Housing Struggles in Spain

Sí Se Puede  – Yes We Can

The collapse of the housing bubble in Spain resulted in hundreds of thousands of families being evicted from their homes. In response the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) was formed, a grassroots movement that stands up to stop evictions and for the right to decent housing. Compared to London and the UK, the Spanish movement is much stronger and far ahead in terms of organization, direct action and programmatic strategy. The rise of the PAHs can be seen in connection with the rise of other forces: the platform Democracia Real Ya! (DRY), the 15-M movement, the new political party Podemos, and the creation of municipal citizen platforms aiming at political power in the cities, beginning with the next local elections in May 2015. Significantly, the first PAH was founded in Barcelona and also the first municipal citizen platform “Let’s Win Barcelona” (Guanyem Barcelona, later named Barcelona En Comú), which was launched by Ada Colau the former spokesperson of the PAH. All the above forces together add up to a broader process that represents a challenge to the dominant economic model and the established political power. Welcome to the democratic revolution!

Si se puede pero no quiren
In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 housing bubbles all over the world collapsed and Spain was among the worst affected countries. Unemployment rose dramatically and so did the number of people unable to pay their mortgages and facing foreclosure and evictions. Not only could they become homeless, but in addition to that they could remain prisoners of huge debt even after the bank had repossessed their property and home. The PAH or Platform of People Affected by Mortgages was created in response to this housing crisis and the experience that the government does support and promote the interests of the financial sector and real estate, but not the interests of the citizens and people in need.

Timeline and Context - with links

The PAH has three basic and non-negotiable demands:
(1) Dación en pago: It means handing back the property to the bank (lender), and in exchange the bank will fully discharge all mortgage debt, not holding you liable in the future.
(2) Stop evictions immediately (where it is the family home and sole property)
(3) Obra Social: Empty houses owned by banks (financial institutions) are to be converted into social housing for evicted families.

In order to confront evictions the first thing we had to do was create and consolidate a space of trust, a place of encounter where those in danger of eviction could experience that (1) their problem was not individual but collective and that the causes were structural; (2) as a result we shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed; and (3) that collective action can transform reality and make possible what seems impossible. (Ada Colau, quoted in Provisional University)

The PAH is a nationwide network that consists of autonomous PAHs, which are all committed to the following set of basic criteria:
(1) The PAH is a citizen-run organization born from civil society and as such is politically independent and nonpartisan.
(2) The PAH is a non-violent movement.
(3) All resources and guidance from the PAH must be free.
(4) The guidance of the PAH must be collective.
(5) All PAHs must accept all demands and claims contained within the memorandum of understanding.
(6) Beyond these criteria, the PAH node enjoys full autonomy to develop strategies appropriate to the local context.

From the housing bubble to social housing (transcript)

PAHs provide people with a meeting space where a multitude of activities can be exercised: to build trust, group counseling and mutual aid, collective learning and decision-making, self-defense and self-empowerment. PAHs are a tool and resource for those affected by housing problems, designed to give responses to immediate needs, like preventing evictions, negotiating with banks and authorities, providing homes for people evicted.

From the beginning it was very clear how important it was to accumulate small big victories, as much in the symbolic terrain as in the concrete one. Victories that have carved out the way and at the same time fed a movement, making it each time stronger and more clearly articulated. Celebrating these victories is a fundamental component and probably one of the most important tasks for any political intervention that seeks to challenge prevailing predatory capitalism. We have to prove to ourselves that, contrary to the sentencing from the political, judicial, academic and media platforms, a more just and egalitarian world is possible and the current dynamics are reversible. (Colau & Alemany 2014, 145)

The PAHs form a grassroots movement driven by people directly affected by housing problems. It expresses itself through direct actions and campaigns, which step by step should lead to the attainment of medium and long term aims. For example, the PAH together with other social movements and organizations launched an agenda setting initiative (local name: iniciativa legislativa popular) demanding a change of the foreclosure law so as to fulfill the three basic demands. Despite overwhelming support in the population the parliaments response was resoundingly negative. This should not have come as a surprise. The design of the Spanish agenda initiative is not user-friendly at all. In the experience of the initiative proponents the process has been “difficult, confusing (…) and full of obstacles”. Even without additional obstruction by the authorities it is a formidable task to collect the required 500’000 signatures within the nine-month time limit. Finally, parliament must only discuss the proposal, but it can simply refuse it and without further considerations. Governments may also try to block unwanted agenda initiatives at the start; the Spanish government tried it without success with the PAH agenda initiative, the European Commission refused to register the agenda initiative Stop TTIP (TTIP = controversial trade agreement between the EU and the US). Based on the experience with agenda initiatives in different countries, municipalities and in the European Union, I draw the following conclusion: Approval of an agenda initiative is to be expected only when the purpose of the initiative is to further (or does not contradict) the government’s interests, or under conditions of extreme pressure, which is rare.

