Madrid – As the number of apartments and houses left empty in Spain due to failure to make mortgage or rental payments climbs, tens of thousands of families, including many immigrants, are living on the streets, in shantytowns, or crowded into seedy boarding houses.
Since the global economic crisis reached Spain, the banks have repossessed more and more homes. And as a large proportion of properties going to foreclosure auctions are remaining unsold, banks themselves are repurchasing the homes – at prices significantly lower than what was owed by the original mortgage-holder.
Under Spanish law, it is not enough to merely hand over the housing unit to the bank to cancel the debt; lenders can foreclose not only on the house but seize all the assets, including part of the wages, of the debtor to cover the outstanding mortgage debt.
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The bankers “want their clients to pay everything back, with their bones if necessary,” Gustavo Fajardo, a lawyer with the Americas-Spain Solidarity and Cooperation Organisation (AESCO), told IPS.
Between their high salaries, stock options and bonuses, the bankers are not among those feeling the impact of the crisis.
For example, the CEO of the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), Francisco González, earns 5.6 million euros (7.5 million dollars) a year, and Santander CEO Alfredo Sáenz, the highest-paid banker in Spain, rakes in 9.1 million euros (12 million dollars) a year.
Both of these totals represent a 10 percent drop from 2010.
Meanwhile, shantytowns have been mushrooming around Spain in the past few years, as the number of people living on the streets soars – despite the fact that there are 800,000 to one million empty apartments, according to a report by the state-run Banco de España; or up to twice that number, according to non-government sources.
AESCO's Fajardo said this is happening because legislators do not want to modify “a perverse system” since “they aren't going to take aim against the banks, to which they are heavily indebted…and which are not foreclosing on them or forcing them to pay their debts.”
With respect to the future of immigration, the activist said that “in the current circumstances in Spain and in the situation that can be expected over the next five years, no one is going to come, and those who did are now fleeing the growing poverty and evictions here.
“Human beings have always migrated out of need, fleeing drought, famine or social violence; logically they go where there is land fit for farming, work, and the minimum conditions for survival,” he said.
But there is “less and less work here, while employment has become more precarious, and there is an army of seven million men and women who are deprived of an essential human right: access to work,” he added.
Immigrants make up more than 10 percent of Spain's population of 46 million, one of the highest proportions in the European Union, and the country's unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 21 percent – the highest in the bloc.
He said there are “450,000 families whose homes have been auctioned and repurchased by the banks,” and 25 percent of these families are foreign-born or second-generation immigrants.
Fajardo said the attention drawn by the plight of immigrants is because “they are a combative population who organise and fight for their rights, while Spanish families in trouble on their mortgage payments are embarrassed to appear in the media, to mobilise, to protest.
“This is because they don't organise to fight back, they have been socially disarmed, and the trade unions are too focused on defending their turf in the world of business to take on a social leadership role that goes beyond their relationships with companies,” Fajardo said.
In foreclosure cases, judges do not generally take social concerns into account.
One illustration of this was the case of Paz Ahora (Peace Now), a local NGO that helps refugees in the Palestinian occupied territories, among other activities. The organisation was evicted from the small apartment it rented in Madrid for its national headquarters because it owed rent, water, power and heating bills from December 2010 – a total of 15,000 euros (20,000 dollars), including interest.
Sources with the group told IPS that their financial difficulties were the result of a cut in central government funding for regional governments, several of which helped support the NGO and were no longer able to do that this year.
Lawmaker Mauricio Valente of the United Left coalition said that “at times of crisis, cooperation is even more necessary, and it is not the NGOs themselves, but the people they help who suffer from the evictions.”
The Platform of those Affected by Mortgages (PAH) has been holding increasing protests around Spain, with support from other civil society organisations, calling for a halt to the evictions and demanding that housing be treated as a public service and a right rather than merely a business opportunity.
One of the popular chants of the demonstrators is “One banker went out to play/Upon the real estate bubble one day./He had such enormous fun/That he called for another banker to come!/Two bankers went out to play . . .” etc.