Veronica and her three small children live in a modernist building in a quiet, working-class Barcelona neighborhood. The apartment is perfect for the young family, except for one thing: They are living there illegally. Veronica, who declined to give her last name for fear of eviction, is among the thousands of people squatting in vacant apartments throughout Spain.
Before Veronica became a squatter, she and her children slept in two single beds in a cockroach-infested room she rented in a working-class neighborhood. “There was no space,” she says, “not even for a cot. I was so stressed.” Stressed enough, she adds, that she was willing to break the law and move into a vacant apartment in a nicer part of town. “I didn’t have any other option, especially with children,” she tells Newsweek.
Many Spaniards share her desperation. The country’s economy has recovered from 2008’s devastating global financial crisis, and its gross domestic product recently surpassed pre-crisis levels for the first time in nine years. But for the 4.25 million unemployed Spaniards like Veronica, it doesn’t feel as if the recovery has arrived. The unemployment rate is above 18 percent, while average household income has dropped 13 percent since 2009, from 30,000 euros to 26,000. Worse still, nearly 2 million Spaniards can’t afford a decent place to live, according to Habitat 3, a Spanish nongovernmental organization that works to increase affordable housing in Spain.
Part of the problem is that there isn’t much public housing. But others point to the glut of empty apartments—many of them repossessed by banks during the financial crisis. Many banks were heavily invested in new buildings that instantly became unsellable once the crisis hit, and they accumulated yet more property from mortgage foreclosures during the recession.
Over the past several years, tens of thousands of homeless Spaniards have begun to move into these empty buildings. Illegally. The owners, many of them banks the government bailed out during the crisis, have tried to kick them out, using both Spain’s sluggish court system and private security guards. As politicians push to create more public housing, the growing number of squatters has sparked a fierce debate over property rights—and how to maintain them while ensuring everyone has a decent home.
Spain’s housing woes go back to the 1960s, when the government used tax breaks to promote homeownership. The plan worked, but as a result, the country built very little public housing. Today, only about 1 percent of Spain’s housing is publicly subsidized for low-income people, according to a 2015 report by Amnesty International — the second lowest in Europe, behind Greece. In the Netherlands, by comparison, 32 percent of all residential property is social housing. In Austria, that figure is 23 percent, and in the U.K., it’s 18 percent.
Since the financial crisis, Spaniards have flooded the tiny public housing market with demand. Many of them came because they had lost their homes: Over the past nine years, Spanish courts have ordered between 400,000 and 600,000 home repossessions, according to estimates.
Housing is available, but much of it is owned by private banks. In 2016, 1.5 million units were for sale in Spain, according to consultancy RR de Acuña & Asociados. And many more empty properties are not on the market, as owners wait for prices to rise. Many of these empty properties need renovations or are in rural areas where there is little demand, according to housing analysts.
This imbalanced market has spurred homeless Spaniards across the country to take over entire buildings. They mark their territory with signs that designate their new homes “reclaimed.” Nationwide, almost 45,000 buildings have been squatted illegally in the past five years, according to government figures seen by local media.
Activists distribute posters offering advice for anyone at risk of eviction. “Can’t pay the rent?” reads one poster, “Have you thought about squatting?” In Barcelona, those looking to move into an empty property can visit the unofficial “office for housing” run by activists, which recently opened and is located, of course, in a squatted building.
The phenomenon has even changed the way real estate agents work. “It’s rare that we put an advert in the window or on the balcony of a property, as we used to, because it’s very likely that you will end up with an illegal occupation,” says Lorenzo Viñas, head of the Landlords Association for Barcelona and Lleida.
Another reason there are so many squatters: It’s easy to become one. If squatters remain undetected for the first 48 hours, they can avoid criminal prosecution and fight their case in civil court, with the right to appeal. In Spain’s slow-moving judicial system, it takes an average of two years to remove a squatter, according to Marta Legarreta, an expert in housing law. In the meantime, the owners are responsible for any utility bills in their name.
Spain’s banks are trying to make it harder for squatters to take over properties by working to detect them early. And landlords’ eagerness to remove squatters has created a business opportunity that is legally gray. Spain’s equivalent to Craigslist shows a half-dozen advertisements posted in recent months that offer extrajudicial evictions to private landlords, banks and real estate companies with a squatter problem.
