Building a different future out of a crisis of housing

The PAH, or ‘Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages’, has stirred a genuine social and political awakening in Spain

Mònica Clua-LosadaThe Great Recession has been generally devastating for many people in many different contexts.  In Spain, what appeared to start off as a financial crisis quickly spread to other areas of the economy leading (as in Ireland and the United States) to a widespread housing crisis.  What I want to do in this post is highlight the way in which the specificities of capitalist accumulation in Spain have led to the development of the largest social movement in recent times on the back of this housing crisis.

The exact number of housing evictions in Spain is difficult to ascertain as there is no single reliable source which collects such information.  However, according to official data, in the first four years of the crisis (2008-12), no less than 417,117 homes were repossessed.  Of these, the majority referred to first-homes, which means they belonged to people who had no other home.

If this wasn’t a problem per se, the consequences of finding yourself in such a situation are made worse by the financial regulation surrounding mortgage lending.  In Spain, mortgage debt is secure not just on the property being mortgaged, but rather by the individual (or group of individuals) taking up the mortgage.  This means that handing in the keys in the event of repossession still leaves the individual in debt in cases of negative equity.  In the midst of an unravelling housing bubble such cases are widespread, as might be expected.

The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) – or ‘Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages’ – was created in 2009 by the group V de Vivienda (V for Housing).  It had been active since 2006 denouncing, often through creative acts of civil disobedience, the housing bubble and the violation of Spaniards’ right to a home (as recognised in Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution).  It gained momentum as many of its members were instrumental in the call for a demonstration that later led to the occupation of squares in several Spanish cities on the 15 May 2011, on what became known as the 15-M movement.

The PAH, however, is not a citizen’s advice bureau type of organisation, set up with charitable individuals at the top and needy citizens at the bottom.  Instead, it has identified a growing crack within the patterns of capitalist accumulation in Spain and decided to act.  In the words of two of the PAH’s founding members, Ada Colau and Adrià Alemany, ‘mortgages became a conducive thread, a communicating vase that allowed us to relate the credit market and housing.  Pulling that thread meant that we could uncover the structural causes that had brought us here.’  In other words, the PAH was neither a top-down affair nor a self-help group.  It was going to be something else.

The anger and indignation, which exploded on to the squares of Spain in the spring of 2011, reclaimed a new management of the crisis – not only the democratisation of a process, but also the creation of a voice and many other things.  At the same time, another process was going on, not in the squares but in people’s homes, in bank branches and in local courts.  This was a process which did not just shatter people’s dreams, but rather did away with something as basic as their homes.  More and more people were losing their homes amidst a political discourse that emphasised individual responsibility for over-indebtedness.  The media and political discourse was framed around the claim that parties are always followed by hangovers, and this was a really bad one.  We were all guilty as we had all participated in the party and drunk what was on offer, even though it was not good for us.

The problem was that the housing bubble and the expansion of credit was not just a private choice or a matter of individual responsibility.  An institutional marriage between local governments and savings banks (cajas de ahorro) had created the right institutional environment for the housing bubble.  According to Robert Fishman, savings banks were direct contributors to systemic anomalies by disproportionately channelling credit to property developers, as well as contributing to the rise of sub-prime mortgages.  This casino-style financial management was fuelled by friendly policies and policy instruments, such as tax breaks and other fiscal incentives, coupled with a widespread belief that property was the safest investment one could ever make.  In a nutshell, the easy expansion of credit combined with the fallacy of property ownership to create a catastrophic situation for many families.

This situation could have led to many different outcomes.  But in fact it led to something important but also somewhat puzzling.  The precarious youth that during the bubble years had repeatedly shouted ‘No tendrás casa en tu puta vida’ (You will never have a house in your whole damn life!) were now the ones organising against the housing evictions of those who did think they had managed to own a house.

What the PAH identified quickly is something that David Harvey has highlighted many times over – that ‘tangible struggles’ are usually those which involve access to the fulfilment of our most basic needs (land and living space).  Through such ‘tangible struggle’ the PAH seeks, and indeed sometimes manages, to develop collective solutions to individual problems in a way in which people are genuinely empowered, rather than just assisted to claim their right to housing.

It is a social movement that the whole of Europe should be watching.