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The Moral Compass Issue

Popping a Spanish Squat

A four-story building that was abandoned after Spain's real estate bubble burst is now a squatter's paradise and the symbol of Spain's fight against foreclosure.

This banner was brandished at one of the many large-scale demonstrations organized by the Indignados movement in Barcelona. It says, “The street is ours. We won’t pay for their crisis.” The four-story building that has come to symbolize Spain’s ongoing fight against foreclosure is a friendly place. How friendly? When I walk up to the front door, I can hear strains of Grease’s “You’re the One That I Want” drifting out of the open windows. Every revolution needs an anthem, I guess. I’m received by two girls from the local assemblea who have converted a space originally intended for retail into a makeshift information desk offering free pamphlets about 15-M (as the Occupy movement is known in Spain), as well as more specific information about the building’s inhabitants. The first question I have is, why haven’t the police thrown the occupiers out, or at least given them a deadline for eviction from the homes they never owned in the first place? Before becoming a squatters’ paradise, this block of nondescript suburban houses sat empty yet perfectly habitable for years, a happy accidental byproduct of the real estate and construction bubble that burst at the end of 2008. The families’ occupation of the property began just after the “15-O” protest, a global “day of action” organized by the Occupy movement that took place on October 15. Following the march, a crowd of approximately 2,000 stormed the Nou Barris building and turned it into a refuge for Spanish, Dominican, Gypsy, and Colombian families who had been evicted from their previous abodes and saddled with insurmountable debt. According to Hibai Arbide Aza, an attorney working on behalf of the families occupying the building, the squatters are relying on an odd legal loophole. “The criminal suit presented by the bank was for breaking and entering,” he says. “Seeing as none of the people here now have been identified as having entered the building on that first day, the judge has decided to archive the case. Even so, we’re still waiting for the result of the civil action.” This process could take from anywhere between one and three years. The squatters have unique legal circumstances, but their basic plight is familiar. Nearly 500,000 Spanish families have become homeless after falling hopelessly behind on their mortgage payments, and the nation’s unemployment rate has risen to 21 percent, the highest in Europe. People are justifiably pissed, and their frustration has led to the appearance of groups like Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages), who for the past two and a half years have been campaigning for the retroactive implementation of dación en pago, a legal procedure that absolves bankrupt homeowners of debt and reinstates their ownership of foreclosed properties. So far, Spain’s financial overlords have been unwilling to forgive debt, and the government has firmly sided with the banks. While the public debate grinds along, the cops have begun threatening the occupants of the Nou Barris building, according to Ana Laura, a 27-year-old Colombian living in the squat. “Unfortunately, they managed to convince one of the older ladies here that they had a warrant,” she says. “She let them in, and as a result seven members of the families are in court today facing individual actions for breaking and entering. And just this weekend, three cops woke all the kids up by kicking the front door at 7 AM. Why would they do that?” The families don’t have much love for the cops, or politicians of any party, for that matter. General elections are happening on November 20, and when I ask whether any of the squatters are planning to vote, the resulting laugh threatens to scare the birds away from the plaza in front of the building. “What are the politicians going to do for us? Fuck all,” says a squatter who did not wish to be identified. I ask him where he’s planning to move after the eviction, and he replies, “Well, it’s not like Spain’s at a loss for empty buildings.”