From Proletarians to Proprietors

We need to fight for social housing instead of private ownership. Spain's anti-eviction movement shows how we can do it.

An anti-eviction protest in Spain.

Eviction is the most draconian weapon in the landlord’s arsenal. The withdrawal of shelter, one of the most basic human rights, has catastrophic consequences for those cast out of their dwellings. The emotional and psychological impact of eviction — the physical strain and stress of being removed from one’s residence — often proves debilitating.

In Spain, the implosion of a bloated construction industry, massive unemployment, and a sharp decline in property values has left countless people facing eviction. As the members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, or the Platform for those Affected by Mortgages) emphasize in the recently released documentary Sí Se Puede!, eviction and foreclosure not only throw one out of housing, but society itself.

The film opens with a harrowing scene: three children sit on the stairs outside of their home, the youngest one quietly crying next to the suitcases that hold their belongings. The authorities begin to seal the door, rendering the family homeless. (Eviction is such a coercive act that even those tasked with executing it, such as locksmiths and police, have in some Spanish cities refused to do so.)

The film, which PAH has made freely available for screening, takes us through seven days with the movement in Barcelona — a welcome assembly, group therapy sessions, a political strategizing session, a national meeting of PAH nodes, a direct action against a bank, and several scenes in which PAH members confront bank managers to negotiate and discharge an individual’s debt.

It is incredibly inspiring. In a moment brimming with lament about ongoing austerity and what one PAH member calls the “rip-off that they call the crisis,” PAH turns the discourse of personal and individualized failures on its head. PAH has challenged the rhetoric of the state, the banks, and property developers who led people to believe that they could not lose by becoming homeowners regardless of their income or the nature of their employment.

PAH has also contested the ideology of ownership itself. As early as the 1950s, Spanish elites were waxing poetic about the liberal self-possessed individual, especially in the context of real estate and home ownership. As Franco’s minister for housing, José Luis Arrese, said in 1957, “We want a country of proprietors, not proletarians.”

Successive governments in Spain supported the real estate sector as the primary engine of economic growth, propping it up through financial and environmental deregulation that in turn fueled intense land speculation. It also radically changed the proportion of homeowners to renters.

Founded in February 2009 in Barcelona, PAH emerged in opposition to the devastation wrought by these policies. The movement has now spread throughout the country. Si Se Puede and the book Mortgaged Lives — written by two PAH founders, Ada Coulau and Adria Alemany — detail the anatomy of the real estate sector that was both vulnerable to the global financial crisis, and embodied the financial architecture and political ideology that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards.

PAH grew out previous attempts to respond to the housing crisis from the mid-2000s, notably the V for Vivienda (or “H for Housing”) movement, and converges to some extent with the Democracia RealYA (Democracy Now!) and the 15-M movements. PAH has three main political objectives: establish dación en pago (fully discharging the mortgage debt when the bank repossesses the property), stop evictions, and turn mortgaged homes into affordable rental properties.

A social movement that has profoundly improved the lives of its member-participants as well as the political landscape of post-2008 Spain, the PAH provides a powerful example for the international left looking to resist capitalist expropriation.

Collectivizing the Anguish of Eviction

It is difficult to overestimate the scale of Spain’s housing crisis and the impact it has had on hundreds of thousands of people. In 2013, there was an average of 184 evictions per day. The widespread evictions have caused problems both psychological and material.

Feelings associated with ownership, for instance, are a complex amalgam and accumulation of political ideologies, market forces, and liberal-democratic conceptions of citizenship. In a more formal sense, one can look to a long lineage of political philosophers and jurisprudents that have identified what I will call the affective dimensions of ownership: e.g., the fear of losing one’s property and the consequent need for security that only laws of private property (inevitably backed up by force) can provide, and the mental and physical exhaustion of the worker alienated from the product of her labor.

In a system of racial capitalism, ownership incorporates hierarchies wrought by long and bloody histories of slavery, indentured labor, migration, and settler colonialism. When thinking about the affective dimensions of ownership through this lens, it is clear that feelings of entitlement are shaped by race and gender in conjunction with class privilege.

Relatedly, it is apparent that notions of civility and individual freedom have long been premised on the idea of self-possession and proprietorship, legally denied to many people of color and indigenous people well into the twentieth century. The centuries of structural and systematic dispossession go some way toward explaining the allure of the (evasive) promise of respectability and security, exemplified by the subprime mortgage deal.

