ECONOMY: These Squatters Don’t Have Dreadlocks — Surviving Spain’s Housing Crash

“This fridge is from a neighbour, and a little while ago there was a power surge and the TV broke, so another neighbour gave me this one,” says Maria, pointing to a small television set, “and all this furniture was given to me by friends.”

Maria - she won’t give her surname - is a short, 51-year-old lady, unassuming, softly spoken and sweet and she is giving me a tour of her house, a time-honoured Spanish tradition for any guest visiting for the first time. It’s a small flat with a crowded little kitchen, big enough for one person to stand in at a time. “It’s a mini kitchen,” she giggles as I try not to bump into anything. Next to it is the living room with small sofa, a table and mismatched chairs. On the floor, a fluffy black cat stretches lazily, opens its big inquisitive eyes to size me up, then settles back into its cushion. “I don’t even like animals, but some friends said it was going to be put down if they couldn’t find someone to look after it.” Everything here is salvaged, cobbled together, put to use. There are wires sticking out of the wall, a scorched hole in the ceiling, makeshift electrical fixtures. If you look up at the front door, a horseshoe hangs from a nail, and a sprig of rosemary like the ones often forced into the hands of tourists is held up with duct tape. Beneath it is a piece of wood fixed over a hole smashed through right next to the lock. And that’s when you realise that this isn’t technically Maria’s flat. It belongs to the bank, and she has been squatting here for six months.

The noisy blinds clatter open in a cluttered bedroom, the next stop on the tour. There’s an exercise bike, some boxes, stacked chairs. “My neighbour has left some stuff here because there’s no space in her house and I don’t mind.” The light streaming in feels new. According to her neighbours, before Maria moved in, the flat had been unoccupied for three years. Spain had 3.4 million empty homes according to the 2011 census, almost 14 per cent of all residential property. Evictions continue at a staggering pace. Between January 2008 and September 2014, there were 360,125 according to the General Council of the Judiciary.

Squatting has become a reality, not just for those pursuing some youthful ideal or subversive lifestyle, but for people like Maria, married couples, and families, with no other recourse. “I’ve been unemployed for eight years,” says Maria, “I couldn’t live with my mother any more and my husband left me and went off to South America. I had a bit of money saved, but when that ran out I had nowhere to go.”

We shuffle out and into the next room. “Here is the main bedroom.” The bedside table is crowded with a lamp, some small religious figures, and two framed pictures, one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Christ. Two t-shirts hang proudly on the outside of her wardrobe, “you can tell I don’t belong to any group,” she says, laughing. They are familiar symbols from demos. The first is black and emblazoned with the RSP - Red Solidaridad Popular or Popular Solidarity Network - logo, a group whose members form a network of support for people in need, providing everything from legal advice, to food and medicine. The second, a distinctive green, is from the PAH - Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca or Platform for People Affected by Mortgage Problems - who help families and individuals suffering evictions and foreclosures. The latter group has chapters in over 200 locations throughout the country, reflecting the reach of Spain’s housing crisis.

A few days before visiting Maria, I meet a group PAH activists gathered outside a government housing office. Dolores, a 52-year-old woman sporting the green t-shirt, with a PAH badge pinned to her cap, explains why they are here: “Social services are going to evict a young woman,” she says. “She has three kids, one of them with learning difficulties, so we’re here trying to stop the eviction and find some housing for her.” This is a typical outing for the group. “It’s an organisation run by and for citizens, we don’t charge anyone for anything, the only thing we ask is that whenever we have to go and defend someone, we all go to support them together. We live by the motto, ‘Today for you, tomorrow for me.’ That’s how it works.” For Dolores it has been a transformative experience. “When my husband and I contacted them, we were totally destroyed, it was our last hope. But we found a huge amount of people who were in the same situation, some worse, and decided then and there to support and defend housing rights, not just for us, but for everybody. I’ve seen the light,” she says emphatically. “It was the best thing that we could have done.”

this isn’t technically Maria’s flat.…she has been squatting here for six months.The catalyst for Dolores’s conversion is a familiar tale. “At the time, I had my flat almost paid off,” she explains. “My daughters, who are chefs, were unemployed, so we decided to start a restaurant so we could all have work. I went to the bank to ask for a loan and they said they could give me anything I wanted because my flat was worth a fortune. It struck me as strange, but we took it and set up the business. This was in 2007, right at the beginning of the financial crisis. Obviously we didn’t know what to expect, all of the local businesses around us started to close, we worked with a lot of them, so in the end we had to close too.” The failure of the business left her with an insurmountable debt, a burden that won’t be lifted even with the repossession of her home. “The bank wants to take the flat back, but they won’t get rid of the debt, we’ll have that for the rest of our lives. You can imagine what kind of life we have left. My husband is 65, he’s a pensioner. We applied for the mortgage debt forgiveness, but they refused us, even though we submitted all the correct paperwork. The majority of bank managers here just want the properties, they have them all practically sold off to vulture funds, so they don’t want to turn them into social housing, they just want to throw you out and have you pay the debt. In other countries you hand over your home and the debt is wiped clean, but not here. And for people who have a guarantor, it’s even worse. They take your house, the guarantor’s house, and they still don’t wipe the debt. What’s happening here is unbearable.”