The ground for the mortgage and housing crisis was prepared above all by state policies in favor of finance and real estate. Social housing was decreased through privatizing and cutting money for constructing new social homes. Land and credit were deregulated. The state favored property development and speculation. All measures aimed at promoting homeownership instead of the right to decent housing. In order to have a home people had to buy one, and for this they needed credit.

The first gun to the head was forcing people to buy, pushing them into mortgages by making them believe that this was the only way to have access to housing. In reality, what this did was set up the global capital needed for opening up new fields for extracting more interest and profits. (Raquel Rolnik, quouted in Colau & Alemany 2014, 151)

Government policies, driven by finance, lead to a construction boom and the creation of a housing bubble. Eventually the bubble had to burst, with all the dramatic consequences that this involved. Banks went bust, construction businesses got into trouble, unemployment rose, hundreds of thousands of people had problems with paying their mortgages. Insolvent banks were bailed out, whereas ordinary people had to face unemployment, eviction, homelessness, and despair. Rather than to protect people in need, the state helped to streamline eviction procedures and sent the police to drag people from their homes into the street. In such conditions concerned people had no other recourse than organising for self-help. That is how PAH was born.

(W)hat is illegal is not to resist an eviction, but the attitude of the Spanish authorities by defending a mortgage law that tramples over the fundamental rights of people and tacitly condoning the eviction of thousands of families through their silence. (Raquel Rolnik, quoted in Colau & Alemany 2014, 152)

As a political movement the PAH has the following long term goals: implementing the right to housing, creating a better democracy and social justice. These aims are such that a confrontation with the established powers and the dominant neoliberal ideology is inevitable. Analysing the housing crisis the PAH came to the conclusion that the crisis was caused by financialization (see below). This process has to be reversed in order to guarantee that everyone’s right to decent housing can be put into practice. Housing has to be regulated as a primary good and not as an investment or commodity. This means that the dominant economic model should be replaced by a model based on the needs and fundamental rights of the people.

The PAH concluded that the economic crisis is also a crisis of politics and democracy. The existing “democracy” has been taken over by finance and corporations; it is geared to serve primarily big business and profit making and not the common good. Obviously this has to be changed if democracy is more than just an empty word. Finance and big business should serve people’s needs not enslave them with debt. That is why they must be controlled by real democracy, by the power of the people.

“We know that those who have power today are very well organised, because they’ve had power for a long time, and they are well used to having it and having it with impunity. And obviously, as soon as they see that we citizens are organising among ourselves, it’s clear they will not make it easy for us.
They’ll call us idealists, they’ll say we’re good people, that we’re nice, that we’re activists, they’ll call us ‘anti-system’, they’ll call us ‘alternative’, and they’ll try to ridicule us, silence us, criminalise us. And they’ll treat us as trespassers, in what they say is a democracy, when it ought to be the best of news that the citizens are organising themselves – to decide what it is that they want and how they want to do it. This is democracy, and everything else is just words.

We are not trespassers, we are protagonists, and we want to be protagonists in this city and in the democratic revolution that is underway.” (Ada Colau)

The rules of the game must be changed. Elections and reforms alone will not do the trick. Institutions need to be changed and new institutions created, and the neoliberal frame of mind overcome. In other words, where hierarchy and domination was shall autonomy and deep freedom be. This precisely is the context where implementing direct democracy has a crucial role to play. For this to happen strong social movements, which must reach a critical mass, are needed. Otherwise the forces of dissent and change will be re-integrated into the established system via repression, the need to survive, and/or old habits, like it happened with the greens.

Democratic Capitalism Streeck

Democratic capitalism: from crisis to crisis (see Wolfgang Streeck 2011)

Since the 1970s the neoliberal project of unlimited expansion and mastery has been on the rise and the project of real democracy marginalized more and more, nearly to the point of being completely lost. However, for an ever growing part of the population the fear and pain inflicted by this process become increasingly unbearable, not to speak of planet Earth. The seeming triumph of western “democratic capitalism” culminates in a double crisis of humanity and capitalism. People (and earth) can only take so much strain and no more. However distorted it may become, people have a sense of justice that cannot be suppressed completely. However repressed, the struggle for freedom and self-determination continues. There is always the possibility of revolt, and once people have lost their fear, revolution comes next. Countless examples throughout history testify to these struggles for autonomy, which sooner or later, almost without exception, ended in defeat.