In Spain, the mortgage crisis affected working people across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. It is significant to note, however, that particular mortgage lenders preyed on immigrant communities and workers who were rendered more precarious by their migrant status.

As Colau and Alemany note in Mortgaged Lives, a system of cross-guarantees were used to get members of an Ecuadorean community to act as guarantors for each other’s mortgages even when they did not know each other.

The mortgage lenders in this instance exploited informal networks within a particular immigrant community, effectively tying the fates of individuals to strangers based on shared ethno-national characteristics. The financial instrument of the mortgage was used to both secure a property relation (for the benefit of the lender) and to fix the racial-immigrant subject in a highly precarious position.

This occurred in the context of a degradation of renting and celebration of ownership. As Colau and Alemany note, “A mortgage had been transformed into a status symbol, a euphemism for professional success which signified the passage into adulthood. Rent, however, was a symptom of failure and inferiority.” Between 2003 and 2007, amid this sacralization of homeownership, around a million Spanish subprime mortgages were offered to the most vulnerable groups in society, increasing household indebtedness nationwide.

Thus, the feelings affixed to ownership are much more complex than the need for shelter. As noted in the film, the shame and sense of failure occasioned by foreclosure has led many individuals to attempt suicide. In an echo of the suicide epidemic among indebted farmers in South India, the shame associated with indebtedness was privatized and individualized.

PAH responded by collectivizing this anguish, setting the basis for collective political action.

As Colau and Alemany write:

The collective expression and sharing of experiences allows tools and knowledge to be socialized. In this sense, the affected person is no longer a passive subject or victim assisted by an expert, but an active subject and transmitter of knowledge who, over time, will meet the conditions and necessary skills to advise others.

There is something resolutely feminist about this approach, this refusal to diminish the emotional dimensions of the crisis and make it a fundamental part of political action. And indeed, many of the key movement figures in the film are women, and the satirical play performed at the national meeting of PAH groups notes the fear of the banks and state of these “anti-establishment women.”

Capitalist expropriation depends on an intensification of the ideology of the possessive individual. This political ideology and concept of subjectivity could not, however, materialize without the requisite financial and legal architecture in place.

The Architecture of Expropriation

One aspect of PAH’s political campaign is reasserting the right to housing that is enshrined in Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution. This provision states, “All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing.” It places a positive duty on the government to make this right actual and to “prevent speculation.” Also relevant is Article 33, which stipulates that private property must be used in socially beneficial ways.

Despite these constitutional guarantees, mortgage laws, the deregulation of credit and lending, and the unrestrained bolstering of real estate development nullified the substance of Article 47. In fact, Colau and Alemany argue that the ministry of housing established during Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s first term had a mandate to foster the guarantees outlined in Article 47; instead, the ministry became the “transmitter of interests within the business sector.”

There are two aspects of the PAH movement highlighted in the film that warrant further comment: the particularly harsh aspects of Spanish mortgage law that have placed mortgagors in a far worse position than others affected by the crisis, and the repossession of vacant housing for the use of people who would otherwise be homeless.

In Spain, when there is a default and the bank repossesses the mortgaged property, the debt is not discharged, as is the case with mortgage contracts in most other jurisdictions. Dación en pago (“handing back the keys” to the lender to discharge the debt) exists in the mortgage legislation, but it is optional. Banks have only applied it when bottom-up pressure has forced them to, as with the protests led by PAH.

The absence of dación en pago, in combination with the number of mortgages for which family members were guarantors, has meant that the crippling debt precipitated by foreclosure has taken on an intergenerational dimension. Children and parents who were co-guarantors only to lose their homes speak of a legal and financial system that treated people as expendable. One PAH member tells a story of a judge who explicitly “de-minoritized” a person under the age of eighteen so the individual could become a guarantor of a parent’s mortgage.

The intersection of the rapid deflation of housing prices brought on by the financial crisis, and the practice of hoisting the mortgage debt onto the person rather than the property, has created a particularly toxic situation.

When a house goes up for auction in the current climate, the auction is unsuccessful 90 percent of the time. Over the last several years, the bank would revalue the home at 50 to 60 percent of the value of the property on the original mortgage. This property devaluation at the time of repossession means that at most, 60 percent of the debt is discharged.

