Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca

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= PAH – the platform for those affected by foreclosures in Spain.

URL = http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022673164


Definition

"For over four years, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH or “Mortgage Victims’ Platform”, in English) have pursued a simple and poetic response to this question: people living together, for one another. Their campaign for mutual aid, solidarity and civil disobedience strike at the very core of Spain’s power structure, and despite an often overwhelming institutional blockade, they have received the support of up to 90% of the population." (http://roarmag.org/2013/12/plataforma-afectados-hipoteca-spain/)

Description

"Grown out of the 15-M or Indignados movement, they have managed to halt 692 evictions up until now. When they and 15-M jointly call for street protest such as the “white sea” or the “sea of citizens”, hundreds of thousands have responded in cities all over Spain, repeatedly.

Even more impressive, the PAH has put forward a so-called popular legislative initiative, a proposal of law sponsored by the people directly. It needed half a million signatures, but got 1,5 million.

In the ILP, they propose to retroactively halt all eviction procedures, to allow people who couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments to simply hand over the keys and walk away (called dacion en pago, or “payment in kind”), and to allow people to keep on living in their house at a social housing rent. Note that social housing in Spain is virtually nonexistent, whereas in the EU the average is 15 % of properties for rent. Now, the ruling Partido Popular, rather than voting on the ILP, has come up with a (counter)proposal for “mortgage relief”, which waters down the demands about eviction stops and dacion en pago, and has totally thrown out social housing. Note that the PP was elected on a platform of “no cuts”…

The PAH has now taken to a tactic which was born in Argentina as a method to point out those colluding with the dictatorship – the escrache , in which protesters name and shame politicians blocking the ILP, by peacefully protesting at their residence or in public places. The PAH has also just recently occupied a bank building that had been sitting empty for four years, since its construction. The bank had also been getting public money, so they figured (rightly imho) that they could squat on this property, and plan to extend this principle to other similar buildings." (http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022673164)


Interview

Carlos Delclos interviews Elvi Mármol, a PAH activist from the city of Sabadell, just north of Barcelona:

* What spurred the creation of the PAH?

EM: In 2007, housing prices were at an all-time high. If we consider these disproportionate prices along with soaring interest rates and decreasing income (since unemployment went from 8.3% in 2006 to 17% in 2009), we find ourselves with an impoverished and debt-ridden citizenry, living in fear of an uncertain future.

In 2006, the V de Vivienda movement (a reference to V for Vendetta that translates to “V for Housing”) was born in Barcelona. For two years, they articulated the struggle for the right to decent housing and denounced the housing bubble, calling for an end to the violence of real estate speculation. When the bubble burst two years later, some of that group’s activists realized that people were going to stop being able to pay their mortgages, and that the struggle would no longer be about access to housing but that many families would actually be left without a home. They also discovered that Spanish mortgage law would leave them with a debt hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives. So in February of 2009, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) was born, which put the failure of housing policies on the agenda and would prove a major blow to the administrations that had pushed the population to become indebted.

The biggest difference between the V de Vivienda movement and the PAH is its members. While the first was mostly made up of young people in precarious work who organized and fought to leave their parents’ homes, the majority of the PAH is made up of families who are being foreclosed on.


* What’s the relationship between 15M and the PAH?

EM: The PAH was formed two years before the 15M movement burst onto the scene; there were already groups in Barcelona, Sabadell, Terrassa, Murcia and other cities. The 15M movement in the plazas, then later in the neighborhood assemblies, helped launch PAHs all over Spain. Now there are over 200 PAH groups. And the 15M movement was especially helpful to the Stop Evictions campaign: we went from being 50 or so at the evictions to being hundreds.


* Why is the struggle for decent housing, and in particular the PAH’s anti-evictions campaign, such an important struggle, as opposed to labor, public services or other social issues?

EM: Before a person loses their home, it’s pretty likely that they have lost their job or main source of income. The last thing anyone thinks of losing is their home, the roof over their head, the place where they feel secure and which any person needs, whether it was a cave thousands of years ago or the various types of housing that exist in our current consumerist era. It is within this basic need that the basic struggle for decent housing exists.

