A Spanish mayor’s left turn on housing

A mayor in Barcelona has found a novel way to begin dealing with the country’s housing shortage.

The new mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau waves to the people as she crosses Sant Jaume square to meet Catalonia''s regional president at the Generalitat palace [AFP]
Colau has injected some humanity into an inhumane political landscape, writes Fernandez [AFP]

This month, Barcelona’s new left-wing mayor Ada Colau announced a total of 60,000 euros in fines against three Spanish banks for the possession of houses that have stood empty for more than two years. The fines were for 12 properties located in neighbourhoods most affected by the ongoing housing crisis, but Colau has promised this is only the start.

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Across Spain, homes are being repossessed at the rate of at least 90 a day, down from the 500 daily evictions the Associated Press reported in 2012. According to the most recent census analysis by the national statistics institute, there were nearly 3.5 million empty homes in the country as of 2011 – about 14 percent of the total housing stock.

For those of us accustomed to seeing financial institutions rewarded for their unhelpful behaviour, the crackdown in Barcelona may seem rather unusual. But the role of financial institutions in the misfortune of countless Spaniards can’t be downplayed.

Following a period of frenetic bank-backed construction, land speculation, wildly overvalued property prices, and the proliferation of subprime mortgages, the Spanish property bubble burst in 2008, giving way to five years of recession and austerity measures. The punishment for fiscal recklessness was meted out to the poorest echelons of society.

For a significant portion of the population, joblessness and debt became the order of the day.


For a significant portion of the population, joblessness and debt became the order of the day. Two years ago, Spain’s unemployment rate was nearly 27 percent, then the highest in the eurozone, while over 56 percent of persons between the ages of 18 and 25 were without work.

Although much noise is now being made about Spain’s economic recovery, other observers have been quick to point out the precariousness of the situation.

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Job security remains elusive, and the predicament of those evicted is hardly ameliorated by Spain’s particularly sociopathic mortgage laws, which stipulate that payments continue to be made post-eviction. Correlations have been drawn between financial suffering and the skyrocketing number of Spaniards committing suicide.

Plenty of room

The grim state of affairs has unsurprisingly boosted public support for left-wing movements. Both Colau and Madrid’s new leftist mayor, Manuela Carmena, have pledged to combat the eviction epidemic while substantially slashing their own salaries. Colau, herself a former anti-eviction activist, has as mayor personally intervened in planned evictions, and, in addition to moving against the banks, is spearheading an increase in rent subsidies and an expansion of public housing. On July 28, Reuters reported that Carmena had just overturned eviction orders for 70 families in social housing and safeguarded more than 2,000 other rental contracts.

According to Amnesty International, public housing in Spain makes up only 1.1 percent of the national housing stock, compared to the Netherlands’ 32 percent, while Spain’s 3.5 million empty houses constitute approximately 30 percent of the European total.

As Colau and like-minded politicians and activists see it, not only is there plenty of space for Spaniards to exercise their right to housing – as enshrined in the Spanish constitution – there’s also room for others.

Following news last month of the latest deadly tragedies visited upon refugees torn from their countries by war and economic misery, Colau commented on her Facebook page: “Europe, Europeans: let’s open our eyes … Either we address this human drama via the ability to love that makes us human, or we’ll all end up dehumanised.”

She went on to assert that Barcelona would do “everything we can to participate in a network of refuge-cities” – a vision that has now moved from Facebook to policy as Colau, Carmena, and other local officials have collaborated with concerned citizens to direct funds and resources towards incoming refugees.

One mustn’t exaggerate the overall systemic threat posed by select new policies in Spain that focus on the needs of the domestic and international poor, however. Among the forces to contend with are a formidable Spanish right wing dedicated to neoliberal oppression and unwilling to cede ground so easily.

Real security

A recent addition to the arsenal of Spain’s old guard is the Citizens’ Security Law, which aims to criminalise protest by prescribing fines of up to 600,000 euros for unauthorised demonstrations. This measure comes during a time of austerity, debt, and homelessness – not to mention draconian legislation and punishments – when citizens might readily want to complain.

The law has also enabled authorities to ensure public safety by, for example, imposing an 800 euro ($894) fine on a woman for posting a picture on Facebook of a police vehicle parked in a disabled parking spot.

Of course, if we want to talk about “security” in a literal rather than Orwellian sense, this would undoubtedly be better accomplished by allowing citizens access to adequate living accommodations than by allowing police to beat up protesters and evictees.

Meanwhile, anti-eviction campaigns by Colau and her contemporaries and the injection of humanity into an inhumane landscape is an indication that politics can sometimes be about promotion of the public good rather than a shameless process of self-aggrandisement.


Unfortunately, the dehumanisation about which Colau warned in her Facebook post has already come to pass. What’s needed now is a real Spanish recovery.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.