Activists in Spain have found that 'people power' really can work, with a little help from Facebook and Twitter. How? Their method is simple: when bailiffs turn up to throw someone out, they are faced with a gaggle of placard-waving protestors. These 'flashmobbers' will have heard about the eviction in the previous few hours via the online communications of local activists.
300,000 people have been removed from their homes in the past two years, as a ramification of Spain's housing bubble burst. This has riled many ordinary citizens who say it is unfair that the families hardest hit by the crisis should be paying for the excesses of the banks. Local networks have sprung up across the country, inspired by the actions of an umbrella organisation, the Barcelona-based ‘Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca’ (Mortgage Victims Group) which has been campaigning on precarious housing and providing information to local residents, since 2009.
At the zenith of the decade-long property boom, banks were handing out 100% mortgages. Some borrowers claimed that it was easier to obtain a mortgage than to rent property. Then the house of cards came tumbling down. Unemployment rates soared and many people realised that they could not make their mortgage payments. Spain's unemployment rate has hit 21%, the highest in Europe, and property prices have plummeted, leaving home owners with negative equity. These two factors suggest that the rate of default on mortgage repayments will increase and, potentially, the appearance of civic flashmobs.
Another point of vexation for the ‘Indignados’ is that while evicted families squat with friends and relatives, 700,000 homes across the country stand empty. They are in the hands of banks, mainly because property developers, like individual home owners, can no longer repay their loans.
"If spain cannot provide the basics to its citizens, it is a failed state"
The prospect of losing one's home is so shameful and so frightening. You would give up eating before you default on mortgage payments and lose your home. And yet thousands in Spain are in this predicament, it is absurd! They are ordinary people like Marisa, a woman who came to us when she thought her situation was a lost cause. She's a nurse and mother of two, she had nowhere else to go. We managed to block her eviction and we are negotiating with the authorities to find a permanent solution. These are vulnerable people and they need to know that they are not alone.
Firstly, we try mediating with the bank and going through official lines. But the authorities are drifting further out of touch with the reality for ordinary people, so this approach doesn't always work. So the family will receive notification that they will be kicked out in a few days time.
We have thousands of people on our databases. Some contacts are other people who have been in a similar situation, others are concerned citizens who do not even know the person. Many neighbours also come because they may have being living in the same street for years. We set up Facebook events, use Twitter, we also contact local action networks. On each of the actions about 200 people show up, waving banners and making a lot of noise. Enough people gather to prevent the officials coming in. The protests are in same non-violent spirit as the ‘Indignado’ demonstrations; we don’t want conflict and the authorities simply turn around and leave. At least 50 evictions have been disrupted this way and the families are always grateful when the cavalry arrives.
However, there are so many of these evictions, we have nowhere near the capacity to react to them all. We are thinking about retaking the homes in the next stage of protest. It is crazy that 700,000 properties are being left to crumble having never been lived in when families are forced into the streets.
At first, back in 2009 when we set up as an advisory organisation, it was mainly immigrants who came to us. They were the first to be affected by the collapse of the construction industry and other jobs with precarious contracts. They also do not necessarily have the family support networks that native Spaniards have. I know countless immigrants have left been forced to leave because Spain turned out not to be the Eldorado they expected. Now, probably 70-80% of the people who come to us are Spanish-born. People tell us of their embarrassment of not being able to defend their property, but this movement and the high profile of these actions is taking out some of the stigma of evictions. There is a sense of solidarity among the people to wrestle against the authorities, who are very clumsily handling the crisis.
This situation is a ticking time-bomb; it has huge consequences for society. If you do not have a roof over your head, you cannot settle down and have kids. If you already have kids you cannot provide the stability to bring them up and they might leave. This brings all sorts of social problems.
And the government can do something about this: it can expropriate the empty houses which are decaying and sell them to people at a reasonable price. If Spain cannot guarantee the basic necessities and rights of its citizens, it is practically a failed state."