The industry’s self-proclaimed pioneer is a Barcelona-based company called Desokupa, loosely translated in Spanish as “unsquat.” Desokupa begins by negotiating with squatters, frequently offering them money to leave. Failing that, Desokupa places a guard outside the property 24/7 to prevent the residents from returning after they go out. Or it sends in one of the large men (with a military background or experience as a professional boxer) whom the company employs to “negotiate” with tenants, Desokupa says. The price for an eviction starts at 3,000 euros ($3,360), though it can be substantially more if the squatters are dangerous.
Desokupa’s co-founder J. (who would not give his full name because the company has been receiving regular anonymous threats) likens himself to the Bill Gates of eviction. He stumbled on his methods for dealing with unwanted tenants a few years ago, after squatters repeatedly occupied several of his properties. “I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t threaten anyone,” J. says. “The only thing I do is strengthen private property.”
But not everyone agrees with that assessment of his methods. Viñas, the head of the landlords’ association, says landlords should use the court system rather than resorting to private evictors like Desokupa, which, he says, encourages squatting by paying illegal occupants to leave. Observatori DESC, a Barcelona-based NGO, has filed a lawsuit against Desokupa for an eviction last year, alleging that the company used force and intimidation, according to the organization’s director, Irene Escorihuela. Desokupa denied any wrongdoing to Newsweek, calling the allegations “unfounded.”
Landlords, of course, are also up against tenants who operate outside the law: Activists feel entitled to encourage squatting in property that belongs to banks that received taxpayer-funded bailouts. They say this property should be publicly subsidized housing. Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), a nationwide grassroots housing rights group, claims to have helped more than 3,500 families squat empty properties owned by banks since the crisis began. In Catalonia, banks hold more than 43,000 empty repossessed properties, of which almost 9,000 are squatted, according to Habitat 3.
Housing activists are breaking the law to make a point. They want legislation that would encourage banks to take the property they are struggling to sell and make it into public housing. “We have a great opportunity in our country to buy [surplus] housing stock at low prices and use it for social means,” said Carme Trilla, head of Habitat 3. But without legislation, she says, banks have preferred to wait out the crisis, hoping for a better return on their investment. “[The banks] always believed this would be over quickly and...would end up selling properties as they had before,” says Trilla. “But it’s been 10 years, and there’s been nothing quick about it.”
Some city councils, including Barcelona’s, have responded by slapping fines on banks that keep empty properties on their books for long periods in hopes that the market will recover, while refusing to lease them to local authorities so they can be converted into public housing.
Many banks are reluctant to discuss their empty properties. One bank, BBVA, declined to comment on squatters or its property holdings. Another, Bankia, would not reveal how much empty property it holds or how many of its properties have been squatted, for fear of encouraging the practice. But the bank said in an email that it is working with numerous regional governments to lease almost 2,400 apartments at rent-controlled prices. But even if that happens, banks leasing low-priced properties can’t be the only solution.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, a former spokeswoman for PAH, has tried to implement other measures to put more people in homes. By borrowing from the European Investment Bank, among others, Barcelona aims to increase public housing from 3 percent to around 15 percent of the city’s total housing supply in the next decade. The city has introduced subsidies for landlords to renovate old apartments, provided they agree to rent them at affordable prices. It has introduced specialist teams to detect those at risk of eviction and offer subsidies to insolvent tenants unable to pay rent.
Colau’s old employer, PAH, is also calling for the introduction of rent control policies in the city, where eviction orders, which average eight to 10 every day, are mostly the result of failing to pay rent, which rose an average of 15.9 percent in 2016 while wages remained stagnant.
Since Veronica entered her current apartment last August, BBVA sold the building. Its new owners have announced plans to convert the property into luxury apartments. Veronica is once again looking for a place to live, though she is grateful to the local activists for finding her an apartment. “I don’t feel bad about having done it,” she says. “Now I just have to fight so they give me public housing.”
A single parent with young children, she may jump to the top of the waiting list. But others won’t be so lucky. They’ll have to do just what the activists did for Veronica and go looking for an empty apartment to break into.
More from Newsweek