To a casual observer, the apartment blocks look much like any other. Well maintained, adequately furnished and with a reliable supply of power and water, few would guess the buildings are squatted by families who lost their jobs and homes to Spain’s long-running economic recession.
Around 250,000 seizure orders were served on properties between 2008 and 2012 but the cash-strapped state offers little support for ruined homeowners. So, in apartments dotted across Spain, grassroots anti- eviction group Platform for Mortgage Affected People is attempting to engineer its own housing-crisis solution.
The Platform is best known for actively obstructing evictions. But it has also occupied 15 blocks of flats and countless more houses, specifically those owned by banks that were bailed out by the government.
It is negotiating for evicted homeowners to live there legally while paying ‘social’ rent – no more than a third of their income. So far, banks have acquiesced in two buildings.
The group reports that over a thousand Spaniards are now squatting these homes, including more than 300 children.
‘Spain has three million empty buildings – the most in Europe – and more than a million of them belong to the banks,’ says the Platform’s Gala Pin. ‘We don’t need to build more houses. We rescued the banks with our money – millions of euros of public money – and they have to give something back.’
Pressure from the Platform and its cohort of disgruntled citizens secured new social housing and mortgage relief laws last year. But the policies have largely been branded a failure. Of the more than 6,000 bank- owned properties given over to social housing under the new laws, as many as two-thirds remain empty because application conditions are so strict. Particularly galling is the clause that requires families to apply through the same financial entity that evicted them in the first place.
‘People have already gone through this emotional trauma and then they have to return to the same banking branch to submit all their documents. It is a barrier,’ says researcher Melissa García Lamarca.
Yet the Spanish government appears more focused on stamping out public displays of discontent than on solving the housing crisis. A controversial and wide-ranging ‘citizen security law’ proposed in late 2013 would impose fines of up to €30,000 ($41,440) on people who obstruct evictions.
The Platform has vowed to continue with civil disobedience regardless. ‘We will not let people sleep in the streets because of any fear of being fined,’ says Pin.