The debt continues to generate interest, which along with the legal costs of foreclosure means that large debts continue to accrue even after the house is seized. The debtor also has to bear the burden of social exclusion, named as a delinquent in publicly accessible files such as the “Record of Unpaid Acceptances.”

In addition, property prices were severely overvalued before the crisis, which increased mortgagers’ debt. Both the International Monetary Fund and the OECD stated as early as 2004 that “the housing market was being overvalued at between 30 and 40%” and thus the value of property, and the debt owed, was severely inflated to begin with.

Legislation such as the 1998 Land Act caused unbridled real estate development throughout Spain and rampant speculation, and is thus to blame for an almost 200 percent increase in housing prices between 1997 and 2007. As in the US, “the magic of refinancing through sustained increase in housing prices was regarded as sufficient security for the risks in credit.” However, unlike in the US, the debt is not discharged upon foreclosure.

By the autumn of 2011, six million homes were empty and unoccupied. Despite high unemployment and inadequate housing, the government approved legislation to streamline the eviction process for non-payment of rent.

The government’s support of property owners, PAH argues, is entirely at odds with Article 47. They also note that in spite of the crisis, housing and rental costs have only continued to rise. Public housing accounts for barely 1 percent of total housing in Spain.

While the European Court of Justice (ECJ) empowered Spanish courts to grant interim measures that could lead to a stay in foreclosure proceedings, the limits of the “consumer protection” model are quite clear. The mortgage clause at issue in the ECJ case stipulated a default interest rate of 18.75 percent. The ECJ ruled that without the power to annul the enforcement proceedings, the consumer would only be able to obtain protection of a “purely compensatory nature,” which would be “incomplete and insufficient.”

The Court acknowledged that the consumer rights of mortgagers were being infringed upon. Yet providing protection to individuals as consumers leaves the general architecture of the crisis intact: privatized debt, virtually no state provision for the evicted, and a real estate sector fueled by international finance capital.

The Meaning of PAH

With the legal and political systems offering no hope for substantive transformation, PAH has proposed a number of concrete solutions to the housing crisis that are based on enhancing and reconceiving the social function of property. They propose protecting public land in order to put a halt to environmental degradation and land speculation. They argue for converting homes currently held by banks into social rental housing. They assert the need to adjust land and housing prices to counter the ravages of speculation.

And perhaps most importantly, they politicize the esoteric. As Ava, an interviewee in Si Se Puede says,

Mortgages are supposedly so complicated that only experts can understand them. That’s not true . . . It’s really very simple but they put it in such a convoluted way in order to trick people. Using technical jargon to explain things that are political is a way of depoliticizing issues that are actually ideological.

In one of the final segments of Sí Se Puede, there is an interview with Marcela, a single mother evicted from her home (she was earning less than the required amount to acquire a social housing apartment). We see Marcela living in an apartment in a building taken over by PAH to re-house people who would otherwise be homeless. Marcela speaks of the solidarity of the occupants, who live with the label of “squatters” and are just “ordinary people” who are in need of a place to live.

The re-occupation of some of the millions of empty apartment units throughout Spain exemplifies PAH’s commitment to redefining property relations so as to privilege their social function over the rights of individual owners. (PAH members only reoccupy buildings that are owned by banks, which are said to account for approximately one-third of all empty flats in Spain.)

The struggle against the primacy of private property ownership in the context of housing has gained renewed vigor in major cities worldwide. In London, recent protests by residents of the New Era Housing estate successfully prevented the sale of their homes to a foreign private investor. As Aditya Chakrabortty recently noted in the Guardian, significant portions of what used to be London’s social housing stock are up for sale to private investors.

The occupation of vacant buildings in a time when affordable housing is scare challenges the core of modern and capitalist forms of private ownership — that use and not just the formal legal title to property should prevail.

The renewed struggle to create new ways of living in common, and to diminish the power of private ownership, coexist with and sustain the demand for social housing, whether in the form of public housing or cooperatives. As PAH and other housing activists around the world have roundly demonstrated, a social and economic system that privileges accumulation over basic needs, that makes even home ownership contingent on exploitative mortgage contracts, is fundamentally unjust.

Fulfilling these basic needs is not only a matter of protecting human rights, but of challenging forms of expropriation by state-backed private finance. The fight to reclaim spaces for the reproduction of life is vital in the ongoing struggle for a right to the city.