Spanish protesters fight off repossessions
- 12 July 2011
- From the section Europe
The crowd started gathering just after eight in the morning.
Just a handful at first, then dozens - responding to a call for help sent out via Twitter and Facebook.
By nine o'clock about 200 people were crammed into the street: a "flashmob" of placard-waving protesters, chanting and singing in defiance.
"We're here to stop the eviction of this family," Eloi Morte from the "Mortgage Victims" campaign group explained, shouting above the noise.
Behind him, demonstrators blocked the entrance to a building with their bodies and huge banners.
The family inside has been served notice to leave after defaulting on their mortgage. A bank representative and locksmith are due at any moment to take possession of the property.
"There is a crisis in Spain. People have no jobs, they can't pay!" Mr Morte insists.
"So all over the country we are standing up against this kind of eviction. We won't let it happen," he says, as a chant of "They will not pass!" rises from the crowd.
During Spain's property boom that peaked in 2007, low interest rates encouraged a surge in credit-taking.
But the sector's implosion has since destroyed more than two million jobs; unemployment is more than twice the EU average, at 21.3%.
And now there is a new record: home repossessions are at an all-time high, with 180 families evicted every day, according to campaigners.
Maria Jose del Coto began to fall behind on her mortgage payments in 2008.
The interest rate was climbing, and both she and her adult daughter were unemployed. Now the bank has repossessed the house and served them notice to leave.
The protest outside is a last, desperate attempt at resistance.
"Of course I'm worried, but I'm determined to fight this," Mrs del Coto says, inside her home of 30 years.
"Not just for me, but for the many other people in even worse straits," she adds.
Like many, she feels duped into a mortgage arrangement she could never afford.
"I understand the bank wants its money back," her daughter adds.
"But if things are tough for the banks at the moment, they have to understand that families are in crisis too. They need to come up with some solutions until things improve, not kick us out."
In the street outside, the protesters are angry that banks - propped up with public funds - are now turning families in difficulty onto the street.
There is bemusement it is happening at all, when almost 700,000 unsold properties stand empty.
The campaigners' main demand is for a legal change to allow people to clear their entire debt by handing their home to the bank if they cannot meet the mortgage.
Currently, if a bank sells a repossessed home for less than the value of outstanding debt, the borrower is liable for the difference.
The campaigners want the change applied retrospectively.
"Forgiving debt is always a possibility, but making it mandatory retroactively is crazy," argues economist Javier Diaz Jimenez from Madrid's IESE Business School.
He believes the best way to help those in difficulty is for the government to provide income support, not "meddle" with contracts.
"This is the heart and the blood of a market economy, you just don't do that. You will kill loans for ever if you do that. It is an outrageous idea," he says, pointing out that most businesses here are small- and medium-sized enterprises heavily reliant on access to bank credit.
The Spanish Banking Association estimates that such a move would push the number of defaults from 2.4% of all mortgages to 8% in a year, putting an extra 4bn euros (£3.5bn; $5.6bn) on already strained bank balance sheets.
'Yes, we can!'
But the protesters gathered outside Maria Jose's house are determined.
Their movement sprung from the mass demonstrations in May that began in Madrid's Sol square - against corruption, mass unemployment and a political class they felt had stopped listening to the people.
Now the "indignants" have found a new focus for their protest.
"I remember the first night I was in Sol I was crying," recalls Helia Relano.
"It was so incredible to realise you weren't alone; that lots of people were there to fight for what's right. This protest [now] is a clear continuation of that."
The government has already proposed changes to the law - apparently in response - including protecting a higher percentage of a debtor's income against seizure by the banks.
But the protesters demand more.
Six hours after they first gathered in support of Maria Jose, Eloi Morte finally raises his megaphone: the bank has suspended her eviction until further notice, he tells them, to a joyful chorus of chants: "Yes, we can!"
"It's the 48th success we've had so far in Spain," Mr Morte says, and vows that the campaign will continue.
For Maria Jose, he admits, it is only a temporary respite - but he says the protest has won her some breathing space. Now lawyers for the campaign group can pressure the bank to be lenient.
"Obviously the bank won't accept the demands," Mr Morte shrugs.
"But when we have another date for the eviction, we will be here again and again until we get a response."