After 500,000 evictions, debtors take on the bailiffs
The Platform for Mortgage Victims is mobilising an army of protesters to change strict Spanish foreclosure laws
But housing activists say the law does not go far enough to protect vulnerable homeowners who were offered cheap money during the boom and whose taxes have helped bail out the financial institutions that they say played such a big role in generating the crisis. They also say there has been little change since the country’s banking association pledged last year to suspend evictions in cases of “extreme hardship”. The promise followed a spate of suicides by homeowners in financial difficulty, including that last November of Amaia Egaña, a former Basque Socialist Party councillor, who jumped from her fourth-floor balcony in Barakaldo as bailiffs climbed the stairs to evict her.
“What we want is a stop to all evictions in this time of crisis, though we prefer not to use the word ‘crisis’. We say instead that it is all as a result of a big fraud,” says Gala Pin, a 32-year-old spokeswoman for the Platform for Mortgage Victims.
The movement is also pressing for troubled homeowners to be allowed to return the keys to the bank and be released from their debt. Under Spain’s strict foreclosure laws, homeowners must still pay off their mortgages, complete with interest and fees for late payments, even after they have been evicted and their home repossessed.
“We want people to get a second opportunity, like the banks got, but this is not the case in Spain at the moment,” says Pin, who has no mortgage but got involved in the campaign after taking part in the 15-M movement which demonstrated for radical changes to Spanish politics.
Walking away from a mortgage debt would not solve the evicted homeowner’s housing problem, however. This is where, says Pin, the millions of apartments and houses lying vacant across Spain could be put to use for social housing: former homeowners would rent these apartments at prices set according to their means.
“In Spain there are more than three million homes empty, and more than a million belong to the banks. So what we want is that these banks – most of them rescued with public money – that they use these buildings to provide a social function, and they guarantee that fundamental right to housing.”
As Collado and her family begin to recover from the trauma of their narrow escape, text messages are circulating details of the next eviction stand-off. “This is what we do. This is our life now,” says Nuria Ibañez, a 58-year-old widow and mother of two who protested at Collado’s apartment. Ibañez was evicted and, with the movement’s help, she says, reached an arrangement with the bank. “We fight for others now. We will never stop.”
An alternative to politics
As Spain’s crisis deepens, its people are turning away from politics and taking matters into their own hands. In Terrassa, a city of 215,000 people about 30km northwest of Barcelona, more than 100 people have gathered for a weekly meeting of the Platform for Mortgage Victims.
Newcomers are instructed how to prepare a dossier to begin negotiating with banks – and on keeping what little money they have out of the reach of financial institutions. “Don’t keep a cent in your account. If it’s there, they’ll take it,” is the unequivocal advice. People on welfare are advised to get to a cash machine minutes after the money drops into their account and to withdraw the lot.