Housing and the city: Local public action in Barcelona

Wohnhaus in Barcelona

Housing problems are particularly eminent in megacities of the global South. But they also exist n Northern industrialized countries. Spain is an extreme case. In the city of Barcelona, one can observe the joint power of civil movements and a progressive, accountable government to implement the social right to decent housing.

We are at the doors of the new international summit of HABITAT III that will be held in Quito. This meeting will once again advocate for the "right to decent housing for all", as the main factor for achieving a decent life, within the framework of new global commitments for tackling poverty and climate change. 

This right to housing is, logically, defined in many varied way in different parts of the world. We have to prioritise at an international level the needs of the poorer countries or those groups which are more vulnerable at a global level, as is the case of the refugees. However, the fight for the right to housing is also alive, and dramatically current in the northern Europe. In Spain, access to housing was already a difficult aspiration for many groups, but with the economic crisis the problems have become more acute in an extreme way.   

The Spanish case

For many years, Spain lived off a speculative economic model based mainly on construction, in a commitment towards easy, fast and short term growth. More housing was built than in countries such as Germany, Italy and France together, but this over-production didn't mean that housing would become more affordable for the population as a whole, if not quite the opposite, the prices went on going up and up - something that made Spain one of the states of the European Union where access to housing was the most expensive. So what happened?  On the one hand, the interest rates were very low and there was a liberalisation of credit and loans; on the other hand, this led to the possibility of maintaining millions of empty dwellings that could be speculated with, and without any penalisation.  As a result of this model, the confusion was promoted between the right to housing and the right to credit, boosting private property beyond reasonable limits by means of the over-indebtedness of a large part of the population.    

For years, the citizenship listened to a unique message repeated by the real estate agencies, the financial entities, public administrations, and the media: the price of housing never goes down. The Housing Ministers, year after year, repeated the fact that "now's the best time to buy". And they fostered this with some tax policies for which they could get tax rebates just for the purchase, and with a policy of land that boosted speculation, with the liberalisation of rentals that deprived them from being a real alternative and with an insignificant stock of social housing. Despite the constitutional mandate (article 47 of the Spanish Constitution), Spain never made a policy for guaranteeing the right to housing; it limited itself to developing an economic policy that served the commodification of housing as succulent source of incomes for certain private sectors and the administration itself.   

But the bubbles burst and with the arrival of the crisis, and the problem of access was added the loss of housing of thousands of people, who, until that moment and according to statistics, had resolved this issue. You should bear in mind that Spain is a country in which the main household expenditure is the payment of housing and in which, for many years, private property has been boosted as an almost exclusive form of ownership (in 2006 it reached 90 percent of the total stock of housing). Therefore, when the incomes decrease, the first expenditure which cannot be covered is that of the mortgage. And with a rate of unemployment that reached levels higher than 27 percent, it is easy to understand the magnitude of the mortgage tragedy. In the field of rentals, things weren't any better.   

The result has been a dramatic increase in evictions, homeless (living on the street because of not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage), and an ever-increasing number of people who find it more and more difficult to be able to access housing due to the exorbitant increase in the prices. Especially for the new generation of youths who find their emancipation impossible due to this fact and many elderly people who are forced to leave the flats they've lived in all their lives because of the increase of the market pressure. Furthermore, in Barcelona, housing has become a very attractive commodity for speculation, and even more so in highly attractive tourist areas. And it is this process which is expelling wide sectors of the population from access to housing, leading to the phenomenon of gentrification.  

Civic action and the fight against evictions

Faced with this panorama, it has been the civil society that has mobilised itself. In 2006, when the administrations, the banks, the real estate agents and the media denied the existence of the bubble, against all odds, thousands of people mobilised themselves and went to the streets, something which led to the start of the movement "V de Vivienda" (like, H for Housing). And later on, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), born in Barcelona in February 2009, would take on the work and was the first to make the housing crisis visible generated by the bursting of that bubble that officially had never existed.  From 15th May 2001, referred to as 15M, onwards, a strong citizen movement led to the definitive boosting of the fight against evictions and for the right to housing.   

Over the past four years the movement of the PAH hasn't stopped growing, striking up alliances and articulating effective responses.  On the one hand, with the conviction that it was a problem of model, it boosted actions to provoke a change in a legislation that was clearly unfair. On the other hand, aware of the dimensions of the tragedy and of the impossibility of the people affected to wait for the laws to be changed, spaces of empowerment have been generated and actions have been organised to force the banks to negotiate case by case.  When these actions have been insufficient, and no response has been obtained from the administration either, civil disobedience has taken on strength as a legitimate and effective response. 

