Comments, In Focus

Housing is a right

A citizen-led social movement has applied societal pressure on Spanish authorities in order to establish the issue of evictions on the political agenda, that up till now the government has regulated with restrictions.


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Ana and Santos’ problems with the bank all began when they acted as guarantors for their child’s mortgage. This Uruguayan couple that had emigrated to Spain had already finished paying for their flat and therefore owned it, when suddenly the supposed guarantee on their child’s property became a mortgage on their own flat of 100,000 euros.

The payment was unfeasible and the eviction inevitable. The couple’s situation is unlike others. The elderly couple are responsible for a disabled son and a disabled granddaughter, which would make becoming homeless a disaster.

However, on 12 April, a group of around 50 people helped the couple find a solution, turning up outside the bank to negotiate a way out for the couple.

While Ana and Santos could not avoid losing the house, thanks to this social pressure  they did manage to secure living in it as tenants, with no debt, keeping themselves and their son and granddaughter off the streets.

The 50 people who helped in the fight for the Uruguayan couple represent only a portion of the group Platform Affected by Mortgage (PAH) that, since 2009, has succeeded in preventing 250 evictions in Spain.

The association is made up of people affected by mortgages and supporters of victims, both young and old, who – due to the crisis and the Spanish housing bubble – have, overnight, gone from having a well-paid job and comfortably paying the instalments of the mortgage, to not being able to pay them and finding themselves on the streets.

The housing bubble

In the past year alone some 58,241 families were evicted from their homes in Spain, a record high according to data from the country’s Supreme Judicial Council. This increase in people being unable to pay their mortgages is due to many people’s unexpected loss of work (unemployment in Spain is a serious social problem) and to the housing bubble from before the crisis.

Only a few years ago, before the intensification of the economic problems, Spain introduced an economy based on a seemingly very solid foundation: brick. Thousands of young people started to work on the construction of houses and built themselves millions of flats.

Consequently, society began to buy more flats and to take out mortgages on them, at a time when it was feasible due to elevated salaries.

But suddenly the financial crisis hit, and unemployment swept through the population, leaving many families without an income. Families could no longer afford to pay their mortgage payments, their utility bills, or even pay for food.

In this context, many families stopped paying the instalments, and so foreclosures and evictions by the bank began.

The platform for change appears

The PAH exists due to the rising number of people left destitute, homeless and in ‘life long’ debt with the bank.

This citizen-led initiative has attracted media attention by freeing those affected and those supporting the victims from  punitive mortgage clauses, outside their homes and the banks, through concrete actions of social pressure.

Some actions have taken place at the time of evictions and have managed to get them postponed . Others have secured, as in the case of Ana and Santos, tenancy agreements;despite losing their house, victims settle the debt with the surrender of their flat to the financial institution: this is known in Spain as ‘in lieu of payment’.

The PAH argues that “the present legal framework is designed to guarantee that the banks collect the debt, while it leaves the people with mortgages who – due to reasons such as unemployment or the rise in down payments – can’t cope with the payments, unprotected”. It also denounces the violation of human rights, which in their view, includes evictions after foreclosure.

One of the proposed solutions, the ‘in lieu of payment’, would be able to bring an end to a situation that the present legislation covers, in which a family is evicted but, having lost the house, continues paying the debt owed to the bank.

Another solution fixes rents to match family income, ensuring families that are going to lose their home are not left hopelessly on the streets. It is based on the idea that by paying rent that doesn’t rise over 30% of total earnings, they will be able to remain with a roof over their heads – even if it doesn’t belong to them.

The decree

In relation to all this social mobilization, in March the Spanish government approved a code of good practice to which banks can subscribe voluntarily.

It talks of reducing evictions and including ‘in lieu of payment’ and income fixed rentals as valid options when finalizing the mortgage.

Although the code improves the present situation of those affected by mortgages, some parties from the opposition have described it as too restrictive, since one must first comply with certain tough conditions before settling the debt with the surrender of the house.

In this way, the families in risk of eviction will first have to talk with their bank in order to change the conditions of their mortgage and to make it viable to pay.

If an agreement isn’t reached, they will then be able to contact their financial institution to negotiate a reduction of the total payment of the debt owing to the mortgagees.

Then, if agreements have not been reached during these two previous negotiations with the bank, the family can, quite simply as the PAH claims, surrender the house and the contracted debt will be terminated. On the other hand, one of the conflicting points of the government’s actions is that financial institutions may subscribe to it voluntarily or not.

The banks that feel that the code of good practice is not convenient for them will have the choice not to subscribe to it.

Good news

T Between the social pressure of this initiative, the government’s code of good practice and the positive reception from some banks, action taken in order to stop evictions during this last month has resulted in a solution for the families, as shown on the PAH’s website: http://afectadosporlahipoteca.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/proximas-convocatorias-stopdesahucios-abril/.

Presently, the movement continues to fight. On 18 April a new social campaign has begun, which aims to gather more than 500,000 signatures to present the House of Representatives with a Popular Legislative Initiative (PLI).

The campaign will request that families that have lost their houses can benefit from the ‘in lieu of payment’, but with the changes in the legislation they would be able to keep them.

Also in the text, an immediate moratorium of the evictions and the reconversion of the mortgages in respect of social rentals are requested.

For more information: http://afectadosporlahipoteca.wordpress.com/.

Translated by Eleanor Gooch     Email: eleanor.gooch@googlemail.com

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