For most Americans, the word “squatters” seems archaic, a ghost of our fairly distant past. But in Spain, squatting not only has deep historical roots but is a significant current problem, one that is quickly gaining prominence in Spain’s national consciousness. According to the publication Spanish Property Insight, “Squatters in Spain, known as Okupas in Spanish, are a serious threat to property owners in a country where the authorities appear more on the side of squatters than of owners, especially in areas where squatters enjoy high-level political support, like Catalonia.”
In some cases, things become extremely heated when squatters use their presence as leverage to extort a form of ransom from the property owners. In reality, the squatters work in tandem with “organized gangs” who take over properties through stealth and force. Enrique Vendrell, president of Barcelona’s College of Property Managers, says these gangs “look for empty flats online or in public registries to break in,” adding, “They then change the locks, hook up the property illegally to electricity, gas and water before selling the keys to squatters keen to make some cash who will [then] demand money from the owners to leave.”
Owners have even been verbally threatened by squatters. One elderly female apartment owner was told, “Ring the doorbell again and you will regret it,” when she confronted a group of squatters who were illegally occupying her apartment, according to her lawyer Jose Maria Aguila. To make matters worse, squatters in Spain have legal rights that seem to exceed those of the property owner. Mark Stücklin of Spanish Property Market Analysts, puts it this way:
“The extortion business model is encouraged by squatter-friendly laws and politicians, and enabled by the overburdened legal system. You get no help from the authorities once squatters have made themselves at home, but they get immediate help if you take the law into your own hands. By taking so long, costing so much, and protecting squatters so well, the Spanish legal system hands a golden invitation to squatter gangs to extort absentee owners of second homes in Spain. Is it any wonder that squatter extortion is on the rise in Spain? The bigger surprise is why anybody bothers with any other sort of crime.”
And thanks to vacation homes being left unoccupied due to COVID-19, squatting is on the rise in Spain. As reported by Idelalista News, “Squatting in Spain rose by 2.7% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data from the Secretary of State for Security. In total, 14,675 people reported that their home had been illegally occupied by squatters.”
In fact, as The Guardian points out, in Spain “more than 3.4m homes lie vacant, in excess of 2m homes are empty in each of France and Italy, 1.8m in Germany and more than 700,000 in the UK.”
A careful study of these Spanish properties shows that they are the confluence of a housing boom, led by Britons and Germans seeking properties in warmer climes, that took off in the mid 2000’s, then an economic bust precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which simultaneously caused a huge surge in homelessness. As a result, “Roughly 70% of the properties that were illegally occupied in 2017 belonged to banks or other financial entities, according to the Institut Cerdá. They include dozens of blocks of entirely abandoned buildings that were “reoccupied” by PAH [the advocacy group Platform for Mortgage Victims], to accommodate Spain’s burgeoning ranks of homeless families,” writes Nick Corbishley of Wolf Street.
Corbishley states, “For many people, squatting is a desperate last resort, while for some it is a lifestyle choice or a political statement. Barcelona, which is ground zero of Spain’s squatting phenomenon, attracts squatters from all over Europe. In recent years, more and more young locals — including many with jobs — who have been priced out of the rental market or who simply don’t want to pay the inflated rents have also turned to squatting.”
Of course, not all of the squatters in Spain are hapless victims of a bad economy. Rather, some are enterprising groups of criminals that are exploiting a bad situation for their own gain. The Olive Press reports that “Calculated crooks are taking advantage of lapse laws to break into the empty properties, change the locks and sell the keys on up for 2,000 €.”
And Corbishley adds that “. . . a burgeoning black market has sprouted up,” stating “in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, the market is controlled by a gang from the Dominican Republic; they charge around €1,500 for each property ‘sale.’ The squatters get to live in a fully serviced apartment without having to pay rent or utilities for a period of around six months.”
One professional squatter described the situation this way: “I break in on a Friday. The following Monday, I call the bank and say, ‘Hey you guys, I’m in your flat, and I’m going to destroy it. I can send you pictures if you like.’ And the people from the bank say, ‘Whoa – we’re sending someone to see you.’ And then that person comes and negotiates the price.”
Regardless of the origins of the squatters, many landlords are taking elaborate security measures to prevent intrusions. Juan Carlos Parra, a salesman with security firm STM Seguridad which installs steel doors in buildings, says “Demand has taken off in the last three years, we install around 1,500 doors a month across Spain.”
The issue has grown so contentious that some Spanish landlords have resorted to hiring professionals to resolve the issue and get their properties back. That is the job of FueraOkupas, which literally translated means “Get out squatters.” According to the BBC, “The company started work three years ago and now gets 150 calls a day, says director Jorge Fe – 75% about tenants who aren’t paying their rent, and 25% about squatters.” FueraOkupas employs “rough men,” typically boxers and martial arts experts who quickly take control of the situation.
“It’s normal when we arrive that the okupas try and intimidate us. This didn’t go well for them – it never does. So we had a bit more than a conversation with them. Dealing with these kinds of people is like a children’s game for us – we have champion fighters on our team,” Fe states.
In reality, however, the squatters are not just tossed out in the street old-west style. Rather, they are forced into negotiating to leave, so money, though at a lower price, is ultimately involved. Michael Regan, who hired FueraOkupas to manage his situation, stated that “Initially they wanted 5,000 euros to leave, but Jorge [Fe] was able to negotiate the figure down to 2,000 euros, and I said, ‘Just pay it’ – I didn’t hesitate.”
And, as is typical of human behavior, there is always a scam within a scam for the right grifter. As BBC writes, “There is a troubling question at the heart of these cases: are the eviction companies fueling extortion demands by offering money to okupas to leave a property before they have actually asked for it?” There is some evidence this is going on with some companies, though Regan state this was absolutely not the case with FueraOkupas.
Still, there is a bigger question to be asked, which is: How will Spain address the larger problems of homelessness and the need for affordable housing in the years ahead? As Corbishley frames it, ” . . . the right of all Spanish citizens to decent and adequate housing is enshrined in Article 47 of Spain’s 1978 constitution. Yet in large cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca, more and more local residents are finding that such a right no longer exists in the city they were born in.”
Meanwhile, for FueraOkupas, business is booming.
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