Fighting Spain's Soaring Eviction Rate with Sit-Ins

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Sergio Perez / Reuters

Members of Afectados X la Hipoteca (Mortgage Victims Platform) shout slogans during a protest to stop the eviction of an unemployed woman and her two children, one of whom is disabled, in Madrid July 6, 2011

In the end, Maria José del Coto's reprieve lasted just two weeks. On July 6, a few hundred protesters had formed a protective human barrier around her building, preventing a judicial team from evicting her from the home in which she has lived for the past 25 years. But on Wednesday, when the protesters tried the same tactic, they discovered that police had beaten them to the punch. Showing up earlier than the demonstrators for the 9:30am eviction, about 50 officers blocked access to del Coto's apartment to all but the court officials. By 10am, the 53-year-old and her two adult children, one of them disabled, were on the street. "It's just cruel," said one of the protesters, Javier Garcia, in disgust. "She loses her home, and she's still in debt. What's wrong with this country?"

Among the many symptoms of Spain's prolonged economic crisis is a startling rise in the number of foreclosures, most of them born of an unemployment rate — Europe's highest — that currently tops out at 21.3%. In the first trimester alone of this year, there have been 15,546 evictions, a 36.8% increase over the same period in 2010. So frequent have they become in Madrid that the number of courtrooms in the city dedicated to hearing foreclosure cases has more than doubled, from six to 13. But with the evictions has come a wave of popular efforts to halt them, some of which have proven successful — at least temporarily.

"We've managed to stop three in the last six weeks," says Vicente Pérez, spokesperson for the Platform for Mortgage Victims, which goes by its initials in Spanish, PAH. The organization, which was founded in Barcelona in 2008, currently has chapters in about 50 cities in Spain and estimates that its demonstrations have helped stall 30 evictions.

The PAH has had help from Real Democracy No and the other so-called "indignants" — mostly young, disgruntled Spaniards — who staged massive sit-ins throughout the country in May. That movement has continued its protests against high unemployment, government corruption, and a host of other issues by holding regular neighborhood assemblies; it has also launched a nationwide protest march that will reach Madrid this weekend. But the eviction protests have received the most media attention, and for many participants, have been the most satisfying. "I do this because I want to support my fellow citizens, to show my solidarity with them," said street sweeper Pilar López Rodero, 58, who was standing behind police lines a block away from del Coto's building on Wednesday with a placard that accused banks of usury. "And sometimes," she added, "We even manage to help them stay in their homes."

Spain's mortgage laws are among the West's most punishing when it comes to defaulters. Unlike in the U.S., simply handing back one's keys to the bank does not dissolve a homeowner's debt; the homeowner is still responsible for any difference between the original loan and the price for which the bank is able to sell the property. With housing values falling 15% from their peak three years ago, that difference is enough to sink many homeowners. Despite Wednesday's eviction, for example, del Coto, who is out of work and earns just €520 ($750) a month in disability payments, currently owes some €200,000 ($285,000) — €50,000 ($72,000) more than the apartment is worth right now.

As a result of cases like that, the PAH is gathering signatures for a popular legislative initiative that would reform mortgage laws. "We want banks to negotiate reduced payments with their clients, and we want the government to guarantee some kind of housing for the evicted," says Pérez. "But more than anything, we need to make it possible for someone who gives their house back to the bank to eradicate their debt."

Others have had the same idea, but have had trouble convincing the government. When a regional party, the BNG, presented a similar measure in the Spanish parliament in June, lawmakers rejected it, citing worries about the increased pressure it would put on the country's struggling banks.

That's a valid concern, says University of Ramon Llull economist Santiago Niño Becerra. "Spain isn't the United States," he says. "There, you have an enormous mortgage market that moves massive amounts of money. In comparison, Spain's mortgage market is ridiculously small. And with housing values dropping, the banks here simply can't withstand those kinds of losses."

With an estimated 700,000 houses built during the go-go years of Spain's real-estate bubble still standing empty, there are no signs that the problem will diminish anytime soon. "Housing values are still falling. Unemployment is going to go up even further, and people's ability to meet their payments is going to drop even more," says Niño Becerra. "When it comes to foreclosures, we're going to see some unbearable statistics. It'll require a political solution, not just a financial one."

The Spanish parliament recently appointed a subcommittee to investigate mortgage reform options, but the committee's report is not due until December. That isn't soon enough for del Coto, who, after staying with relatives, plans to move her family into a garage (it has electricity, but no running water) while she waits for government-subsidized housing. As she left her home on Wednesday, she thanked those who had tried to prevent her eviction. "I'm not a debtor," she said. "I'm just poor."