Five years and 400,000 evictions after the Spanish property market crashed, and Spanish homeowners have taken to the streets to make their voices heard.
On Saturday, thousands of people in 50 cities across Spain marched in protest against the country’s tough home repossession laws.
Recently, government officials from the ruling Popular Party recently from days of talks with the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) to announce a very limited and bizarrely restrictive response to the foreclosure crisis that has turned hundreds of thousands of Spaniards into the wretched of Europe.
The talks had already been in the pipeline but were hastened by the suicide of Amaia Egaña.
Egaña, 53, was a former PSOE councilwoman from Barakaldo near the northern city of Bilbao, who leapt to her death from her fourth-floor flat as court bailiffs climbed the stairs to evict her and her family.
Her death, the second suicide related to evictions in as many weeks, brought to a head the already mounting public fury at the housing crisis.
Many feel that the government’s response has been focused on bailing out the banks with billions of euros to tide them over until the housing market improves enough so that they can unload the properties that they have foreclosed on – leaving everyone else in the lurch.
The government decree imposes a two-year moratorium on evictions of families, but only for those who have annual incomes not exceeding 19,170 euros and whose mortgage represents at least 50 per cent of the total household income.
It must also be their only home, and within the last four years the household must have suffered an adverse “change in economic circumstances” such as the loss of a job, resulting in a 50 per cent increase in mortgage payments as a proportion of family income.
For those who meet all four requirements, the measure then applies only to those who either: have more than three children or have children under the age of three; whose unemployment benefits have expired; those with elderly or disabled dependents; single-parent households with two children; or households which include victims of domestic violence.
"This is an emergency response to mitigate the effects of the worst of the economic crisis," said Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria, adding that the government would also increase the amount of low-cost housing for people who have lost their homes.
The decision followed the announcement days earlier by Spain’s banks that they were willing to freeze evictions of homeowners who were destitute.
The government’s action has been branded as ‘insufficient’ and ‘arbitrary’ by groups working to aid eviction victims.
“The decree saves from eviction a family with a three-year-old child, but not a family with two four-year-old children,” says Ada Colau, spokesperson for the Platform for the Mortgage Affect (PAH), an advocacy group which supports victims of eviction. “The majority of the families who we deal with are excluded.”
Resistance to evictions has taken the form of organised opposition, through the work of groups such as PAH, as well as the increasingly common form of spontaneous resistance by ad hoc groups of neighbours standing between the police and those facing eviction.
These latter actions have largely served only to stave off the inevitable. In one recent case the neighbours were able to deflect the police on the first three occasions, but got there too late on the fourth.
But for those who have been evicted, being made homeless isn’t the end of the story.
Even without a house, a mortgage debt can continue to mount up.
Mortgage law in Spain is among the toughest in Europe.
Homeless ex-homeowners remain liable for what they owe, even after returning the house to the bank, if the value of the house does not cancel out the entire mortgage debt – a virtual impossibility in a housing market that has seen property values plummet by 31 per cent since 2008.
They are also responsible for the late fees and court costs incurred by foreclosure.
Those select beneficiaries of the two-year moratorium will also find themselves responsible not only for the mortgage back-payments at the end of the two years but for additional late fees too.
“We bought this house in 2003 when my husband and I both worked,” said Maria Olivia, an Ecuadorian hotel worker who has lived in Spain since 2000.
“But after he was fired we haven’t been able to make the payments, since mid 2010.” Bankia, the lending bank, gave them a 160,000 euros mortgage in 2003, but are now asking for 210,000 euros because 48,000 euros has been added to this amount in interest.
“For many years I’ve paid 750 euros in mortgage, but the latest bills were for more than a thousand euros. All my savings, all my life, I’ve put into this house. I’ve had refurbishing done, I’ve invested my money and I don’t want to leave here.”
Olivia, with the help of PAH, has had her eviction postponed until February 28. After that the future of her and her family is uncertain.
“This law is just for people in dire straits and I don’t know what my social position is, whether I’m in dire poverty or not.”
A recent addition to the rebellion against evictions came before Christmas when the locksmiths in northern city of Pamplona agreed to refuse to provide their services to banks throwing people out of their homes.
The fate of those evicted varies. Some are aided by family and friends who are in a position to help. Others take to squatting, sometimes in the very flat they have been evicted from.
Ironically, for the squatter, Spain is a veritable buffet.
Between flats that were built during the construction boom but never sold, and those which the owners have been evicted from, Spain leads Europe in the number of unoccupied flats – estimates put the figure at one million upwards.
On 3 December, eurozone finance ministers agreed to 40 billion euros in aid for Spain’s four nationalised banks. The money will go toward financing Spain’s state-backed ‘bad bank’ set up to bear losses from ‘toxic loans’ following the collapse of the country’s property market.
But Colau says that the ‘bad bank’ is responsible for more evictions.
“[The banks] are waiting to hand over their ‘toxic loans’ to the bad bank’ and, therefore, are less interested in renegotiating [mortgages] with families.”
The foreclosure crisis has not only affected those who have lost or are at risk of losing their home, but has undermined fundamental notions long held in Spain.
Homeownership, which rounds 80 per cent in the country, had been the bedrock belief among Spaniards of a guaranteed stable life – and the conviction that property prices could never possibly do anything other than increase was held as an unquestionable truth.
These beliefs were so entrenched that it is arguably the principal explanation for why the Spanish are among the oldest people in Europe to get married, with an average age of 32 for men and 30 for women. In Spain, getting married without first having spent years establishing a homeownership track is so rare as to be aberrant.
But with youth unemployment at over 50 per cent, for those young people who haven’t already abandoned Spain, planning for the future seems rather pointless.