Spain: What is behind the campaign against squatting?

A moral panic has been emerging about the “threat” of mass squatting in Spain, but what’s the reality? Ctxt considers the situation.

Breakfast brings alarming news: Squatting is still going on, the insecurity of everyone (as we are all owners) is at its highest. A security company advertises on the radio: “Burglary and squatting alarm equipment”. A program reports to a huge audience about the heroes of companies kicking out squatters: Five bodybuilders, already in their 40s, explain their work; the legality of it seems doubtful. Statements are made by a politician: “One day you go on vacation and when you return, because they consider the house to be empty, ‘they’ give it to their squatter friends – in reference to a well-known ‘leftist’ party (Podemos). This emergency campaign against the problem of squatting is continuous, insistent, and crushing. Fear, converted into a wave of panic, reaches a good part of the population. Rumours of home invasions have acquired the rank of “I know the case of a friend of a friend who had his house occupied, and blah, blah, blah”.

But what are we talking about when we say ‘squatting’? Obviously, of entering to live in a property where one lacks all legitimate rights (ie. sanctioned within that property).

But how big is this problem really?

As it turns out, the turbulence does not seem to be that enormous, at least not in relation to the repeated attention it receives in the media. In 2019 the Ministry of the Interior registered 14,621 complaints of home invasion (this form of complaint is an almost obligatory procedure to enable an eviction). And through the first six months of 2020, there has not been a significant increase, even though there has been a moderate growth in complaints since 2016 following the economic decline in Spain that followed the most acute phase of the 2008-2013 crisis. According to another source, the Institut Cerdá, in 2017 there were 87,000 families living in illegally-occupied housing. And according to the National Police and the Guardia Civil, at the end of last year 4,717 homes were occupied in the Community of Madrid.

Let’s compare these figures with the overall number of existing homes, with the whole of the housing stock. The result is astonishing: of the more than 25 million homes in Spain according to the 2011 census, in 2019 one in every 3,571 homes was reported as squatted and, according to the figures of the Institut Cerdá, one in every 300 was illegally occupied. Consider also that of those 25m homes, 3.5m are empty, have no use whatsoever, either as a second home, or for temporary rent, or any other type (for more see Jaime Rubio Hancock).

However, 87,000 squatted homes remains a lot, especially “if it is your house that is squatted”. Another relevant question: Who is mainly affected by squatting? And another surprise. According to the National Police and the Guardia Civil, this time with data from the end of 2017, of the almost 4,000 squatted homes they knew about in the Community of Madrid only a little more than 600 were private. In other words, only one of every 5,000 homes in the hands of independent owners in the region was squatted. The rest were mainly owned by banks and public companies. These figures do not seem very different from those of Barcelona and other cities.

But if there are still 600 in the Madrid region, when you (me, we) occupy a house, isn’t it still very difficult to evict the malicious squatter? Well, it seems that if your home is the main residence, the crime, called “burglary” – not “usurpation” – can be solved within 24 hours. This has nothing to do with property-owner line that “I went on holiday and was taken over by a family and here I am watching the months go by”. If your house is empty and unused however, the crime of squatting is known as “usurpation”. In that case, you still have the nimble anti-squatting law 5/2018, which allows for the eviction of the squatter without title to a house in just five days, when the owner is a private individual (see on this subject this article by Alejandra Jacinto).

The “case of the friend of the friend”, the looming threat of the squatting hordes, Podemos and its pro-squatting agenda, the moral indignation for that imaginary moment when someone usurps what is yours… We are facing a well-known social phenomenon: a wave of moral panic among the property-owning classes, which only a few years ago was identified with society as a whole but today, after more than a decade of crisis, nearly a million evictions and two million fewer property owners, is increasingly becoming a minority. Therefore, perhaps, the question that needs to be resolved is not so much the hammering of the media and pressure of the bankers’ lobbyists. The latter would not have the slightest chance of generating this kind of concern if part of the population did not have sufficient support for their concerns, fear and even a bad conscience.

Collapse of an illusion

The financial and real estate crisis of 2008 represented more than the collapse of an era of prosperity driven by the exponential growth of construction and bank credit. It was also the end of an illusion, which for more than a decade trapped the vast majority of society. It consisted basically of a promise: access to credit and property, within the framework of ever-increasing prices, would allow everyone (literally everyone) to refinance the price of their property and build up a sometimes remarkable heritage. It was the promise of a popular, inclusive, almost democratic capitalism: however much you bought, you would still sell more, and you could always get into debt on the basis of this increase in the price of your properties; therefore, buy more, get richer.

