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Organised squatting throws a lifeline to Spanish evictees

When the property bubble burst in Spain, the lives of millions were shattered. Led by Ada Colau, PAH stood up against the banks in an attempt to stop evictions

When Ada Colau was elected Mayor of Barcelona in Spain’s municipal elections last month, a picture started doing the rounds on social media. Was this really the new chief of Barcelona? The woman in the T-shirt bearing the slogan STOP DESAHUCIOS (stop evictions), being dragged from a bank by riot police? It was, and she is; Colau was asked to run for the radical new citizens’ platform Barcelona en Comú after leading one of the most successful social movements in modern European history, Spain’s PAH, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (platform for those affected by mortgages).

On the occasion in the photograph, taken in July 2013, the PAH was occupying the bank on behalf of a member who could not keep up with his mortgage payments. The challenges facing the Spanish people over the last eight years have been extraordinary. House prices tripled between 1997 and 2007, and when the bubble burst, it was an explosion that shattered the lives and livelihoods of millions; there were 350,000 foreclosures between 2007 and 2011 alone – at points in 2012 the number of foreclosures rose to 517 per day. Sub-prime mortgages and Spain’s economic collapse (with unemployment levels consistently hovering around 25 per cent) were intensified by one extra catch, unique to Spanish housing law.

The most notorious and punishing aspect of the crisis is that, as destructive as it is in itself, eviction is not the end of the story for its victims. If a mortgage holder cannot pay, the home is put up for auction – and if the auction is unsuccessful (as it is 90 per cent of the time), the lending bank can revalue the home at 60 per cent of its original price, which is then offset against the remaining debt, legal costs, interest and charges. So in thousands of cases the evicted person continues to pay the mortgage for the home they have been evicted from. Guarantors, usually parents, can be evicted from their homes too; financial delinquency for life is a commonplace – not to mention inevitable consequential rises in alcoholism, family tensions, mental health problems, domestic violence, child neglect and suicide. Since they formed in February 2009, PAH’s struggle has been on three fronts: first, against evictions (they have prevented over 1,000 through direct action), second, to foster social solidarity, to share not just information but emotional support, and finally, for that right which is the norm in most countries, dación en pago – ‘to give as payment’ – ie cancellation of outstanding mortgage payments on the return of the property in question.

When I visited the town of Guadalajara, an hour outside Madrid, the signs of the housing crisis were unmistakable. Founded by the Moors as Wadi-al-Hejara, Guadalajara is the location not only of a ninth-century Islamic palace, but also the new ruins of the 21st-century’s great crash: giant, unfinished housing projects with dreamy names like Aguas Vivas, featuring new roads, pavements, wiring, street signs, lamps, street furniture, and greenery – the only thing missing being the finished buildings, and the people. When the town-centre shops reopened after the siesta period in late afternoon, many of the shutters stayed down. On Plaza Santa Domingo in the heart of Guadalajara’s old town, two boys played football using the bricked-in frontage of a former café as their makeshift goal. On a nearby wall, a piece of spray-painted graffiti read STOP DESAHUCIOS, just like Ada Colau’s T-shirt.

In Guadalajara, as in hundreds of other towns and cities across the country, the PAH is organised via regular, open local assemblies. Over five years, they have become so proficient at addressing the simultaneously technical, complex and psychologically traumatic problems caused by the housing crisis – while swingeing cuts continue to undermine the state’s ability to respond – that social services have taken to referring people with mortgage problems directly to the local branch of the PAH. It’s an astonishing fact that reveals the new reality in Spain – a horizontalist direct action network has to all intents and purposes replaced the functions of the state.

Olmo Calvo

Source: Olmo Calvo

Spaniards take to the streets to protest against actions taken against those who default on their mortgages

I met Mario Magán at a neighbourhood association in one of Guadalajara’s poorer districts, where the weekly PAH Guadalajara assembly takes place. He told me about their latest venture, a step even bolder than blocking an eviction: under the banner of Obra Social, ‘social work’, they had recently moved nine homeless families into a vacant new-build block of flats in the nearby town of Alovera. It’s kind of organised squatting; with an astonishing four million empty homes and hundreds of thousands of newly evicted families, the Obra Social slogan is ‘neither people without homes, nor homes without people’. ‘We decided the building in Alovera had to be put to social use,’ Magán explained. ‘The owners are bankrupt and can’t do anything about the building – it’s being transferred to a bank via the courts.’ It’s relatively uncharted territory for the local branch, but PAH are optimistic the new occupants will be able to stay. ‘Our impression is that things will actually become easier when the bank takes control – they’re a better interlocutor for us.’ Obra Social now claims to have rehoused more than 2,500 evicted people in empty homes.

In Seville in the Spanish south, this same idea has become known as the ‘Corralas’ movement. Its most famous exponent was the Corrala Utopía, a previously empty new-build apartment block, whose builders, Maexpa, were undergoing bankruptcy proceedings. The block was squatted with the help of local indignados, and housed over 30 homeless families in 2012-2014, before they were finally evicted last spring. When I visited in 2013, the residents were adamant that this was their home, not merely a doss-house for a week or two; there were family photos on the living-room walls and a real sense of community among residents, regular meetings and an attempt to live and solve problems collectively. The city authorities had cut off the electricity and water, so they were drawing the latter from a standpipe in the street.

Back in the PAH Guadalajara assembly, 29 locals sat in a circle of plastic chairs for over an hour, sharing their stories of financial woe and campaigning ideas, the more experienced ones helping and advising the generally sadder, quieter newcomers, the ages of the participants ranging from 20-somethings to people in their 70s. Two little girls sat quietly at the back, swinging their feet. So wide-ranging is the impact of the housing crisis that according to a poll for the daily newspaper El País, PAH count on support approaching 90 per cent – from right-wing Partido Popular voters as much as socialist voters. 

In the 2012 book Mortgaged Lives, which she wrote with her partner Adrià Alemany, Ada Colau describes the foresight of the smaller predecessor to the PAH, V de Vivienda (H for Housing), another modern, de-centred social movement founded in 2006, when the Spanish people were still being told that times were good, and that house prices would never, ever collapse. ‘Where the dominant discourse negated the bubble,’ they wrote, ‘V de Vivienda pointed a finger at it. Where the hegemonic discourse spoke of the Spanish miracle, V de Vivienda saw only a mirage. Where some saw bread for today, V de Vivienda predicted hunger for tomorrow. Looking back, with the current crisis as a backdrop … someone might wonder how it is possible that the most reasonable demands of a movement fell on deaf ears.’

When I told my Barcelona-based friend Carlos Delclós a few months ago about the increasingly desperate affordable housing crisis in London, and described the ever growing number of hyper-local, grassroots direct action housing campaigns in London – Focus E15 mums, Sweets Way Resists, Save the Aylesbury, Save Cressingham Gardens, there are scores of them, all of a sudden – something struck a chord. Carlos is a writer and academic working on gentrification and social movement politics, among other things, and knows a great deal about Barcelona’s housing crisis – he also knows Ada Colau from her activist days. ‘This all sounds a lot like the situation here in Spain around the time of V de Vivienda.’ You know, before the crash.


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