Spain election: Taking back Barcelona's apartments

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Media captionSanti Mas de Xaxas Faus is a spokesman for Barcelona's anti-eviction movement, PAH

Tourists enjoying an apartment in Barcelona may not know it, but the terms of their lease are, so to speak, in dispute.

There are people in Spain's prime city-break destination who want visitors out of the apartments they source on home rental websites, and back into the city's hotels, because local people cannot keep up with rising rents.

The campaign to keep rents affordable is one strand in the strategy pursued by the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), a grassroots group which has branches across Spain but began in Barcelona six years ago.

On Wednesday evening, I watched 50 or so people attend a PAH meeting in its office in downtown Barcelona.

They discussed the progress of their work to prevent house repossessions, and held a heated debate on how best to pressurise political parties fighting Spain's general election on 20 December.

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Pressure is the word because the PAH professes to keep out of party politics - a challenge when one of its founders is now mayor of Barcelona.

She stepped down to fight the local election in May, but Ada Colau has continued to push the PAH's vision of social justice, seeking to legislate for a safety net for people evicted from their homes.

More controversially, she froze new hotel licences pending a review of the tourism sector, and is threatening to block rental websites which advertise unlicensed apartments.

Behind the grill

Monika rests her hand on the balcony rail of the flat, happy to nip back home for my visit this mild afternoon.

Her pride in the arrangement of the combined living room and kitchen is clear. Just about every piece of furniture and appliance was a gift, she explains.

Image caption Monika lives in a building seized by the PAH

Then we take the stairs down to the ground floor - the lift has not been working for some time - and she lets me and her friends out into the street.

Before we can exit, she has to roll back a metal grill - home security takes on a new meaning when you squat.

Monika, 31, moved in this year after the PAH seized the empty apartment building from a bank.

Her furnishings, she says, were donated by members of the PAH and people in the district.

"We do not recuperate buildings because we like it," she says. "We occupy out of need."

She would not otherwise have anywhere to live on her earnings from telesales work and pizza delivery, she explains.

Cesar Llerins also works in the catering industry but at the higher end, as a waiter in a restaurant popular with tourists.

Having recently become a father, the 43-year-old has his future carefully mapped out. It revolves around a monthly salary of 2,500 euros (£1,809; $2,745), of which 476 euros goes on his mortgage, which has 15 years remaining.

"Ada Colau is good for unemployed people but no good for the rest," he tells me when I meet him out walking in the mountains on his day off.

Image caption Cesar carefully saves to pay off his mortgage

"The normal thing is if you like a house, you pay for it. Maybe a small amount, but you pay."

Asked how he will vote, he says either Ciudadanos or Podemos, the new parties of the right and left respectively.

The key issue for this mortgage-payer is the 20% tax he pays, which he would like to see lowered to 15%.

PAH supporters cannot say publicly how they will vote though it is a fair bet that many will back Barcelona en Comu, an umbrella group that includes Podemos.

'Debt scam'

Santi Mas de Xaxas Faus, a current spokesman for PAH, described its work to me:

  • It physically blocks evictions by non-violent means, seeking to force mortgage lenders into negotiations
  • It occupies empty buildings owned by banks bailed out with public money
  • It "empowers" people with information

Seven evictions took place on Wednesday, Santi says, but the PAH cannot act if people do not approach them.

A businessman who does not own a house himself, he believes that sooner or later everyone will be affected by the debt "scam" organised by financial institutions and politicians.

"It's a strong word but when you realise it is a scam, you realise you have to fight back because nobody is going to come and do it for you," he says.

He tells me the organisation needs to keep mobilising as its work provides the justification for Mayor Colau's reforms.

Image copyright LLUIS GENE
Image caption Ada Colau was a key figure in the PAH Mortgage Victims Platform

Her stunning victory in May saw Catalan nationalists ejected from power in their own capital city, in a critical year for the cause of independence.

But whatever the result for her party and Podemos this month, the PAH's cause remains.

"Without the PAH, I would have to occupy a building myself," Monika says.

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