The PAH organizes assemblies in which any person could come, explain their situation and ask for help. We never tell anyone that their case will find a solution just because they showed up. What we do tell them is that if we continue to work together, the chances that their situation will improve will be better. We have been very successful because we’ve achieved small victories. Every time we celebrate a case where we were able to get the bank to declare a non-recourse debt in exchange for the home in question (note: this is not the status quo in Spain), a world of hope opens up for the people who long for the same. Every small achievement pushes people to continue fighting and because these victories are achieved through the combined strength of everyone fighting together, people start to go beyond their individual problem to envision a community.

In the struggles you mention, it is a bit more difficult to achieve such important and tangible victories in so little time. This makes those struggles seem utopian to people who are less politicized. We must find a way to take advantage of the opportunity the PAH offers us to make the struggle grow in other areas, in a way that is more global and more united.


* What is the relationship between the PAH and party politics? Do you see the PAH as being in direct opposition to party politics?

EM: One of the pillars of the PAH, as expressed in its statutes and as a requirement for forming a new PAH, is that the PAH is explicitly unaligned with any political party. We do not belong to any party nor will we ever be one, and this is a key part of our success. Our assemblies are very pluralistic and include people who have affinities with a number of political parties, including the right-wing Popular Party, which is something I’ll never understand.


...

* What kind of tactics and strategies do the PAH engage in and why?

EM: Perhaps our best-known campaign is Stop Evictions, inspired by Lluis from La Bisbal who, upon receiving his eviction notice, went to an assembly and said he was not about to leave his home. He asked for help and found it. In November of 2010, more than 50 people stood outside his home and stopped the judicial team and the Catalan police from carrying out the eviction. The eviction has been stopped four times since then and today, the case has been filed away, and he and his son Lloid remain in their homes. To this day, we have stopped over 800 evictions.

After that, we launched a campaign promoting a piece of Citizen Initiated Legislation intended to change Spain’s archaic mortgage law. Despite gathering 1.4 million signatures, the Popular Party rejected it, which gave way to our current campaign, known as the Obra Social (a play on words using the term used by Spanish banks to refer to their Corporate Responsibility programs, and literally translates as “social work”). This campaign is more revolutionary and less reformist than the previous ones, since it involves squatting housing blocks owned by financial firms and giving them to evicted families.

Based on my own experience, as a member of PAH Sabadell I can say that ours is currently one of the strongest PAH groups. We’ve squatted three buildings through our Obra Social campaign, we have fought more broadly for the right to decent housing than other group, since we also help tenants and not just mortgage holders. We organize workshops for individual squatters and carried out the longest bank occupation in the PAH’s history, which lasted four days and three nights at the office of the Unnim, a subsidiary of BBVA.


* Do you see your tactics as part of longer-term politics?

EM: I think that getting banks to declare mortgages as non-recourse debts, stopping evictions and obtaining reduced rent through social housing are some of the small victories that have made us strong and differentiate us from other social movements today. I would say that our tactics and strategies are mostly short-term and consist of establishing goals that are attainable in terms of their time-frame and the energy they require. These short-term, tangible successes lead people to go from being dejected and demoralized to being empowered and making an impact in their communities, in relatively little time. They also help us keep the movement visible, reach more people and continue to question politicians and bankers about changing the law.

At the same time, our assemblies assure that we are always learning from and training one another, so that we never lose the essence of what makes the PAH so important, which is the people who participate in the movement. Without a doubt, the PAH’s greatest success has been to empower people. These are men and women who at one point were sold on the idea that they were part of a middle class, and now realize that they are part of a much larger majority, which is the working class. One day they were just a number in the labor force and now, thanks to the PAH, they are activists who not only defend the right to decent housing but work with militants they have met from other movements to weave the social fabric of their own communities.


* What have been the keys to success of the movement so far?

EM: The PAH’s success lies in every one of its local assemblies. People arrive at those assemblies looking for a solution to their individual situation, but they quickly realize that through solidarity and civil disobedience, not only can they find solutions to their problems, but also that they are part of a community that is capable of large scale success.

