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Spain: the Big Squat

“If they evict us, I don’t know what we’re gonna do. Now we have nothing”, says Trini, who lives  with his partner and son in one of the eight squatted houses in a building at the center of Madrid. The 500 euros she earns taking care of elders is the only income of her family. As with most of the families that had been forced to squatting, Trini and her family want to pay for their house, but at a fair price. “I have a son and I want him to learn that he have to work hard to gain things”, explains Trini.

Since 2007 there were more than 350,000 evictions for unpaid mortgages, according to the Spanish Association of People Affected for Embargoes and Auctions. Many of these evictions have left entire families with children without homes and, have even been the cause of several suicides, like the case of M.P., who hanged himself  in the street on November, 2011, in Catalonia, after being evicted with his wife and two children.

The situation of housing in Spain is especially paradoxical. While hundreds of thousands families have lost their homes, in 2001 there were more than three million empty houses and today there could be six millions. Meanwhile,the financial entities had became the mayor real states of the country. Bankia alone owns more than 5 million euros in properties.

In 2008, Miloon Kothari, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing at the UN, recommended that Spanish Government take steps to lower the prices of housing, which last year were 40 percent overvalued and caused mortgages for 50 years, and to enlarge the number of social leasing houses, that in 2009 was equaled 1 percent of the houses in Spain, five times less than in Italy and 35 times less than in Holland.

In 2005, several social collectives started to demand the Government for corrective measures, such as the Platform of Adequate Housing or V de Vivienda. These groups organized some sittings and demonstrations. In 2009, another group was born, the Platform of People Affected by the Mortgage (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca-PAH), which started asking  the Government for the dación en pago (canceling the debt with the bank giving the house) and in November, 2010 decided to take direct action to stop evictions with citizen concentration in the affected’ house.

“We denounced the property bubble when the government denied that it existed,” says Ada Colau, one of the founders of PAH. “We knew that it was a problem because the people were over-indebted when paying off their homes and with the economic crisis many families couldn’t pay their mortgages. We expected a high number of evictions, but what we didn’t know about was a law that can put Spanish people in debt for life.”

The PAH anticipated the 15-M movement, but gained strength in May. Today, more than 150 evictions have been stopped and PAH has negotiated hundreds of supportive leases with the banks for these families. The most recent stopped eviction was the one of Patricia and her two children. They survive with 399 euros of unemployed assistance. When Patricia stopped paying the mortgage, Bankia kept the house for the 50 percent of its value and asked Patricia to pay 200,000 euros for the rest of the price of the house, interests of late payments and legal costs. “Tomorrow is the eviction of Patricia, the next week could be yours. Let’s support her”, shouted the activists of PAH in a demonstration held in a Madrid neighborhood called San Blas on February 14, the day before of the eviction. Next day, the neighbors of Patricia stopped the eviction.

However, this was not enough facing the huge number of people losing their homes everyday. Since past summer, PAH opted for squatting empty houses owned by banks to give a place to live to the evicted families under the slogan “One eviction, one squatting”. They were not the only ones.

October 15 was a new turning point. The global demonstration, followed by almost a million people in Madrid, ended in the Spanish capital squatting in the Hotel Madrid, a hotel near Sol square which was empty for years. In the Hotel Madrid were living 17 evicted families but was raised also as a support point for people that have lost their homes. It was evicted in December, but it also was the starting point of the Housing Office, in which housing and squat activists participate. Housing groups emerged also in the hundreds of assemblies formed in Spain after the camps.

Suddenly, the squat movement, existing in Spain form decades, joined forced with the housing and 15-M movements, giving advice to people that never before had any relation with squatting.

“The housing movements of 2005 only did demonstrations, but they were weak about direct action. Before, the squat and housing movement worked separated and now, with the 15-M movement, have converged and this has given strength to them”, explains Miguel Ángel Martínez, researcher on Sociology in the Complutense University (Madrid) and member of Squatting Europe Kollective.

