The Mortgage Holders Platform 4: resisting the financialization of housing

This is the last of a series of posts on the Mortgage Holders Platform (Platforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or PAH), a Spanish movement of people in danger of being evicted because they cannot pay their mortgages. In the first, second and third posts we looked at the background to the PAH and its dación en pago campaign. Here we look at two other campaigns. Stop Evictions uses direct action to resist evictions. The Obra social campaign involved the occupation of housing held by banks by those who have been evicted.

All four blog posts will be made available in a single PDF in the coming days. Keep an eye on this blog to download it.

Stop evictions: Direct actions against evictions

The ‘stop evictions’ campaign kicked off on the 3rd of November 2010 when the PAH successfully resisted the eviction of Luis, mentioned in our second post.

Ada Colau (2011) notes that resisting evictions involves much more than a bunch of people turning up on the day to block the eviction. The process involves putting in place a plan which deals with the entire process for as long as it continues and creating a continuous network of solidarity and support. This ‘before and after’ work covers a number of areas. Mainly, this means using the institutional mechanisms to delay the eviction, for example by liaising with social services, the court, and so on. A delay can also be achieved by putting pressure on the bank in question. This can work via media pressure and the PAH have found the banks are quite concerned about negative publicity. Actions to pressurize banks usually involve a protest outside the bank branch in question, informing the public and customers about its abusive practices, and putting up posters and stickers saying things like “this bank cheats people and throws them out of their home”. These actions can sometimes lead to a meeting with the bank manager, who can try to seek an intervention from further up the chain of command. The PAH also support people when it comes to negotiating with their bank. For many people threatened with eviction negotiations with banks are extremely stressful and difficult. The imbalance in information and understanding of mortgage law are key obstacles. Collective support and education can ensure that the PAH enter into the negotiations with the confidence and weapons they need for effective negotiation. If any of the above are successful, and the eviction is delayed, a march is organized to the city council, demanding to meet with a representative of some sort with the objective of achieving a commitment in relation to the suspension of the eviction. The city council can sometimes pressure the bank in relation to the eviction, and they can also make available alternative accommodation. Normally the various processes described so far (negotiations with various parties etc.) will continue over a period of time and so it is important that collective support and action continues throughout.

In terms of physically resisting an eviction, it involves the following (Colau, 2011). A rally will take place outside the house beginning at least 30 minutes before the assigned time of eviction. Normally, when the individual in charge of the eviction arrives, sometimes accompanied by a small number of police, they make no attempt to pursue the eviction as they have no authority to use physical force in this instance. They can return to the court and have the eviction suspended or rescheduled. Meanwhile, the activists undertake a number of actions. One or two people should be inside the house with the family keeping them informed and trying to create a relaxed atmosphere. Someone should be in charge of dealing with the authorities, explaining the reasons for the action in a “calm and respectful, but firm” manner. Someone should also take responsibility for dealing with the media explaining the motives, identifying alternatives to eviction, and pointing out that the financial institutions are responsible. At the same time, people will also be needed to keep the rally going by keeping everyone informed, chanting and so on.

Using this assortment of tactics the PAH have been able to successfully resist over 220 evictions across the Spanish state, providing an important illustration of the power of collective organizing in terms of defending social rights. The PAH operate by putting in place collective mechanisms at each point in the process, intervening collectively wherever an individual or family is in danger of being vulnerable, isolated or individualized. From negotiations with the bank manager to appearing in court, and from resisting evictions to putting pressure on the city council, the PAH operates collectively on a number of levels to ensure the right to housing.

Seville’s 15-M movement occupy an apartment block for homeless families

Obra Social

The last project discussed here is what the PAH refer to as Obra Social (public/social works). This element of the campaign has emerged out of the intransigence of both the banks and the government in terms of the continuing prioritization of creditors and financial interests over the right to housing, despite the fact that the latter is guaranteed by the constitution and international treatise. It has also emerged from the immediate need of the PAH activists and others who find themselves homeless and faced with outstanding mortgage debt. Given the unpayable nature of this debt, rising unemployment, the absence of social housing and the deregulation of both the mortgage market and the private rented sector, the possibility of those in grave economic difficulty accessing housing is extremely slim. As a result, the PAH and other activists have begun to occupy empty housing units held by banks.