Whatever else, the fight against evictions has already achieved a double unarguable victory. First, at a symbolic level, it has managed to transform the collective imagination. It has ended the fear and the resignation that a large part of the immobilized population had and turned what the consumer society stigmatized as a personal failure into an act of dignity and solidarity: nowadays, stopping an eviction is not only a normalised fact, but also a reason of pride for the citizenship as a whole.  Secondly, the more specific level for everyone, that of the basic needs of everyday life, stopping the evictions has allowed a specific response to be provided to an urgent problem: to not be left on the street.  

The housing policies of the new local government in Barcelona

Housing policies should be far-reaching public policies, both at a national, regional and local level.  But what is true is that the problems we are referring to are manifested in the neighbourhoods of our cities and the town and city councils have to provide the responses, often without the resources or the competences in terms of the regulations to influence in the market.  

In Barcelona, the current municipal government is conformed by a political formation made up of leftwing forces and social movements, some of which have been very active in the fight against evictions and social housing.That's why the housing policies are one of the main municipal policies in this mandate. 

The main axes along which we are acting are:

  1. First of all, to prevent and attend the emergencies of social housing for different target groups (homeless, evicted families, etc.) who urgently require shelter.  The most notable change is the emphasis on prevention, understanding that the best way to face an emergency is to act before it is produced.  We are acting along various lines: preventing and avoiding new evictions, by means of negotiations with the banking entities (controlling the duty to offer social renting before starting the eviction procedures) as well as by means of communication with the Justice and the promotion of the culture of mediation so as to avoid evictions.  We have created a Unit of Residential Exclusion (an action unit specifically created to avoid evictions and to fight against residential exclusion). Among the actions being carried out, it is worth highlighting: the interlocution and negotiation with the owners of the housing, so as to search for the most suitable solutions in each case.  Coordination  with the other municipal services involved (Housing offices, Social Services centres or Centres of Urgencies and Social Emergencies), and centralisation of all the information, so as to avoid the loss of housing and to improve the effectiveness of the municipal intervention.  And to manage the necessary measures to reduce the effects that the loss of housing could provoke if it is finally produced, (that in the first semester of 2016 attended 1,278 cases of evictions); strengthening the aid for the rental payments (in 2015, almost 3,000 families were granted aid) and the modification of the Emergency Regulations.  
  2. Secondly, to increase the stock of social rentals, incorporating empty flats. One of the slogans of the social movements sums up the absurdity of the situation, in which they ask why there are "Houses without people and people without houses".  So as to revert this situation we are establishing agreements with the financial entities (the cession of 200 dwellings) and purchasing and exercising the right of first-refusal and pre-emptive rights (137 flats purchased and 332 under study).  But we have also initiated a Programme for the Acquisition of Empty Flats (231 rehabilitated and destined to social emergencies). One of the lines we have explored, so far without success, has been to invite tourist apartments without a municipal license to become flats of protected rentals.
  3. Thirdly, the City Council promotes proactive rehabilitation to improve the functionality and accessibility of the housing, its energy efficiency, the generation of employment and also to avoid speculative uses: We have allocated 80 million Euros to this Plan for the next four years:  This effort of rehabilitation connects with the goals of environmental sustainability (the rehabilitation is more respectful and consumes less resources and land than construction) and it is also related to the programme of efficiency that we are promoting to combat energy poverty.  
  4. Fourthly, To boost the Social Housing Board, a deliberative space, of citizen participation in which all the stakeholders define and evaluate the public housing policies.   

These are some of the main axes which we are working on. They are completed with others such as the acquisition of private housing and the collaboration to promote private rentals, the creation of a Housing Observatory of Barcelona or the elaboration of a Census of Empty Housing.

I believe, nevertheless, that the main conclusion is that we have placed housing policies at the centre of the municipal action, and without denying that there are enormous obstacles that we have to face - legal, economic and in terms of competences, we think that resignation is not a good strategy, and that we need to act on the market structures. And in this field it is necessary that, beyond the effort of the cities, the rest of the institutions should also get involved, including the European ones, if we want to see changes that get us closer to achieving "the right to decent housing for all". 

This article is part of our dossier Habitat III - Sustainable Urban Development