Home Essential support If health and education are essential services in Spain, why not housing? | Irène Baqué

If health and education are essential services in Spain, why not housing? | Irène Baqué

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Eonce this year I found myself in the town of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat in the south-west of Barcelona. It does not have the fame and tourist hordes of the Catalan capital, but the two places are linked by the same serious housing crisis.

Guided by Júlia Nueno, organizer of a grassroots tenants movement, I found a community of neighbors in L’Hospitalet who hold their meetings in a public park but manage to take responsibility for something the authorities fail: put a roof over people’s heads. Their challenge is sizeable in a corner of Spain which still bears the scars of the 2008 economic crisis and remains in the grip of the Covid pandemic.

Sindicat: escape deportation in one of the most densely populated cities in Europe - video
Sindicat: escape deportation in one of the most densely populated cities in Europe – video

L’Hospitalet de Llobregat is the second largest city in Catalonia and one of the most densely populated in Europe. Its proximity to Barcelona has attracted generations of migrants over the past six decades. The Spanish from the south of the country arrived in the 1960s, later giving way to people from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Morocco and many other countries. Today, many of the municipality’s 260,000 residents have low-income jobs and live in crowded conditions in small, inexpensive apartments.

Increasingly, they are joined by young people driven out of Barcelona by gentrification, real estate speculation and sky-high rent increases. Those who run away from unaffordable rents in Barcelona unwittingly perpetuate the problem; when they arrive, the rents in L’Hospitalet also increase and the inhabitants find themselves unable to afford houses they may have rented for a decade.

Since 2019, people threatened with eviction can turn to the local section of El Sindicat de Llogateres, a tenants union founded in Barcelona and active throughout Catalonia.

Victor rallying in the streets of L’Hospitalet. Photography: Irène Baqué

Tenant unions are not new to Europe, but what these people are doing to restore the relationship between tenants and landlords is extraordinary. I decided to make a film for the Guardian on the members of the Sindicat in L’Hospitalet which would also tell the stories of some of those who struggle, often invisibly, on the edge of the city where I was born.

Victor, in his 50s, from Ecuador, for example, is stuck in a three-year lease for his tiny apartment. Her rent, once from € 690 per month, has risen to € 805 per month and her landlord is now asking her € 900 per month – which equates to his wife’s salary in two full-time jobs as a housekeeper.

Then there’s Marlene, a single Bolivian mother who arrived in Spain over twenty years ago. His story, which forms a large part of the film, is far from rare. People without regularized immigration status often work cash in hand as caregivers and find themselves marginalized and abandoned at the mercy of the market.

“We undocumented people don’t exist,” Marlene says in the film. “They want us to take care of their elders or clean their homes. But when we ask for economic aid or a roof to live on, we are not valued. We just don’t exist.

Marlene distributing leaflets at L'Hospitalet
Marlene distributes leaflets in L’Hospitalet. Photography: Irène Baqué

The Sindicat helps stop the evictions by organizing rallies and publishing cases. It gives people a handy toolkit of legal help and advice so that they can negotiate with landlords. Perhaps more fundamentally, it lets people know they’re not alone and shows that there is strength – and comfort – in numbers.

Sindicat has helped evicted vulnerable families through direct action – opening apartments owned by banks or vulture funds that have been empty for at least two years.

Since the 2008 financial crash, words like ‘eviction’ and ‘squatters’ have made headlines in Catalan newspapers and in much of the mainstream media narrative, Catalonia is called “The region with the greatest number of squatters”. Quantifying the number of people who do not officially pay rent with a negative connotation word, related more to an aesthetic and a way of life than to a position of vulnerability, does not help the general public to understand the magnitude of the housing crisis.

There is a fear and misconception among homeowners that their homes may be occupied by squatters if they leave for the weekend. But the reality of who squats what could not be further from media representation. Making this documentary and showing what drives someone to occupy an apartment was the reason why the L’Hospitalet community was happy to cooperate in the making of the film.

In Spain, social housing represents less than 2% of households, one of the lowest rates in the OECD and the EU. So who takes responsibility for the lives of those on the front lines of poverty? In Catalonia, which is also the region where most of the evictions in Spain occur, more than 24 families are evicted every day. In L’Hospitalet de Llobregat in particular, the evicted families receive only three days of allowance and are then abandoned in the streets. Without an adequate system of social protection or social services in place, families and single parents are often left in limbo.

Marlen and Delilah eating ice cream while talking about the management of the Sindicat
Marlene and Delilah eating ice cream as they discuss how to deal with the Sindicat. Photography: Irène Baqué

Women like Marlene – and Delilah, another of the film’s protagonists – are forced to carry an emotional burden due to lack of housing security. They both found themselves on the streets with nowhere to go, caring for a child who learned about the cost of living too young. But these resilient women can only think for one week at a time, and the Sindicat has temporarily helped them find a place to live, even if it means squatting. They know that they did not fail in their lives, but that they were on the wrong side of a structural problem: inequitable access to affordable housing. They themselves have received help and support from the community, and now, as they work long hours juggling various precarious jobs, they want to return that help by standing alongside their neighbors.

A Sindicat meeting at L'Hospitalet
A Sindicat meeting at L’Hospitalet. Photography: Irène Baqué

Sindicat is organized through collective counseling, which means that cases are discussed at a weekly assembly which often takes place in a public park, where anyone with a similar experience can give advice. The union is also setting a precedent in collective bargaining, by organizing neighbors who have the same owner, either in the same building or in different locations, to work on a common bargaining strategy. One of the strengths of Sindicat so far has been to help shaping a rent control law which was approved by the Parliament of Catalonia in September 2020.

Stopping an eviction, opening an empty property, winning a contract or changing policies are victories that strengthen the fight for housing and can be lessons for communities in other European cities struggling with a shortage of affordable housing. By organizing themselves in the street as they do, the members of Sindicat in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat also accumulate extensive and valuable social knowledge. This knowledge strengthens the community and opens the door to respectful and humane housing solutions that do not involve marginalizing families in distress. If health and education are considered fundamental rights, why not housing?

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