From eviction to squatting: a movement in Spain defends the right to housing

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Since the economic crisis came to Spain, there have been hundreds of thousands of foreclosures around the country. Here’s one, which appeared on the website of the a community group called Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, which translates as Platform of those Affected by Mortgage):

Elisa and her family suffered a foreclosure. They lost ownership of their home but are still forced to keep on paying a €300,000 debt to the bank. The bank has rejected any form of negotiation to find an alternative solution to the problem and it is now willing to leave them with a life sentence.

It’s a common story, increasingly, around the world. But what’s less common is what PAH says in the very next sentence: “We believe that we can stop this.” The group had already prevented three evictions to save this family, but this time the judge ordered the police to intervene.

The PAH received a major boost thanks to this year’s May 15 movement, in which it was heavily involved, but its work started back in February 2009. “Most of us were people from an older housing rights movement called V de Vivienda (roughly translated to ‘H’ for Housing) and other organizations,” explains Ada Colau, a spokeswoman for PAH. She also points out the influence of US organizations like the Center On Housing Rights and Evictions, as well as Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story.

“We denounced the property bubble when the government denied that it existed,” Colau says. “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.” PAH’s first actions aimed to encourage mutual support between citizens and to legislate a Deed of Assignment of Payment, which would cancel the debt with the bank by handing over the house to those living in it. Because of the government’s failure to act, the Platform started working to help the families facing foreclosures directly.

On November 2, 2010, PAH started the “Stop Evictions” campaign, giving legal advice and calling for citizen mobilizations to prevent families from being thrown out of their homes. The case of Lluis, who is from a small city in Catalonia called La Bisbal del Penedès, was the first one. A 59-year-old unemployed mechanic with a 9-year-old son, Lluis was facing the loss of his home, a €100,000 debt, and the loss of custody of his son because he was unable to provide him with a home. The support of nearly 20 neighbours made the judge postpone the eviction for a month, and by December there were 50 people sitting in front of the court asking for a solution for Lluis. Because of such organized pressure, the judge asked the bank to postpone the eviction until Lluis found another place to live or got another job. The Lluis case opened the door for many families in a similar situation. By June, the Platform had already used civil disobedience tactics to stop 42 evictions.

As PAH explains on their website, their actions are focused on stopping evictions of single-home families who can’t pay the mortgage because of unforeseen circumstances. The Platform calls on people to gather about a half an hour before an eviction is scheduled. Participants share different tasks during the mobilization; some of them speak with the legal commission and the police, politely explaining the reasons for the action, some stay with the family inside the house, and some coordinate those outside the house. After the eviction is prevented, the citizens go to the city council, and then to the bank, to demand a solution for the family.

In July, they stopped 20 more evictions in this way. But, after all of the PAH’s victories, Madrid’s police force redoubled its efforts and managed to prevent the Platform’s interference for the first time. It was the second attempt to evict a woman named María José and her two sons, one of whom has a disability. The judge ordered the use of all necessary police force to carry out the eviction. There were 50 police agents against 100 citizens and, before 8:00 a.m., María José lost her home and was left with a debt of €200,000.

That case was a turning point for PAH, which is now organizing under the slogan “An evicted house, a squatted house.” José Coy, one of the founding members of the Platform, announced on July 23rd in Madrid’s Sol Square, in front of 40,000 people with the May 15 movement, that there would be a new kind of action to defend housing rights: squatting in empty houses. After that, the PAH developed a list of empty, foreclosed houses in every part of Spain, and in recent days they conducted their first action by arranging the return of a family to their home in Moncada, Valencia. Meanwhile, last month in Seville, one hundred people gathered to develop a similar action to support of a man named Juan Carreño and his family, who lost their home in July. Mobilized by the SAT (Andalusian Workers Union), people entered through the windows and remained in the house until the bank agreed to negotiate with the evicted family.

“We have no choice,” explains Ada Colau. “The judges have begun to put out more dates and increase the police presence, and each time it’s more difficult to stop evictions.”

Today there are 2 to 4 million empty houses in Spain. “With a resigned and weak government that leaves the housing in the hands of the private market, thousands of empty houses are in the bank’s hands,” she adds. “We have no more options.”

Special thanks to Erin Rosa for helping with the English translation.

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