In a manner characteristic of the PAH the recourse to civil disobedience is not undertaken in a ‘gratuitous’ fashion. Instead, this recent initiative is situated as part of a broader project of collective social transformation which involves battling on all fronts, constructing a political language and legitimacy for their actions and responding to real social needs. As part of the announcement of their campaign, the PAH made the following declaration:

“Faced with an unjust law which allows financial entities to throw families out of their homes, and at the same time to continue to collect a large part of the debt, we have exhausted all legal and administrative possibilities to defend basic rights:

  • We have tried to negotiate with the banks in relation to the application of dación en pago and so that families can remain in their homes paying a ‘social rent’
  • We have tried to achieve justice in the courts;
  • We have tried to change the law at parliamentary level;
  • We have tried to force city councils to defend their citizens by impeding evictions arising from inability to pay.”

Moreover they have also linked the above to the general political situation of financialization. They describe the Obra Social campaign as a response to “a public administration which lacks the political will to respond to a genuine housing emergency…a failed state incapable of guaranteeing fundamental rights…and a public power which prioritizes the profits of banks over the solvency and the survival of people.”

On the basis of such an argument, the PAH have begun to occupy housing which is under the control of banks as a result of foreclosures and evictions. But this ‘second phase of struggle’, which the PAH consider a ‘turning point’, was also promoted by a change of tactics on the part of the State. Recently, judges have begun to issue evictions without a fixed time or date, making collective resistance much more difficult.

In September 2011 a couple involved in the PAH and their six-year-old daughter were evicted from their home by riot police. Not only had they been evicted, the bank was still pursuing them for outstanding debt amounting to €300,000. One week later, the house was collectively re-occupied and the locks were changed. In December of the same year the PAH Terrassa, an organization which at one point managed to stop four evictions in only 15 days, organized a march for the right to housing. During the protest an apartment block was occupied. The PAH announced as part of the same action that a separate apartment block had been occupied by five families a number of months previously. Both blocks were the property of a bank and the PAH immediately demanded that the residents by allowed to stay on the basis of a ‘social rent’.

Conclusion

In this series of blog posts we have seen how a process of collective organising has developed in Spain to resist the financialization of housing and to fight for the right to housing. Much more could be written on the PAH – our aim here has just been to provide an introduction to this movement and sketch out its development and key campaigns. One of the most important elements of the movement has been its relation with the 15-M movement. The occupied plazas which sprung up all over Spain in the summer of May 2011 provided an important place for building solidarity around the issue of housing.

The relationship between the PAH and 15-M is an incredibly positive example of how an existing form of collective self-organizing oriented towards accessing a concrete social right has been able to link up with new social movements in a mutually enriching way. The PAH was over a year old when Spain’s 15-M movement kicked off in May 2011. Since then many successful actions, including resisting evictions, have been organized through the assemblies of the 15-M movement. Only a few days ago, over 200 activists from Sevilla’s 15-M movement occupied an apartment block held by the bailed out Bankia. Five homeless families have moved in.

This has provided both a positive vehicle for action for the 15-M movement as well as making possible the kind of mass action needed to resist evictions. The 15-M movement also provided a context within which many of the concrete concerns of the PAH could be linked to broader questions such as debt and financialization. Finally, the PAH has been at the centre of developing the 15-M’s programme for action around the housing issue, available here in castellano.

The relationship between the PAH and the 15-M is instructive and inspiring, but relationships will also need to be built at a European level. Most importantly, any future movement against evictions and the financialization of property in Spain will need to work with similar European movements. The question of debt and financialization, key obstacles to the right to the housing, are international and are made possible by the European institutions’ pro-finance agenda. We hope that these blog posts can contribute to learning between social movements and so act as a small step in this process.

Works referenced

Colau, A. 2011. ‘Cómo se para un desahucio: la experiencia de la Plataforma de Afectados por la hipoteca’. Available here: http://afectadosporlahipoteca.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/como-parar-desahucio_a-colau1.pdf

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