After the first experience of having some coexistence problems in Hotel Madrid, it followed a new squatting. Since past October 15, different collectives squatted in dozens of empty buildings in Madrid, mostly owned by banks. In Catalonia there are at least eight squatted buildings also for evicted families. Two of them, in Terrasa, were a initiative of PAH, as it showed in the banners of the balcony, that claim for a social rent.

Bankia, called Caja Madrid before has been privatized, they own another squatted building, near Embajadores square. In 18 of the apartments in this building, there are elders that has been living ther for decades, paying a low rent and that are harassed by the bank to leave the building. In January, near 20 people squatted in seven flats of this building. “In a few days, Bankia reacted and put private security in the entrance of the building”, explains K., a young man of 25 who has recently finished his degree on Cinema but doesn’t have a job, so he decided to squat one of this houses. Although the security staff hired by Bankia is not legally authorized to identify or detain nobody, they exert pressure, asking everyone that comes to the building which flat he is going and why, and blocking the door if they don’t receive a satisfactory answer. The rest of the neighbors of the building have complained about it, claiming that it is an attack to their privacy. Aside from the private security, the bank has walled up near fifty houses in the building that are still empty to avoid them to be squatted. “Most of the people living here support the squatting, we are a common front”, says K. The squatting on this building have also support in the neighborhood. In January, more than fifty people made a human chain around the building to show their sympathy. Meanwhile, the housing group of the Assembly of Lavapies, in Madrid, are trying to negotiate with Bankia a social rent for the squatters. As Trini, K. has been forced to squat because economic reasons, but he asserts that there is also a politic reasons. “If law is not fair, Justice has to go over the law”, says paraphrasing the film director Jean-Luc Godard.

Aside from the squatted buildings to live on, members of 15-M movement have squatted in almost fifty empty buildings to give them a social use, a common practice for decades in Spain, specially in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao. Since the past year, activists have squatted in eleven buildings in Madrid. Although some of then were evicted by police, seven of them are still going. The chosen buildings are diverse, and mostly owned by the state: hospitals, markets, theaters, cinemas… There are buildings empty for years and some of them are not completely built because the crisis, leaving as a death structure for the people of the neighborhood. Now, these buildings are the place of the assemblies of the collectives of 15-M, and they offer also to the people cultural, educational and  leisure activities for free organized by the people of the neighborhood.

However, according to Miguel Ángel Martínez, “there are more invisible squatting than political ones”. The Housing Department in Madrid says that today, near 460 houses of social rent are squatted in the city. This is a small number, but a lot larger than in the past years. “This is a minority situation, but without a doubt there is an increase of squatting”, explains an official of the Housing Department. This number is only a small part of the real number of squatted houses, than most of the times are privately owned. The actual number of squatting is impossible to know at the moment, but different sources says to several thousands of squatted houses in Madrid.

In 2010, the Court sentences about encroachment -common crime that includes the squatting of empty houses or properties and the illegitimate use of land or water- had an increase of 29 percent from 2009 and of 50 percent from 2007. This numbers are only indicative because, as Miguel Ángel Martínez explains, in many cases the squatters are not charged of encroachment but of others crimes or offenses, like attack on the authority.

The Squatting Office in Madrid, that was created some years ago with a similar working of the squatting offices of Barcelona and Bilbao, gives support to 15 people interested on squatting each week. “The profile has changed a lot since 15-M. Before, young people and some elders with economic problems asked for advice. Now there are a lot of families coming to us”, explains S., one of the members of this office. “We don’t ask if they want to squat for economic or political reasons”. The Squatting Office today is coordinating several housing groups emerged with the 15-M to put in contact people with housing problems to squat together. They have created also support networks in the neighborhoods in which the neighbors give information about empty flats or buildings.

This new squatting wave emerged from the economic crisis and from the 15-M, it’s possibly the biggest known in Spain with maybe only one exception back in the 90′, asserts Miguel Ángel Martínez, who sees its reason in the dismantling of the social rent on the last years.

Ter García is a Spanish journalist specializing in social movements.

 

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