BARCELONA, Feb 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cars and buses hurtled by as Zafar stood frozen on the spot, legal documents in hand, glancing anxiously at his apartment block on one of Barcelona’s busiest roads.
Activists from Stop Desahucios, a nationwide association that fights for housing rights, began gathering outside the building to try to prevent the father of four and his family from being evicted that same day.
“The landlord is up there now and I am waiting to see what happens ... we have lived here for five years,” said Zafar - who did not want to disclose his full name - as he took a deep breath.
Thousands of families are evicted each month across Spain, as a combination of overtourism, rising immigration and a growing urban population push up housing prices, leaving many tenants unable to afford rent, say housing rights advocates.
As local activists call on the government for solutions, advocacy groups like Stop Desahucios (“Stop Evictions”) are finding ways to help people keep their homes, with some comparing the situation to a refugee crisis.
“The housing crisis situation in Spain is comparable to less developed countries where they have seen big displacements,” said Santi Mas de Xaxas, spokesman for the Mortgage Victims’ Platform (PAH), which runs Stop Desahucios.
Average rental prices in Barcelona have risen by a third in the last five years, according to city hall statistics.
Local government data revealed that in the wealthy Catalonia region alone, there were about 13,900 home evictions in 2018, nearly 5% more than in the previous year.
The issue garnered international attention in October 2019 when the United Nations condemned Spain’s government for its hand in the eviction of Maribel Viviana Lopez Alban and her six children from their apartment in Madrid.
In the complaint Alban filed with the U.N., the single mother stated that she had discovered the person who claimed to be the landlord turned out not to be the property’s legal owner and so she stopped paying rent.
When the bank that did own the property realised she was living there, it started eviction proceedings.
She proceeded to apply for social housing, but was turned down on the grounds that anyone illegally occupying a property is not eligible, according to the complaint.
In response to the case, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said the government had violated the family’s right to housing and not recognised their vulnerability.
Spain needs to create a legal framework to “prevent similar violations in the future”, the U.N. said in a statement, and ordered the government to compensate Alban.
Zafar was not so lucky.
After tense negotiations with his landlord, the housing activists, social workers, and court and city hall representatives, he and his family were told to leave their home.
“Other countries have rent controls, Spain does not ... the government allows the market to run wild,” Mas de Xaxas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of Development did not respond to a request for comment on its national social housing policy.
Zafar and his family, like many families who have been evicted, will have been temporarily rehoused in a hostel in Barcelona and will probably be moved every few weeks or months, Mas de Xaxas explained.
“They (family members) are all put in one room – no access to a kitchen, no access for the kids to any space for them to study or to play,” he lamented, adding that they could remain in that state for years.
The PAH, which launched 10 years ago in Barcelona in response to Spain’s mortgage crisis, offers residents free legal advice at weekly meetings, raises awareness of upcoming evictions on social media and on the day protests outside targeted homes.
It prevented 250 evictions in the city in 2019 and hundreds more around the rest of Spain, Mas de Xaxas added.
Other groups helping Spaniards fight for their property rights include Reventemos las Burbujas (“Bubble Blast”) - also run by the PAH - which holds flashmobs in which everyone blows bubbles as a symbol of Spain’s property bubble.
And Nadie sin Hogar (“Nobody Homeless”), also based in Madrid, made headlines last summer when it organised a protest camp outside El Prado museum, with about 150 homeless people camping out in the tourist hotspot for six months to demand better housing.
Asuncion Blanco Romero, a geography professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said that the Sindicat de Llogateres (“Tenant Syndicate”) had also convinced some property owners to join a fair rent initiative and was demanding the regulation of rents at a national level.
For Mas de Xaxas and other housing rights advocates, the crux of Spain’s evictions problem is its critical lack of affordable housing.
Social rented housing in Spain represents about 2% of the total housing stock, compared to the European Union average of nearly 12%, according to official statistics.
In Catalonia alone, about 1,350 housing dwellings were completed in 2017, falling short of the 115,000 or so households listed as having requested social housing, found data by the University of Barcelona.
The government is aware of the scale of the problem, according to a Barcelona City Hall spokeswoman, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Obviously there is a shortage of housing because Barcelona is a very consolidated city with few available parcels of land to grow (into),” she said in a phone interview.
“The need for mostly affordable housing is growing because prices have skyrocketed in recent years.”
In March 2019, the government extended the minimum duration of rental contracts and adopted measures to prevent annual rent increases of more than the consumer price index.
And in December, Catalonia’s regional government approved a new law aimed at rental properties owned by large homeowners, such as banks, investment or venture capital funds.
Those landlords will have to offer a reduced rent - known as social rent - to tenants whose contracts have ended if they can prove they are in a vulnerable situation and have been occupying a property for more than six months.
But critics say the new laws are not enough.
The eviction crisis will only be solved, Mas de Xaxas stressed, when Spain increases its stock of social housing, allowing people on lower incomes to find somewhere where they can actually afford to live.
“As we don’t have enough public housing, we are forced to have these evictions and the administration (is forced) to rehouse these people,” he said. (Reporting by Sophie Davies; editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)