This year we can make history. We, ordinary people, can win. If we believe in ourselves and get organized, there’s a democratic revolution underway that’s unstoppable.

Ada Colau: Happy Democratic Revolution 2015!

Like Syriza and Podemos, and even more so, Barcelona En Comú is an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of the idea that in politics “there is no alternative”. Of course there is, and Ada Colau has become a symbol and driving force of an alternative project whose aim is to empower ordinary people and make politics serve the common good.

El Run Run – es defender el bien COMÚN

Ada Colau is running for mayor in Barcelona in the upcoming municipal elections on May 24, 2015.

Ada Colau explains herself

Delegating institutional politics to a few professionals and just voting every four years has been a disaster. Putting the control of public resources in the hands of the few has led to widespread corruption and criminal public policies. It’s up to our generation to democratize democracy, to take back our institutions (and) to put them at the service of the people. (Ada Colau)

The PAH movement is part of the historical current of the autonomy tradition, and so are local citizens’ platforms in many cities that were formed after the model of “Barcelona En Comú” (originally “Guanyem Barcelona”), and the new national political parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece (see also above: Timeline and Context). What all these movements have in common is the search for a democratic alternative to the dominant social and economic model. They know that such an alternative exists and that it is achievable, step by step, by the people themselves, but not on behalf of the people. Therefore a political party alone, even if it is elected to power like Syriza, and possibly also Podemos, is perhaps a necessary but certainly not a sufficient condition for implementing fundamental change in order to create a free society. Because in a free society “the citizens are organizing themselves – to decide what it is that they want and how they want to do it. This is democracy, and everything else is just words.” (Ada Colau)

Ada Colau elected mayor of Barcelona

“We are proud. This is not happening in Barcelona alone. This is a democratic revolution. It is unstoppable and it is happening in Catalonia, all over Spain, and we hope to see it happen in all of Southern Europe.”


Ada Colau: Leading by Obeying

An interview with Ada Colau on DemocracyNow! (video with transcript, June 5, 2015)

Barcelona – a city constructed from below

Ada Colau began her term as Barcelona’s new mayor by stopping a home eviction, something she had done for years as a social activist and cofounder of the anti-eviction movement PAH. Shortly after she announced that Barcelona will not be bidding to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. In addition she decided to cut her salary from €140,000 to around €35,000.

In view of the Catalonian parliamentary elections on September 27, 2015 and the possibility to form a united candidacy under the label of Catalonia Yes we Can, modeled after Barcelona en Comú, Fort Apache analyzes the new mayor and the future of the autonomous community of Catalonia.

A debate with Manolo Monereo (Political Analyst), 
Xavier Domènech (Historian), 
Carlos Enrique Bayo (Editor of the daily Público.es), 
Gemma Ubasart (Podemos
), and Joan Josep Nuet (United and Alternative Left), hosted by Pablo Iglesias (Podemos).

Click to open the video [ES]

Domination and hierarchy are based on inequality and associated with an unequal distribution of power. Deep freedom and autonomy are based on an equal distribution of power. From this follows the absolutely central place that the institutionalization of people power, of real democracy, of direct democracy, must have in any alternative project of autonomy. Of course, real democracy only guarantees that it is the people themselves that decide democratically and peacefully about their own affairs, but it does not determine the content of these decisions nor their quality. Errors will be made, bad decisions will be made, the democratic process is never complete, always conflictive, often confused, and sometimes chaotic. But it is the only way to create a free society of free and equal individuals and the only way in which people can fully develop their humanity.

Costas Lapavitsas: An Alternative to Capitalism


Colau, Ada & Alemany, Adriá. 2014. Morgaged Lives. From the housing bubble to the right of housing. Translation: Michelle Teran, Jessica Fuquay. Click to download PDF

Provisional University. May 2012. Financialization and the enclosure of the city: the right to the city and the right to housing in contemporary Ireland and Spain. (Click to download PDF from here)

Click to read the Manifesto of Democracia Real Ya! [en]

Barcelona En Comú website

Podemos website

Ada Colau website (cat, cas, en)

Back to Happy Democratic Revolution 2015
Last update: 06.08.2015