So-called Spain. Panic wave. The looming economic crisis has begun to negatively affect the real estate market: rental prices are falling, rents are falling.
Breakfast with alarming news: squatting is still going on, the insecurity of everyone (as we are all owners) is at its highest. Radio advertisement of a security company: “Burglary and squatting alarm equipment”. Report in a program of maximum audience to the heroes of the companies kicking out squatters: five bodybuilders already in their forties explain their work; the legality of it seems doubtful. Statements by a politician: “One of these days you go on vacation and when you return, because they consider the house to be empty, they give it to their squatters’ friends – in reference to a well-known ‘leftist’ party”. The emergency campaign for the problem of squatting is continuous, insistent, and crushing. The fear, converted into a wave of panic, reaches a good part of the population. Rumors 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 of which one lacks all legitimate rights (understand, sanctioned by the property).
How big is this problem? First of all, the turbulence does not seem to be very great, at least not in relation to the repeated attention it receives in the media. By 2019, the Ministry of the Interior had registered 14,621 complaints of home invasion (the complaint is an almost obligatory procedure to require eviction). In the first six months of 2020, the increase had not been particularly significant, even though there has been a moderate growth in complaints since 2016, after the decline 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 in Spain. 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 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 25 million homes, 3.5 million are empty, have no use whatsoever, either as a second home, or for temporary rent, or any other type (to continue with the figures see this article by Jaime Rubio Hancock).
However, 85,000, or even 7,000 thousand squatted homes remain many, 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, and of the almost 4,000 squatted homes they knew about in the Community of Madrid, only just over 600 were private. In other words, only one of every 5,000 homes in the hands of small 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 of them 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 the anti-property owner guarantee that “I went on holiday and was taken over by a family and here I am watching the months go by”. But if your house is empty and unused, the crime of squatting is “usurpation”. In that case, you still have the nimble anti-squatting law, law 5/2018, which allows for the eviction of the squatter without a 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 latent threat of the squatting hordes, Podemos that favours squatting, the moral indignation for the imaginary moment when they usurp 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 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, it is increasingly a minority, still a majority, but already a minority. Therefore, perhaps, the question that needs to be resolved is not so much the hammering of the media and the pressure of the lobbies that work for the investment funds and the large banks. 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.
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 over 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 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 and 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, in fact, that wave of sympathy and, in some cases, the sincere alliance between the middle classes and the simple poor (those who were barely invited to the property, only to be quickly snatched away) is now far away. 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 15th of March, the crisis of 2008-2013 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 the previously expelled owners 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 euros were drained from the declining wage bill of 17% of households renting to a handful of Socimis, investment funds and also 14% of households with rental property. This was the great opportunity for economic recovery for the core of the middle class of property owners, what I called in another article 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 it is to a bank.
As one can already guess, the fear of the owner sectors has real reasons and these go beyond the scapegoat of squatting. The economic crisis that is beginning to emerge will not remain a crisis of consumption, with the consequent closure of companies and the increase in the number of unemployed. 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 difficulties in placing homes on the market increasingly complicate the “rentier” exit route from the previous crisis. This is why the watchword is once again “reed to the poor”: discipline the poor, 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 (5 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 “progress” 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 opposed, 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, a change in public policy can be expected.
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