Enacting equality through insurgent housing practices in Spain

By Melissa García Lamarca, PhD candidate in Geography

 

Spain’s growth has always been intimately connected to the expansion of the built environment. (1) During the country’s third and most extensive real estate boom from 1997 to 2007, over five million units of housing were built – more than the UK, France, Italy and Germany combined – as housing prices increased over 200%. Even though real average wages fell 10% during this period, financial entities granted over 800,000 mortgages each year as the public administration, real estate sector and media actively promoted housing as a sound investment whose value would never decrease. Homeownership rates reached almost 85% of the Spanish population during this period, one of the highest rates in Europe.

 

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

Real estate cycles 1970-2007 Naredo et al 2008

 

Image 1. Spanish real estate cycles, 1970-2007. Source: Naredo et. al. (2008:184) from National Statistics Institute (INE), Ministry of Development and Ministry of Housing

 

But since the bust of Spain’s boom, unemployment has skyrocketed to over 26% and more and more people are unable to pay their mortgages. A critical situation exists as the country’s Mortgage Act does not cancel the entire debt of a mortgaged household if the confiscation and sale of their house by the bank does not cover all outstanding costs. As banks are unable to sell the foreclosed houses they repossess, those evicted find themselves hugely in debt; including late payment interest and legal costs this can total up to hundreds of thousands of euros. As over 325,000 foreclosures and 200,000 evictions have occurred between 2007 and 2012 according to Spain’s justice department, hundreds of thousands are left with no place to live and a debt to pay for life. This is happening, paradoxically, as millions of homes stand empty, unsold or repossessed by banks upon developers’ bankruptcy, and banks have been bailed out with hundreds of billions of euros from public purses.

 

A vocal and highly mobilised anti-eviction platform has emerged in response to these dynamics. The Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) was formed in Barcelona in 2009 to defend the constitutional right to housing, specifically focusing on three struggles: stopping evictions, retroactively forgiving the debt of evicted households through reforming the Mortgage Act and enacting social rent. (2) Now with over 160 branches in cities across Spain, the PAH has successfully blocked over 700 evictions through their Stop Evictions campaign and are constantly in the public eye through street protests, occupying banks to demand debt forgiveness for affected households as well as lobbying for legislative change. As the latter, culminating in a Popular Legislative Initiative with almost 1.5 million signatures presented to Congress in February 2013, has led to no substantive change, the PAH is enacting equality through its most controversial campaign: occupying vacant, unsold buildings owned by banks to house evicted families.

 

Terrassa bloc Unnim

Terrassa bloc Unnim

 

Image 2: A housing block owned by UNNIM occupied by the PAH and evicted households since mid 2011. Source: PAH.

 

Driven by the motto “no people without houses, no houses without people” and “we rescue people, not banks”, this campaign seeks to recuperate the right to housing through first rehousing evicted families in empty flats owned by banks that have been bailed out by public funds and then entering into negotiating with them for families to pay social rent. The campaign was founded in November 2010 and occupations have slowly but surely increased since, particularly in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region where there are close to a dozen buildings occupied by the PAH to date. One of the first buildings occupied, in Terrassa in December 2011, recently won a victory at the end of May 2013: after one and a half years of negotiations, Caixa Cataluyna – one of several financial entities bailed out with billions of euros through the Spanish Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring (FROB) in 2009 and merged into Cataluyna Banc – agreed to rehouse those occupying the building under a 150 euro per month social rent. Perhaps in part spurred by this success, a handful of building occupations have followed in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region and in early July the PAH released a how-to manual laying out different phases plus legal and other considerations when organising individual and collective occupations of buildings, in an attempt to roll the campaign out across Spain.

 

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

Occupied housing block PAH Barcelona city centre source público.es

 

Image 3: Housing block owned by Valencia Bank in Barcelona city centre occupied on 11 July, 2013 by the PAH to rehouse four evicted families. Source: Público.es

 

The PAH’s building occupation and recovery strategy is an insurgent practice that exemplifies a powerful enactment of equality. As lobbying for legislative change – in an attempt to create equality through government institutions – has failed, equality is instead being actively taken or enacted by the subjects of equality. (3) These insurgent practices are deeply political acts and, arguably, are the types that constitute politics; as Ranciére (1999: 11) would say, “politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.” (4) Those who constitute the anti-eviction platforms in Spain were people who allegedly “had a part”, who obtained the credential of “first-class citizens” through being property owners (5), but are now the part with no part as they have been evicted and indebted for life. Their building occupations rupture the police order – the structure, justification and legitimacy of a socio-economic hierarchy, or what we normally call politics – into a space for the appearance of a subject, making visible that which had no reason to be seen. (6) Such actions question and break with the current system, filling a critical gap left by the state, private sector and other institutions.

 

In Spain, as well as in many places across Europe and the world, the crisis has shown that the state and market have failed in their claim to provide a secure reproduction of our lives (7) – that is, a framework for us to provide ourselves with shelter, food and other basic needs fundamental to human life and flourishing. Yet the Platform for Mortgage Affected People’s anti-eviction struggles, in particular occupying buildings with/for evicted families, give hope for actively claiming equality in cities across Spain. The outcomes and larger transformative potential of these acts, of course, remain to be unfolded.

(1) Daniel Coq-Huelva. 2013. Urbanisation and Financialisation in the Context of a Rescaling State: The Case of Spain. Antipode, (April): 1-19.

David Harvey. 1978. The urban process under capitalism: a framework for analysis. International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, 2(1-4): 101-131.

David Harvey. 1985. The Urbanisation of Capital. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

(2) Social rent is proposed by the PAH as a rent constituting no more than 30% of a family’s income.

(3) Todd May, 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

(4) Jacques Ranciére. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

(5) Ada Colau & Adrià Alemany. 2012. Vidas hipotecadas: De la burbuja inmobilaria al derecho de la vivienda. Barcelona: Cuadrilátero de Libros.

(6) Jacques Rancière. 2001. Ten Theses on Politics. Theory and Event, 5(3): 1-11.

(7) Midnight Notes Collective. 2009. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons.

 

Melissa García Lamarca is a second year Geography PhD student investigating the insurgent practices and forms of being-in-common of anti-eviction platforms within the context of the financialisation of housing in Spain. She is attempting to understand the role of these practices and forms in creating urban commons in Barcelona. Melissa is also a contributor to Polis, a collaborative blog on cit

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