In 2008, 87% of Spanish households owned a house, the value of the wealth in the hands of families had tripled in the previous decade. Within a few months, however, the crisis tore this mirage of “prosperity for all” to shreds: prices began to fall, unemployment rose, debt could no longer be refinanced, many families lost their homes, and many others were unable to get a salary or a house.

So today it is paradoxical, and increasingly distant, this movement of social expropriation that left families on the streets and rapidly destroyed the value of their assets, and generated a huge wave of sympathy for those who suffered. The housing movement, the PAH and the housing collectives, were for a time the heroes of the struggle against the financial tyrant. If even the heart of the middle class (the most well-off social positions) went through hell to pay off its debts, and was sometimes forced to sell off its properties, how could it not feel some empathy with those trapped in bank debt, which persisted beyond the loss of their homes, with the evicted and even with the squatters who now kept their homes in the hands of banks and SAREB.

Unfortunately that initial wave of sympathy and, in some cases, the sincere alliance between the middle classes and simple poor (those who were barely invited to the party in the first place) has now long receded. The reason, not to go into too much detail, is that neither the weak recovery from the crisis, nor the crisis in the making from the effects of the pandemic, is unfolding in a situation similar to that of 2008. Despite this current of social sympathy that underpinned the 15-M Movement, the crisis of 2008-2013 has opened cracks that historically cross this society in a way that does not seem easy to close. From 2014-2015, the recovery of the property market did not take place by means of a massive repurchase of property, which would have reintegrated previously expelled owners back into society. This would have required a public bailout similar to that of SAREB, although not aimed at cleaning up the balance sheets of the banks, like the population in default, who were being evicted from their homes at the time of foreclosure.

The recovery of the property market, and with it certain social sectors, came hand-in-hand with renting: the only legal solution available to homeless households (for young people and the poor), in the face of the neglect of the authorities and the criminalisation of squatting. For some years rent prices, also pushed by the laxity of regulators in the face of the explosion in tourist rent, grew at a rate of 15-20% per year in the country’s major cities. In 2019 some €20 billion was drained from the declining incomes of 17% of renting households to a handful of Socimis, investment funds and the 14% of households with rental property. This was the great opportunity for economic recovery for the core of the middle class of property owners, the rentista popular. And this is the reason why the middle classes will no longer show one iota of compassion for those who lose their homes, and even less so if the solution is to squat, even if the building’s owner is a bank.

As one can already guess, the fear of Spain’s landlords has a real root which goes beyond merely scapegoating squatting. The economic crisis that is beginning to emerge will not remain a crisis of consumption alone, with its consequent closure of companies and increasing unemployment. The crisis has begun to affect the property market negatively: rental prices are falling, rents are falling. The return to the conventional market of tourist rental flats, unpaid rent, and the increasing difficulty of placing homes on the market increasingly complicates the “rentier” exit route from the previous crisis. This is why the watchword is to once again take a “reed to the poor”: discipline them, so that they can keep their meagre incomes, which are increasingly parsimonious. At heart, the conflict is purely material.

The Spanish social regime (much more relevant than its political regime and, of course, much less taken into account) is owner-driven to the core. Home ownership has historically covered the deficit of the welfare state. Access to home ownership was the great challenge of social Francoism and was, in turn, in line with the economic success of democracy. Neither of the two great periods of economic expansion in democracy (1985-1991; and 1997-2008) can be understood without the real estate bubbles that multiplied the price of housing, boosted mortgage debt and generated notable expansions in domestic consumption. Prosperity in this country is linked to the property game, a game in which a larger part of the population participates. It is sufficient to recognise that the ultimate security of the middle classes, in addition to public employment, is sustained by the security of their assets: that all of this makes property inviolable, or that it is only inviolable when the rights of a larger owner (the debt holders) are at stake, that the guarantees for tenants (not to mention squatters) are lower in Spain than in most surrounding countries, that the public rental housing stock is derisory (five to 10 times’ less than in Germany, France and Italy), that the rights of these new rentier sectors are almost immovable and above all that this “progressive” government will not do anything significant in any other direction.

That is why, in the face of the fear of squatting, no repressive measures should be imposed, quite the contrary. The only line of this new left (which is hardly ever left) should be to push forward squatting, to politicise its reasons, to defend squatting of the blocks taken away from the banks and investment funds, and also from the big business. Only in this way, and not through good words, can a change in public policy be expected.


Further reading (from radar.squat.net)

Madrid Squatting, groups and events

Squats in the Iberian Peninsula:
Spain
Catalonia
Basque Country

Groups:
Spain
Catalonia
Basque Country

Events:
Spain
Catalonia
Basque Country