossessing their home. Such actions have led to hundreds of thousands of families with no place to live and in debt for the rest of their lives, while 20 per cent of Spain’s total housing – 5.6 million homes – remains unoccupied.
‘We used to be the middle class’
As such injustices kept growing, the Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) was born in 2009 in Barcelona to transform what were individually experienced problems into a collective struggle. One of PAH’s first concerted direct actions was paralysing an eviction in November 2010 in Tarragona, Catalonia, by blocking the entrance to a property where eviction orders were to be served. Luis Martí had lost his job in 2008 and the $550 he received from the government each month since his unemployment insurance ran out wasn’t enough to make ends meet, let alone cover his mortgage payments. Martí, a single father with a then nine-year-old child, said: ‘I see no future because there is no work and the unemployment insurance people receive will come to an end. There will be more and more people in the street without a home.’ The bank foreclosed but was unable to auction off the modest one-storey property, and Martí was left with the news that he would be evicted and owe a $130,000 debt. The attempts by Martí and PAH to negotiate any other alternative with the bank met with no success.
Following Martí’s foreclosure, government officials and a bank representative, escorted by the police, went to deliver the eviction order. But they backed down upon encountering dozens of people blocking the entrance to his home. This has become a key strategy in PAH’s Stop Evictions campaign, which has ramped up with strong support from the indignados (‘the outraged’, as participants in Spain’s mass movement for political change are called). Over 550 evictions have been halted across the country, and banks have been forced to negotiate social rent or to foreclose a home but drop the debt for hundreds of families. Solidarity has also come from other sectors, such as the Assembly of Locksmith Professionals in Pamplona who unanimously decided in December 2012 that they would not change the locks on houses under foreclosure proceedings. They have been joined by fire-fighters in Catalonia and A Coruña, who refuse to assist evictions.
On top of stopping evictions under way, PAH and indignado groups have also been occupying foreclosed buildings to provide shelter for evicted families with nowhere to go. A wave of occupations is occurring across the country. ‘We don’t want to steal anyone’s house, but we have nowhere to go and these chalets are empty. It’s crazy,’ stated a woman living in one of 70 occupied properties on the outskirts of Madrid. Until two years ago, she was an administrative assistant and her husband was a plumber. ‘We want people to understand that we are not despicable or lazy. We used to be the middle class.’
At the doors of change
While the actions of PAH and indignado groups have forced local governments to provide emergency housing, they are also struggling for larger-scale change. PAH, which now has over 100 branches across Spain, launched a Popular Legislative Initiative in April 2012 to demand a stop to evictions, the enactment of social rent, and fundamental changes to the Mortgage Law. The Initiative has been signed by almost one and a half million people and was presented to Congress at the end of January. Popular pressure is forcing Congress to consider the Initiative, although whether any substantive change will result under the conservative-majority government remains to be seen. The Platform is upping its tactics. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in over 50 cities during a countrywide protest in mid-February to demand that the Initiative be approved as is. If it is not, a campaign will begin to pursue all deputies in Congress so that they can’t move through their daily lives without remembering that they are provoking the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people in Spain.
If foreclosures continue at the same pace, it is estimated that at least 430,000 families are doomed to be evicted by 2015. But as José Coy, the instigator of PAH in Murcia and himself affected by the mortgage crisis, notes: ‘The austerity recipe imposed upon us by the dictatorship of the markets makes the Platform a useful and powerful tool of struggle. And for the hundreds of thousands of families that are condemned to social exclusion and precariousness for life, it is a cause for hope… I am convinced that we are not only seeing a time of change but something deeper. We are at the doors of a change of an era. Yes, we can!’1
Melissa García Lamarca is a doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development. She is studying how PAH and other anti-eviction allies are transforming the political ecology of housing in Spain.
1 A Colau and A Alemany, Mortgaged Lives: From the Property Bubble to the Right to Housing, Cuadrilátero de Libros, Barcelona, 2012.