The PAH today is Spain’s most important social movement, but it’s neither perfect nor a panacea to all of the country’s ills. We do a lot of things that were being done many years before, in the neighborhood movements, the squatters’ movements and so on. The platform was born at the right place at the right time, and it has understood how to learn, grow and expand without losing its essence. Perhaps with time, we will be able to bring together all of the different social struggles taking place at this moment in history." (http://roarmag.org/2013/12/plataforma-afectados-hipoteca-spain/)


Case Study

In-depth description by :

Source: M.A. Thesis: The Transformative Effects of Crisis: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Economic Cultures in Spain and Greece. Janosch Sbeih. Schumacher College, 2014

Janosch Sbeih:

"The struggle between the Spanish population and their elected political leaders who favour banks over their electorate is probably most distinctly pronounced in Spain’s notorious real estate sector.

Before the financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, there was a prolonged real estate bubble building up in which many families took on mortgages to buy a home. Now that this housing bubble burst, many of these mortgage-affected families do not only see a huge drop in the value of their houses (far below the mortgage they took on), but they also get to know the clauses of their contracts and the Spanish mortgage legislation the hard way. What many of them did not know when they signed their contracts – because neither the bank, nor the realtor, nor the notary, nor the government warned them of that particular legislation – is that if they happen to be late on one month’s payment, the bank is allowed to start a fast-track foreclosure process on the debtor (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). These foreclosure processes cannot be halted by contesting abusive or downright illegal clauses of the mortgage contract in court (BBC News, 2013). As Spain happens to be a country with extremely high home ownership rates and a soaring unemployment rate since the crisis – with 26% the highest figure after Greece in the eurozone – a growing number of families find themselves unable to meet their monthly mortgage payments (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). In 2010, the Spanish consumer protection association Adicae estimated that about 1.4 million Spaniards were facing potential foreclosure proceedings (Daley, 2010). Within the first five years of the crisis, over 350,000 families have been evicted from their homes with numbers of daily evictions increasing year by year (Jourdan, 2014). In 2013, an average of 184 families was evicted from their homes every day (ibid.). What they also only get to know in the foreclosure process is that they happen to live in one of the few countries where legislation is excessively punitive on foreclosed families. Not only can they be evicted from their homes through high-speed foreclosures if they happen to be one month late with their payment, but they also continue to be personally liable for the full amount of the loan even after their house was repossessed by the bank (Daley, 2010). On top of that come penalty interest charges which range from 5-19% and tens of thousands of Euros in court fees, including those of the bank (ibid.).

Individuals who find themselves in this situation can effectively never get rid of this debt as it is not possible to get relief in the courts through personal bankruptcy – Spanish legislation specifically excludes mortgage debt there (ibid.). “I will be working for the bank for the rest of my life; I will never own anything – not even a car” (ibid.) quotes the New York Times one mortgage victim. As bankers pressed many homeowners to find guarantors at the time they took out the mortgages or when they began to struggle to make payments, this even affects other family members like debtor’s children who often took on that role thinking of it as a formality or not fully understanding the implications (ibid.). Spanish banks are legally allowed to collect a percentage of the debtor’s income if it exceeds €962 per month or €1,347 per month if the debtor has dependents (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The chairman of the Spanish Mortgage Association called it “the bank’s duty to try to collect” the debt from foreclosed families in order to ensure the bank’s solvency (Daley, 2010). The government takes on a similar discourse in favour of the banks’ interests, arguing that “we have not seen the problems of the U.S. because the guarantees here are so much better” (Daley, 2010). Note that the “guarantees” that are spoken of here are guarantees for the lenders to be paid irrespective of social circumstances of the debtor and not guarantees for the debtor that there are no abusive clauses in the loan agreement. Implicitly, it is assumed that the lender is morally in the right and needs to be protected from potentially immoral actions of the debtor (like not paying her debts). This unspoken conception of the lender’s moral superiority over the debtor is an almost universally held assumption that, as David Graeber (2011) shows formidably in his book Debt: The First 5.000 Years, has been deeply engrained in our culture over time. Similarly, with “the problems of the U.S.”, the politician did not mean mass evictions of people from their homes, but private banks going bankrupt. This was in 2010 before Spain’s banks had to be bailed out with 41.3 billion Euros from the eurozone rescue fund; a loan that will have to be serviced by tax-payers’ money (Dowsett & White, 2014). However, even after banks were propped up through tax-payers’ money, politicians did not start to take sides with their population who demand amendments to the foreclosure laws, including letting mortgage defaulters settle their debts with the bank by turning over the property. The situation is such that judges have begun to look for legal loopholes in order to aid foreclosure victims by temporarily suspending evictions (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). Eventually, the European Court of justice even ruled that Spanish legislation infringes EU law and that Spanish judges should have the power to halt evictions while homeowners take legal action against clauses in their contracts (BBC News, 2013). It seems the biggest support for mortgage victims comes from within their own ranks though.

