PAH activists occupy a bank office. These occupations are used to put pressure on the banks to renegotiate debts and repossessions. Photo: Diso Press
The Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) is one of the strongest elements in Spain’s massive anti-austerity movement. The first PAH, in Barcelona, formed in 2009 after Spain’s housing bubble burst in spectacular fashion, bringing the whole economy down with it. More than half a million households have lost their homes since 2008, and there are now well over 200 PAHs and local housing assemblies.
One of PAH’s strongest principles is mutual aid. Its assemblies bring together people affected by the crisis. As Charo, a member of the same housing assembly as me in the Madrid district of Latina, puts it, ‘Everyone there has problems, the same problems as you. People with evictions, people with mortgages, people squatting. When I first came to the assembly I was nervous, I didn’t know anyone, but even so I felt very at home.’
PAH Barcelona’s Ada Colau and Adria Alemany stress the importance of this mutual approach in a recently-translated document they wrote in 2011: ‘The PAH and the Stop Evictions campaigns have not been conceived as tools for aid or charity, but as tools for collective action to enforce our rights . . . It is the persons affected that take action first.’
The assemblies co-ordinate activities at regular regional and state meetings, or, in the case of Madrid, at the fortnightly Madrid Housing Assembly. There they agree days of action against particular banks or other targets, develop state-level working commissions and learn from each other’s experiences and strategies.
In my assembly people usually first come at moments of great stress, having received a threat of eviction or reached breaking point in their finances. An experienced member of the assembly welcomes them, listens as they recount their situation and explains how the assembly functions. To ensure commitment to mutual support, new arrivals wait until the following week’s assembly before we discuss their case.
Watch Sí se puede, a free film about PAH (in Spanish).
Each week assembly members update each other about developments in their case and we collectively decide responses. These discussions demystify and politicise the bureaucratised worlds of debt and housing law, harnessing the experience of those whose situations the assembly has successfully improved. But the discussions go beyond that: most housing problems arise in the context of unemployment, illness, domestic abuse or deaths in the family and the assembly collectively confronts these challenges as well.
The assembly’s day-to-day actions mostly consist of negotiating with and pressuring banks. Every week assembly members accompany one another to negotiate with their branch managers or, if that has already failed, occupy their bank branch. The principal demand is for the right to stay in their repossessed homes or elsewhere at a ‘social rent’ (less than a third of income).
If collective negotiations or occupations fail, we attempt to stop evictions at the front door. At least 30 people gather to resist an eviction and the officials carrying it out rarely attempt to do so without serious police backing. Then things get trickier. Police will cordon off the street very early in the morning, and extreme force will be used. Glass will be shattered, doors broken down and barricades demolished.
PAH also works to rehouse the evicted. Assemblies systematically squat empty blocks of flats to manage as social housing. The housing crash left Spain with more than three million empty flats, mostly bank-owned. Large numbers of people have now been housed in dozens of ‘reclaimed’ blocks. Assemblies attempt to negotiate social rents for these squatted flats, mainly negotiating with SAREB, the new public entity that has taken control of the sub-prime properties owned by bailed-out banks.
Spain’s housing crisis is far from being solved. But PAH has succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands of people, prevented thousands of evictions and rehoused several thousand people in their unapologetically visionary squatted blocks of social housing. Its story is the victory of solidarity and care over anxiety, depression, debt bondage, squalor and poverty.