Photo by Regina Winkle-Bryan
Toni and Annie in their squat in Terrassa
If we look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he argues that property and employment are some of our most basic requirements, close seconds after absolute essentials such as food, air and water. But in today’s Spain, the necessity for a roof over one’s head is not being met, even though the Spanish constitution grants the right to housing to all citizens.
Everyone requires a place to stay, but paying rent in Barcelona is not easy for many due to the economic crisis and an ever-climbing unemployment rate. It’s hard to pay a mortgage if you suddenly find yourself out of work, a situation that currently results in about 20 evictions a day in Barcelona, and 300 across the country. While being evicted is rough on anyone, it’s especially hard on Spaniards. In Spain, when homeowners can’t make their payments the bank takes the house and the once-owner keeps 40 percent of the debt. Therefore, the unlucky individual is rendered jobless, homeless, and an average €80,000 in the hole, according to a spokeswoman from the organisation Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH). In addition to the 40 percent, the former homeowner must also pay legal fees and interest on the debt.
Sound a bit extreme? Many consider this situation to be abusive, and organisations such as PAH actively protest against it, managing to stop 140 evictions since 2010 and help thousands struggling to make ends meet. While 140 stopped evictions is a success, it’s a small one when compared to 300 evictions a day in Spain.
PAH began way back in pre-crisis times when some saw the housing bubble forming but few were interested in looking at it carefully. PAH first became active under the moniker ‘V Por Vivienda’ (VPV) which was well known for its catchy slogan, ‘Nunca vas a tener una casa en tu puta vida’ (‘You’ll never own a house in your ^%$@$%^ lifetime’). VPV was a grassroots movement, mostly made up of young people who were unable to fly the nest and get their own place because of high rent prices in Barcelona paired with low salaries.
In 2008, VPV lost some of its traction as the economy did a swan dive into crisis mode and young people became less concerned with buying a flat in the face of other problems. However, some of those affiliated with VPV decided to pick up where the movement had ended and form PAH, which came to be in February 2009. PAH differs slightly from VPV in that it focuses on helping those who are being evicted and trying to change the law that allows banks to stick evicted homeowners with 40 percent debt. In many cases, when a family is being evicted, PAH tries to step in and negotiate with the bank concerned, asking it to allow the family to pay rent instead. On some occasions, this approach has worked, but in most instances it hasn’t and the family ends up evicted anyway. Under these dire circumstances, and with no other recourse, PAH has worked with families to re-open their home and ‘occupy’ or ‘squat’ it. This is illegal, but in this day and age, there is a growing sense that many people don’t think it should be.
Numerous steps are taken by PAH and the homeowners before they resort to becoming squatters (called okupas in Catalan and Castilian). Occupying a home is always the last option as it causes all sorts of legal issues and can be traumatic for the evicted family. Many of the evicted who have recently decided to squat their own homes or other bank-owned properties had never previously participated in the Okupa movement nor did they consider themselves to be activists. In Barcelona, buildings in Nou Barris and Sants have been publicly taken over by families, with many other buildings also being occupied under the radar. “These days with the housing crisis, they estimate that there are 80,000 apartments standing empty in Barcelona,” said Iñaki García García of El Local, an alternative bookshop in El Raval. With abundant empty buildings and many needy people, squatting has become the answer.
Toni and Annie lost their home in Terrassa in January this year. Like many affected by the crisis, Toni worked in construction and lost his job when the sector tanked. Unable to pay his bills, Toni was told by Banca Cívica that he, his wife, and two daughters would have to move elsewhere. But where?
“We stayed with a friend for a week, but couldn’t stay for longer,” said Annie of their alternatives to squatting. “It was under a bridge or squatting this building,” added Toni, whose relatives were not willing or able to help them when they lost their home.
Toni and Annie got in touch with PAH, which helped them to negotiate with the bank. In the meantime, Toni gained the support of many Terrassa residents when he camped in front of Banca Cívica for two weeks protesting the impending eviction. While Toni’s creative form of direct action did have some result (they lowered the 40 percent to 15 percent in his case), he and his family were still evicted and needed a place to go. This is how Toni and Annie ended up as one of the 11 PAH-supported families who squat a new building in the centre of Terrassa that is owned by Catalunya Caixa. The families and PAH publicly took over the building on December 16th, 2011 and are widely supported by neighbours and the community.
Inside Toni and Annie’s sunny apartment there is running water and electricity, and lunch is cooking in the oven. There is no hot water or gas, so they prepare their bath water on the electric stove. The couple sit on the couch with their friend and neighbour Diego who lives with his wife and their two children on the third floor. There is a common notion that most of the people who are losing their homes and turning to squatting are foreigners or immigrants, but Toni, Annie and Diego are all from Catalunya.
Before he lost his home and business, Diego had a small bar in Terrassa. “I never thought that I’d end up squatting an apartment,” he told Metropolitan. Far from radical, these three parents could not seem like more normal people. They are squatters and activists out of necessity, not choice, as are the other nine families in the building. Of the 29 people living in the building, six are children.
Toni and company are a good example of a much larger problem. There is not enough subsidised housing in Spain, and as people continue to lose their homes they are left with few options. PAH has pointed out many times that while many Catalan banks offer social programmes supporting the arts or people suffering in other countries, they are not doing enough to to aid the huge social problem in their own backyard. With so many empty bank-owned flats in Barcelona, why not turn some of those buildings into social housing projects? Couldn’t this be a win-win solution? PAH hopes so, and in the case of the Terrassa building, PAH has taken action to show their good intentions. The 11 families have opened a current account with Catalunya Caixa and committed to paying €80 a month in rent each. While the bank has not recognised or collected on these payments, the objective behind it is a positive one.
While direct action against, and pressuring, the banks are important factors in the PAH movement, perhaps even more important is the support the organisation gives to those in need. “When we started out, we expected to find many evicted people angry at the banks and the system. Instead we found that people were very depressed,” said Ada of PAH Barcelona. Being bankrupt, out of a job, homeless and unable to obtain more credit can take a serious toll on a person’s self-esteem. PAH found that many people in this situation turned to alcohol, suicide and violence because of the sense of alienation and failure they suffered.
In Barcelona, PAH’s response to this issue is a weekly meeting held each Friday. At this meeting, at-risk individuals get support, but also see that they are not alone. Furthermore, at meetings they learn what their rights are, how to take steps to exercise those rights, and how to help others do the same. This empowering system has caused PAH to grow rapidly in the last year, and what started as a small group in Barcelona now has 50 associations across Spain.
A society which struggles to meet its most basic needs cannot evolve and flourish. The economic crisis is far from over, and 2012 is supposed to bring more job losses and additional cuts to social services. When the government is unable to provide for those in need, perhaps drastic measures like squatting should be allowed. In any case, there are innumerable families who could use a helping hand. To see what you can do to help, contact PAH through their website.
Follow Regina on Twitter: @TheSpainScoop
Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca—http://afectadosporlahipoteca.wordpress.com
Banca Cívica— www.bancacivica.es
Hiptecados Terrassa— http://hipotecadosterrassa.blogspot.com