Since 2009, the popular movement Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) supports mortgage victims through legal advice, direct action, and lobbying the state for a retroactive amendment of the foreclosure laws (PAH, 2014a). The PAH is a nation-wide (over 200 groups in different cities throughout Spain), decentralized, horizontal, non-violent, assembly-based movement that uses a discourse of a right to housing and considers forceful evictions over economic motives a legal but immoral violation of the right to a home (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013; PAH, 2014a). It defines itself as “a group of people who, unaffiliated with any party, recognizes that […] the current legal framework is designed to guarantee that banks cash in on debt, while at the same time the law gives no protection to the people with mortgages who are unable to cover their payments due to reasons such as unemployment or rising fees/interests” (Wikipedia translation of PAH, 2014b). Under the platform, families who have trouble paying their mortgages, face eviction or have been evicted are brought together with people in solidarity with them. The first thing that attracted many to seek the PAH’s consultation was to first of all understand what happened with their mortgage, the legal terminology being used, what their rights were and what they could do in this situation (Jourdan, 2014). Quickly, they realised that there was not much they could do legally, as even if there were illegal clauses in their contracts, they would still be evicted while engaging in a lengthy and costly process against the banks. At this stage, many would join the PAH’s assemblies and direct action groups to help themselves and others in their situation through social pressure on the banks and politicians.

On the political front, the PAH has exceeded the necessary amount of 500,000 signatures by an additional one million in order to introduce a so-called popular legislative initiative (ILP), a proposal of law by popular demand, to be voted in parliament (PAH, 2014c). The demands of the ILP are: “a) A moratorium on evictions; b) The cancellation of mortgage debt upon handover of the property to the bank; c) The creation of public rent housing with empty homes owned by banks” (ibid.). Although, according to surveys, 90% of the Spanish population supports these demands, the Spanish government of the conservative Partido Popular (PP; “People’s Party”) initially opposed these demands and when this was no longer politically tenable, they merged it with a proposal of their own which watered the demands so far down that it did not resemble the original ILP anymore (Garea, 2013; Hernandez, 2013). In the meantime, the PAH started a visual campaign that spread widely in the streets, social networks and mass-media (Enmedio, 2013a). It was a very simple message for positive change that was rather non-confrontational and easy to reproduce. It contained the popular slogan of the different Spanish political movements “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”) printed on a green cardboard circle and a red cardboard circle that read “Pero no quieren” (“But they don’t want to”). This visual imagery intended to display the possibility of change as advocated by the PAH’s ILP and the opposition of conservative parliamentarians that block it against the will of the people (ibid.). It spread widely across Spain and was displayed in the streets, on demonstrations and in shop windows that supported the initiative. It was also displayed by demonstrators in the rather confrontational – yet non-violent – escraches that took place in front of banks, politicians’ workplaces and homes (Alvarez, Manetto & Hernandez, 2013). This tactic of making demonstrations personal to name and shame politicians where they live and work is called escrache and was widely used by Argentinean human rights activists against officials trying to avoid responsibility for their actions under Argentina’s junta (Nichols, 2013). Taking their inspiration from Argentina, the Spanish demonstrators adopting that strategy enraged parliamentarians who called this practice “pure Nazism” and compared their perpetrators to the Basque terror organisation ETA (Alvarez et al., 2013). The PAH’s response to the charges of obstructing democratic representatives to freely exert their work are that they have tried to use every official way to meet these supposed representatives to discuss the issue of thousands of families being made homeless, including collecting 1.5 million signatures to propose a law in parliament, and that these representatives have “not moved a millimetre” and do not seem to represent the will of the people (Nichols, 2013). The reasoning is that as the politicians cannot be found another way, the people need to find them in person to make their demands heard.

