comscore Wave of evictions leads to homeless crisis in Spain | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Wave of evictions leads to homeless crisis in Spain


SEVILLE, Spain » The first night after Francisco Rodriguez Flores, 71, and his wife, Ana Lopez Corral, 67, were evicted from their small apartment here after falling behind on their mortgage, they slept in the entrance hall of their building. Their daughters, both unemployed and living with them, slept in a neighbor’s van.

"It was the worst thing ever," Lopez said recently, studying her hands. "You can’t image what it felt like to be there in that hall. It’s a story you can’t really tell because it is not the same as living it."

Things are somewhat better now. The Rodriguezes are among the 36 families who have taken over a luxury apartment block here that had been vacant for three years. There is no electricity. The water was recently cut off, and there is the fear that the authorities will evict them once again. But, Lopez says, they are not living on the street — at least not yet.

The number of Spanish families facing eviction continues to mount at a dizzying pace — hundreds a day, housing advocates say. The problem has become so acute that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has promised to announce emergency measures on Monday, though what they may be remains unclear.

While some are able to move in with family members, a growing number, like the Rodriguezes, have no such option. Their relatives are in no better shape than they are, and Spain has virtually no emergency shelter system for families.

For some, the pressure has been too much to bear. In recent weeks, a 53-year-old man in Granada hanged himself just hours before he was to be evicted, and a 53-year-old woman in Bilbao jumped to her death as court officials arrived at her door.

Yet at the same time, the country is dotted with empty housing of all kinds, perhaps as many as 2 million units, by some estimates. Experts say more and more of the evicted — who face a lifetime of debt and a system of blacklisting that makes it virtually impossible for them to rent — are increasingly taking over vacant properties or moving back into their old homes after they have been seized.

Sometimes neighbors report such activities. But often, experts say, they do not. It is a temporary and often anxious existence. But many see no alternative.

The Rodriguezes fell behind in their payments trying to help their daughters, who both lost their jobs and have three children between them. Their daughters had come to live with them after being evicted themselves.

"I could not let my children and my grandchildren starve," said Lopez, who used to work as a cleaner in a home for the elderly.

No one tracks the number of squatters. But Rafael Martin Sanz, the president of a real estate management company, says squatting has become so common that some real estate companies are reluctant to put signs on the outsides of buildings indicating that an apartment is available.

"The joke is that half the people touring apartments that are on the market are actually just picking out which apartment they want to squat in," he said.

Most of the evictions take place quietly, with embarrassed families dropping the keys off at the banks. But in some working class neighborhoods, there are weekly clashes with the police and bank officials, as housing advocates and volunteers try to resist the evictions.

In Madrid’s Carabanchel neighborhood, a crowd protesting outside a basement apartment recently shouted "shame on you" to a cluster of bank and court officials who had come to evict Edward Hernandez and his family. But Hernandez’s lawyer, Rafael Mayoral, sized up the picture and predicted he would be able to negotiate a postponement. The crowd of supporters, he said, outnumbered the police officers.

Hernandez, 38, who worked in construction, bought the apartment for $320,000 in 2006, but he lost his job three years later, he said. He thought he had negotiated with his bank to pay less for a while. But one day, he said, he got a letter saying that his apartment had been auctioned.

Hernandez and his wife have their eye on an empty apartment they intend to occupy. Failing that, the couple will have to split up, he said.

His wife would go back to live with her mother, who is behind in her own mortgage payments and already providing a home to her other adult children. Hernandez would live with his brother, who lives with his young family in a studio apartment.

By the end of the morning, bank and court officials had agreed to postpone Hernandez’s eviction for six weeks. He still faces a debt of more than $330,000, more than he paid for the apartment. In Spain, mortgage holders are personally liable for the full amount of their mortgages. Then penalty interest charges and tens of thousands of dollars in court fees are added at foreclosure. Bankruptcy is no answer, either — mortgage debt is specifically excluded.

Trying to stem the flow of homeless, the Spanish government has asked the banks to adhere to a code of conduct that protects, to some degree, the very poorest Spaniards, and many of the banks have signed on. But advocates say that the code offers relief to such a narrow slice of homeowners — those who have no working adults in their household and who paid less than $260,000 for their homes — that it is unlikely to have much effect.

Elena Cortes, the councilor for public works and housing for Andalusia, the region that includes Seville, said that during the boom years the government rarely built any low-income housing. On top of that, the country has never had much rental property. Now, as families are evicted they have nowhere to turn.

In a written statement, Spain’s banking association, the AEB, said banks were looking to avoid evictions whenever they could through negotiation.

The Rodriguezes began living in the luxury block, Corrala Utopia, in May with only a few belongings, a move that was organized by members of the 15-M movement, the name given to people who became organized after the countrywide protests that began on May 15 last year. One member of the group, Juanjo Garcia Marin, said the property was chosen because it was mired in legal proceedings that might give the families more time to stay there.

Neighbors have given them furniture, and donations of food arrive most days. On a recent evening, Lopez was using a generator to keep her lights on and her refrigerator running. Others in the building also have generators, but some cannot afford the gasoline to keep them running.

After dinner, Lopez’s 13-year-old grandson arrived, announcing that he needed a place to do his homework. His mother’s apartment upstairs had no lights.

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