The lasting image of Spain’s recession will be the dramatically interrupted construction sites of hotels and holiday apartment complexes lining the coasts, ghost towns that never really had any souls to inhabit them. They certainly provide a visual poignancy, but there are thousands of boarded up homes and apartments in ordinary and overlooked buildings in cities, suburbs, and towns all over the country. These properties tell stories of real people who’ve had to confront the threat of homelessness. It’s a situation that Maria finds utterly illogical: “They prefer to evict people and have homes sitting empty for five or six years than to rent them at a reduced price to people who can take care of them.”

By squatting, Maria is living the ideology of social movements like the PAH, a proactive and disobedient resistance. She and PAH believe in empowering the community and in helping individuals stand up to what it sees as self-serving and inhuman political and economic forces.

For the most part, Maria has the support of non-squatters in the same building. “They’re working people, normal people. Once they find out what we’re doing and why I’m here, they totally support us, apart from the occasional person who complains. They might say, ‘Here I am working like an idiot and these people don’t even pay for the electricity.’ But, if I could afford to rent a place, what the hell would I be doing here? With the money I get now, tell me, what place can I afford? I might be able to afford a bedroom somewhere, but when my benefits run out next year, how am I going to pay for that bedroom?”

“What are these?” I ask. Maria lights up and starts to rearrange some decorated pots in to a sort of display on the living room table as we finish the tour. “We make these little pots, me and a neighbour, and we’ll see if we can sell them and make a few euros.”

Dignity is a word you often hear in the rhetoric of these grass roots organisationsBefore becoming unemployed, Maria had several different jobs, “I’ve done lots of things: I was a cleaner, a shelf stacker, I’ve packed boxes, worked as a shop assistant, in a call centre.”

Now, while she looks for work, she devotes her time to volunteering for the PAH and the RSP, a typically reciprocal relationship - she helps out wherever she can while relying on them for basic necessities, including a cupboard full of food. “I’m so happy with the work I’m doing, all the food we’re collecting - in fact, we’re going to hand out some fruit and vegetables today. I also know a little IT. In fact, I work on the websites for our local chapter. Whenever there are demonstrations or food drives, I upload the pictures to the site and it’s great. I love helping out like that, sharing pictures and chatting with the other members. I’m very proud of myself!” She laughs, but behind it there is a real sense of validation. “I feel useful, it lets me know that I have lots of positive qualities and I can put them to good use.”

Dignity is a word you often hear in the rhetoric of these grass roots organisations in Spain, and it’s a concept that members provide for each other. “I’ve realised that there are some amazing people around. Imagine, you go to them and say you’ve got nowhere to live and within two days someone you’ve never met is giving you a room to stay in. That person deserves a monument. Even my neighbours. When I arrived I didn’t have electricity or anything and they let me use their shower; they’ve given me all of this furniture; even the cat is not mine. The way that people have helped me, it leaves me speechless.”

This year could yet present more challenges for Spaniards facing foreclosure. The mortgage moratorium, a measure that was passed with much fanfare by Rajoy’s government, is due to end in May and an extension hasn’t yet been confirmed in writing. The moratorium has saved around 10,000 from evictions according to figures released by the Ministry of Economy in August, a small percentage of those in danger of losing their homes but still a significant number and consequently a measure that the PAH and similar organisations like Stop Desahucios (Stop Evictions) are willing to fight for by protesting. Last weekend, members in Alicante staged a sit in amid cries of “Scam!” and calls for Rajoy’s resignation. Language like this is currently endemic in Spain, where stories of corruption in the media are so commonplace they have become tiring. A sentiment of weary disillusionment and an us and them mentality pervades and has been capitalised on by political party, Podemos - a party born out of the Indignados, Spain’s precursor to the Occupy Movement - that is now polling almost highly as Rajoy’s Partido Popular and the main Socialist opposition party.

Before I leave, I remember that Maria will have her own share of fresh difficulties in the New Year as her benefits are set to run out. Spain’s unemployment benefits are contingent on how many years a person has worked and are therefore limited. I ask what her plans are. “My plan is to fix up the house and to keep looking for a job. In the groups I’m involved in we’re going to start doing employment workshops, set up little markets, little things like that, so we’ll see how it goes.” She seems tirelessly optimistic. Placing her hands on her hips, she looks around. “It’s a pretty cool flat, right?”

At the door, the ritual comes to a close with a mandatory kiss on each cheek, and, with characteristic warmth, an invitation to return whenever I like. “If you find yourself without somewhere to live,” she says, “and need a place to stay, you always have a space to sleep here, even if it’s just a sofa.”

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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