A similar strategy of deligitimation is applied to the banks by publically personalising the evictions through a demonstration where a bank’s facade is placated with images and life-stories of individuals who have been evicted by the banks (Enmedio, 2013b). The PAH reports that banks have been much more willing to sit down and talk since they have been attacking their public image (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). And this is exactly what the PAH attempts to achieve: to sit down with the banks that start foreclosure processes against their customers and negotiate with them to find a way that the families can stay in their homes although they cannot meet their agreed mortgage payment.

In a personal interview, two members of a PAH-associated group in Madrid explained to me the working methodology of the PAH. They told me most families are helped through negotiations for social rent. If a family comes to the PAH because they struggle to meet their mortgage payments and are facing a foreclosure process, the aim is to renegotiate the mortgage payment to a rate that the family can afford. The most difficult step is to have the bank enter the negotiation process as in their eyes there is no reason to negotiate about a standard foreclosure process – the law is in their favour. Therefore, the PAH exerts social pressure on the banks to make them enter a negotiation with the family. First, one or two activists go with the family to the bank to support them in asking for a rearrangement of their mortgage plan. If the bank turns their request down, the next day the family comes again with 10 more people from the PAH. If that does not help, they come the following day back with 20 people, 30 people, and so on. Then people start peacefully protesting inside and outside the bank, spraying the entrance, sleeping in the bank, etc. At the time of writing, this method has halted 1135 foreclosures throughout Spain by negotiating social rents for affected families (PAH, 2014a).

In the cases where the banks do not agree to halt the foreclosures and evict families, the negotiation process is taken to a second stage which the PAH calls obra social (“social program”) (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). In that case, a vacant building which is owned by the bank that evicted one or more families is identified and subsequently squatted, or in the PAH’s terminology “liberated”. The liberation of a building is being done and celebrated in broad daylight with music and dancers; a huge party, publically visible for everyone. When enough people have gathered round to see what is happening, a pamphlet is being read through a megaphone explaining the obra social and why they regard it as legitimate. The PAH gives special trainings to people opening the building, to people supporting the first group by shielding them from police, to people whose role it is to talk to police officers that may arrive, and so on. The trainings are published online in a socalled “squatter’s manual” (PAH, 2014d). Once the building is open, the families who have agreed beforehand to live in the liberated building enter and cannot be evicted without a court order signed by a judge (Jourdan, 2014). As mostly apartment blocks are chosen for this purpose, many families – often up to 100 people, including children – can be housed in one building. Before they are allocated to a building, the families undergo extensive training and education over the concepts and (legal) consequences of squatting, philosophical discussions over private property, how to function as a community inside the blocks, how to react when owners and police come and generally how to look after each other in this newly formed living arrangement. If the bank wants their squatted building back, they have to find a solution where to relocate the families in exchange for social rent payments. Most families can afford to pay a certain amount of rent, but the most difficult thing, for the banks to accept, the PAH activists told me, is that some families require a social rent of €0. The building is only handed over when an acceptable arrangement has been found for all families, since they function as a collective once moving into a block together. “One of the best things”, the PAH activist confided me with a smile, “is that the bank needs to acknowledge and interact with this group of people who they would usually just ignore.”

