Spain: fighting for the right to housing

An organisation defending people affected by mortgage evictions in Spain, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, or the Victims’ Mortgage Platform in English), was recently awarded the 2013 European Citizen’s Prize.

The European Parliament recognised its "work to defend human rights and European values at European and transnational level," as declared by jury members at the award ceremony in Brussels on 23 September, 2013.

The organisation, made up of thousands of volunteers, peacefully and actively works towards combating the defencelessness of the thousands of citizens threatened with eviction from their homes.

"We will to continue to denounce this mortgage scam, and will also keep up our action, even resorting, if necessary, to civil disobedience on a massive scale, as we have already done to stop hundreds of evictions," insisted a PAH spokesperson, Ada Colau, on receiving the award.

"It is a blatant violation of human rights. We are talking about 500,000 foreclosures over the last five years,"said Colau in her acceptance speech.

Unbridled speculation and the bursting of the bubble

Land prices in Spain increased by 500 per cent between 1998 and 2005, according to the Bank of Spain. Average housing prices rose by 149 per cent between 1997 and 2004, according to the United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik.

In 2005 alone, 812,294 homes were built in Spain, more than the number built in Germany, France and the United Kingdom combined.

The United Nations also warned of the causes and consequences of this phenomenon following a visit to Spain in 2006: "...Economic and financial factors, including widespread speculation, have had negative impacts on the right to adequate housing in Spain. Affordability and the lack of public housing stock, in particular rental housing, have affected large sectors of the population."

During those years, financial institutions granted mortgages of up to 100 per cent of the property’s value, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens over-indebted.

With the bursting of the bubble and in the context of an economic crisis, thousands of people found themselves unable to pay for their homes, but under Spanish law, repossession by the bank does not mean an end to mortgage repayment obligations.

The right to decent housing

The PAH, a national network of volunteers working to "fight against the violation of the right to a decent home", emerged publicly in February 2009.

A network of volunteers was gradually built up to advise and assist people unable to keep paying for their homes.

Under the slogan ’STOP Evictions’, dozens of citizens have appealed to the banks and building societies, and held demonstrations to stop the police from executing orders to evict those unable to keep up their mortgage repayments.

The PAH has thus far managed to stop 757 evictions. During 2012, one citizen was evicted from his or her primary residence every 15 minutes due to mortgage arrears, amounting to a total of 30,034 people, according to a study by Spain’s Colegio de Registradores de la Propiedad (College of Property Registrars).

Such was the fate of a family evicted in Madrid in the early hours of 25 September, 2013 despite citizens’ support.

PAH has drafted and promoted a proposed legal amendment to regulate mortgage debt cancellation, whereby, when banks repossess homes that are the primary residences of debtors acting in good faith, the debt is cancelled, as is the case in other EU countries and the United States.

At least 500,000 signatures are needed to be able to move forward with this instrument, known as a People’s Legislative Initiative (ILP). In the case of the ILP concerning retroactive mortgage debt cancellation, the suspension of evictions and affordable social housing, 1.4 million signatures were gathered.

After presenting the proposal in February, the organisation symbolically withdrew it, following moves to merge it with a government-proposed text that "betrays its spirit," explained Colau.

In March, a judgement delivered by the European Court of Justice considered certain clauses of Spanish mortgage contracts to be abusive. It also ruled that Spanish mortgage law violates consumers’ rights.

Evictees turned activists

Two years ago, Javier, a welder by trade, lost his job for the fourth time. "We couldn’t stretch our income far enough to pay for everything. Our son was eight years old when we stopped paying for the flat," recalls his wife, 38-year-old Gloria Chaparro.

The family was faced with the threat of losing their home in Zaragoza: a 62-square-metre, two-bedroom apartment in a 40-year-old building, with a mortgage of €151,000.

"If it wasn’t for ’STOP Desahucios’ (STOP Evictions), we would have lost our home," says Chaparro.

"We negotiated with the bank thanks to STOP Evictions. We held a protest in front of the branch and gave an interview to the regional TV channel. Given the importance banks place on their image, they called me and made me an offer," explains Chaparro.

"They cancelled our mortgage and then went on to offer us a social rent of €200. So we have been able to start from scratch."

Gloria Chaparro is a housewife. Her son is now 10 years old and she works as a volunteer at the office of PAH Zaragoza. "We got our life back thanks to this; we were at risk of social exclusion but we were given a second chance," she says.

"Information meetings are held at the office every Monday, to welcome people, give them a chance to introduce themselves and to help them get over their shame, because this can happen to anyone," explains Chaparro. The volunteer service also includes free legal help and advice.

Gloria wants to send out a message of hope: "People are fighting hard, there is a strong will to keep on fighting and nothing can stop us. I want people to know that it’s worth it, there is no reason to be ashamed; there is a way out."