There are far worse things for a city than having squatters occupying empty real estate. That’s the message from Barcelona this month, where upcoming city elections are putting illegal building occupation close to the top of the agenda.
Mayoral candidate Ada Colau, heading up a broad, left-leaning party platform dubbed Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”), says that if she is elected on May 24, the city will no longer evict squatters from unused public buildings. The crime of leaving buildings empty when there is a need for housing, Colau suggests, is far greater than using them without permission. Should she become mayor, Barcelona will only pursue public building evictions if there is a safety issue.
What makes this policy striking is that it has a real chance of going through. Like the United States, Spain has seen a wave of foreclosures, evictions and homelessness since the sub-prime bubble burst in 2008. Unlike the United States, the crisis has so shaken up the political system that people who in New York would have been relegated to the standoff in Zuccotti Park are now knocking at the gates of power. There are several weeks left to go, but some polls have recently placed Colau’s slate just in the lead.
Colau herself is a veteran activist. In 2009, the now 41-year-old co-founded PAH—the “Platform For People Affected By Mortgages”—an anti-eviction campaign group that controversially imported the South American tradition of Escraches, demonstrations outside the homes of hostile officials. That such a tactic gained widespread support (PAH has won national human rights awards) can be partly explained by the extremely punitive nature of Spain’s home loan default laws. Until recently, Spanish law made it extremely hard to stall eviction proceedings, allowing lenders to slap late loan re-payers with massive interest hikes and hold them liable for debt even after they’d lost their homes.
Thanks partly to PAH’s efforts, the European Court of Justice ruled these laws unfair in 2013, and Spanish law has since been modified, if not entirely reformed. This success, and the movement behind it, helped spawn the birth of Barcelona en Comú (initially called Guanyem Barcelona—“Let’s win Barcelona” in Catalan), a broadly left-wing citizen group that focuses on grassroots neighborhood politics. Standing on a pro-small business, anti-corruption platform, the group has an eclectic set of goals that ranges from de-privatizing utility companies and placing legal limits on officials’ salaries, to fighting the spread of vacation rental apartments and capping fare increases on public transit. Their strength is that they have been seen (so far) as untainted political outsiders, devising their policies through public forums.
That said, Colau already has clear allies in Spain’s squatters. Active since the 1980s, the country’s Okupa movement (not directly related to North America’s Occupy) has also predictably mushroomed since the crisis, setting up a network of squatted “social centers” (activist hubs, places to live and sometimes impromptu soup kitchens) fueled by a wave of evictees and frustrated, unemployed youth. The Barcelona region has around 60 of these, including the now famous Can Vies squat, saved from demolition last year following protests by (among others) a group of mooning senior citizens. Removing pressure on these groups is both a practical measure and the expression of a credo—that the real forces threatening the city are not to be found in occupied buildings.
It’s still too soon to assume that such a credo will become official policy. Barcelona’s muddy political waters are a little too churned up to see clearly to the bottom right now.
One thing seems clear though. Barcelona has, over just the past couple of years, become a sort of petri dish culturing a new strain of urban politics. Whether it’s as an inspiration or a cautionary tale, the set of new brooms sweeping the city are forces other crisis-beleaguered European cities would do well to watch closely.