The idea of a large-scale public takeover of empty buildings to house evicted people began to develop in the summer of 2011 (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). A few months before that, people in Andalusia who are not members of the PAH had begun their own campaigns for housing rights with the same objective and strategy: occupy vacant housing blocks owned by banks and negotiate for social rents (ibid.). While the local 15M assembly in Sevilla has contacts to these families, they organise on their own, most of them middle-class families without any former background in squatting (ibid.). At the time of writing, the PAH has relocated 1180 persons into liberated buildings (PAH, 2014a), and many more follow the same method like the group in Andalusia (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). In many cases, the banks went to court to get the judge to sign an eviction order. Several occupied buildings have been evicted, and in most of those cases the families are facing criminal charges (ibid.). In an interview from November 2013, one of the lawyers who works with the PAH admitted that the legal strategy of the movement “is still at an initial stage” (ibid.). A lot of work went into developing the manual on squatters’ rights but there is no offensive legal strategy yet. “We are thinking about looking for pronouncements from international agencies and centering the offensive on the lack of alternatives that those who are evicted face,” said the lawyer at that stage (ibid.). In the meantime, there have also been encouraging responses from the courts where judges asserted the right to housing over the right to property (ibid.). On 16 October 2013, one building should be evicted in Salt, near Barcelona. The night before the planned eviction, dozens of people came to the building to support the families, and 100 fire-fighters announced that they would join the fight to stop the eviction (ibid.). When the day came, the European Court of Human Rights ordered that the eviction should be postponed until the end of the month and urged the Spanish government to provide alternative housing to the families (ibid.).

The PAH is an especially interesting political and economic movement for me, because it takes a narrative to scale that squatting activists adopt since a long time, but could never popularize beyond their own marginalised sub-culture. Their campaign for mutual aid, solidarity and civil disobedience strikes at the very core of Spain’s power structure which lies at the nexus between the political elite and the financial industry (Delclos, 2013). The fact that a wide spectrum of society, including middle-class families who would usually pass off as ‘respectable citizens’, challenges in this particular context state decisions and a legal property regime gives the movement greater significance and legitimacy. In contrast, the legitimacy of the Spanish state is further decreased through repeated interventions of the European Court of Justice due to national legislation that violates human rights in order to benefit banks over people’s livelihoods. According to surveys, the PAH enjoys more support from the Spanish population than any political party (El Pais, 2013) and was awarded the Spanish national prize for human rights in January 2013 (El Diario, 2013). Apart from the practical help the movement offers to families in distress in their struggle against abusive legislation and financial institutions, I find it especially pertinent to my thesis for the emotional support, community work and formacion (education) it offers to its members. Through the short term tactics and strategies which lead to tangible successes in relatively little time, the PAH succeeds in empowering people (Delclos, 2013). Where state violence and media reports indoctrinate people with the message of “There is no alternative”, movements like the PAH help people out of their learned helplessness and let them experience the power of community. The members that I interviewed told me that the PAH always emphasizes that families who come for help are not being helped by the organisation’s saviours, but that they help themselves and need to help others, too. While every family has two references who act as mentors for them, soon they are encouraged to act as reference persons for new members. This way, the community grows constantly as the families tell other families they know in similar situations.

One member answers the question of what the movements keys to success have been so far this way:

- “The PAH’s success lies in every one of its local assemblies. People arrive at those assemblies looking for a solution to their individual situation, but they quickly realise that through solidarity and civil disobedience, not only can they find solutions to their problems, but also that they are part of a community that is capable of large scale success.” (Delclos, 2013)

This is where I believe the long-term impact of the movement lies in terms of shifting political and economic cultures. Surely, the movement helps families to housing when they might have ended up on the street, and the PAH may eventually even be successful in pushing for a change in Spanish mortgage legislation. The real impact for a long-term transition in economic cultures is in my eyes however the experiential formacion they offer to their members. The whole educational work of the movement is to externalise individuated systemic problems again (not being able to pay their mortgage) and let people feel that it is not necessarily their fault, but that the situation they find themselves in is of systemic nature, that they have a right to housing and that they are supported by a community to attain that right. This experience makes people want to help others in the same way and a movement of mutual aid and solidarity is born; values that differ significantly from the neoliberal economic culture of networked self-interest and that may very well persist even after the PAH may not be needed anymore. Ada Colau, spokesperson of the PAH, describes this transition in a beautiful quote as an answer to the question how people respond when their eviction gets halted: “More than with gratitude, they respond with personal involvement. Regardless of what response it manages to elicit from the government, the PAH has won already. People arrive here with their self-esteem at rock-bottom levels, they find support, and they feel the desire to help others. It's a process that nearly everyone describes as like being born again: turning from a victim into an activist. It's the most beautiful thing I have seen in my life.” (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013)