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UNDERGROUND ECONOMY

Become an illegal homeowner for €1,000

Squatting in Spain is nothing new

But now gangs are profiting from the crisis by renting and selling empty properties in the capital

A ground-floor flat in Madrid's Arganzuela district is boarded up to deter squatters.
A ground-floor flat in Madrid's Arganzuela district is boarded up to deter squatters.

It's a little-known market, but it really exists, and it is expanding: sales and rentals of casas okupadas. This is the term used in Spain for homes lying empty after the original residents were evicted for defaulting on their mortgage, or because they were bought by a bank and never inhabited, or even because it was subsidized housing that had not yet been assigned to a low-income family; in any case, all these homes end up being occupied illegally by squatters, known in Spain as okupas.

But now, squatters are not just those who pull down a door and move in by themselves. Instead, organized gangs in Madrid are taking over these vacant properties first, and offering to either sell or rent them to would-be squatters. "Purchasing" one of these apartments costs anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 euros, while renting is more expensive in the long run, since the gangs ask for 200 to 400 euros a month.

In exchange, they guarantee customers immediate access to the home as well as free electricity, gas and water services, and some even offer free heating (typically, this is courtesy of other building residents who see their own bills rise mysteriously). The new residents don't even have to pay building maintenance fees. Their situation is guaranteed until a court rules to have them evicted. But months could elapse before that occurs, if not years. The Regional Federation of Neighborhood Associations (FRAMV) says that this is a growing trend, especially in the residential areas south of the capital.

Camino Alto de San Isidro, Carabanchel. A few days ago, everything seemed quiet on this street in southern Madrid. But it was just an illusion. People walking down the street picked up their pace and looked down at the ground to avoid making eye contact with three groups of men gathered in front of subsidized homes run by the regionally run Madrid Housing Institute (Ivima).

“The mafias prefer apartments which belong to a bank”

BRUNO GARCÍA GALLO

The municipal police have been watching the streets of Lavapiés with surveillance cameras for the last four years. The system was authorized by the government delegation and is under oversight from the Madrid regional High Court. It was started by popular demand from local residents and business owners, and it is also underway in Plaza Mayor, Montera street and Ballesta street, as well as the open-air museum under Eduardo Dato bridge.

Lavapiés, with its 47,000 residents, a third of whom are foreigners, has 48 cameras spread between Tirso de Molina square and the Embajadores roundabout. Last year, the cameras detected 4,106 incidents, representing 26 percent of all police interventions in the area, said security councilor Enrique Núñez, of the Popular Party (PP). On 387 occasions, the cameras helped identify suspects.

But despite their efficiency, "the most serious problems" remain outside their scope because they take place inside buildings, says Núñez, adding that many illegally occupied apartments get rented out to criminals. The councilor says that the solution lies in evicting these people whose activities include selling drugs and pirated material.

The problem is that even if the police know that illegal activities are taking place inside a home, they cannot act without a warrant, which must be requested by the owner. But often the owner is a bank that evicted the previous dwellers for defaulting on their payments. And so the paperwork process stretches out, favoring impunity for the alleged criminals.

"There is a problem in Lavapiés; nobody denies it," explain city sources. The municipal police do not have a list of occupied homes or those that get used for illegal activities. "The figures vary a lot, mafias move fast and they easily switch from one apartment to another."

Police officers thus depend on a neighbor complaining about the situation. This is what happened at numbers 4 and 6 of Lavapiés square, where the police have managed to get the owners - banks - to file a formal complaint against the illegal squatting of their properties. Now the law enforcement officers await a court's permission to go ahead with the evictions.

"As soon as the police locate such an apartment, they do the paperwork as quickly as possible in order to catch the alleged criminals with their hands in the cookie jar. But if the owner is a bank, we have more problems because they are not in as much of a rush as an individual owner. Banks know they are not going to sell the property in the short term, and they don't live in it, either, so time frames are longer," explain the same sources. "The mafias know this, and that is why they tend to go for homes that are owned by lenders."

Last month, Barcelona Mayor Xavier Trias announced sanctions for banks that maintain vacant homes in areas with a high demand for housing. Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Madrid Socialists, Jaime Lissavetzky, has suggested that Mayor Ana Botella reach deals with the banks, especially those which received public funding, so that their empty units may be included in the city's stock of low-rent public housing. The city could offer guarantees against defaults, and eliminate property tax on these homes.

"I am a firm defender of surveillance cameras," says Núñez, who believes this system "has greatly reduced crime."

According to the government delegate in the capital who is responsible for law and order, Cristina Cifuentes, 2013 saw a 2.3-percent drop in the crime rate (four percent in the city and three percent in the Madrid region).

Cifuentes said that residents are "satisfied" because "the problem of crime is under control, although we will continue to work to ensure it does not rise, but that it continues to fall." But the Socialist councilor Pablo García Rojo denounced the city and delegation's "passivity" in the face of this problem.

One of these men, who goes by the nickname of "El Portugués," did not mind explaining what was going on. "I force open the doors of empty apartments for 500 euros, but if I'm feeling bored, I might just do it for 300," he confided candidly.

Meanwhile, a colleague of his picked up a switchblade - just to sharpen it, apparently. "I also occupy apartments and rent them out for 300 euros a month, with electricity, water and gas all hooked up. But I can also sell them for around 1,500 euros."

Mortgage and rent defaults caused by the economic crisis have meant that many people were evicted and left without their homes, leading to a notable increase of vacant apartments. This in turn has led to a spike in illegal occupation: homeless people are taking advantage of the "availability" of these homes, but how to know which properties are really uninhabited, to avoid additional trouble? Organized gangs can provide the answer to that, in exchange for a certain amount of money. These criminal organizations do not hold sway over an entire region; instead, they are small groups who wield their power at the neighborhood level. They have their rates: 200 to 500 euros to unlock an empty home; 200 to 400 euros to rent it out, and 1,000 to 2,000 euros to "purchase" one.

In Madrid, these groups operate mostly in the southern districts of Carabanchel, Villaverde, Usera, Arganzuela and Puente de Vallecas, according to FRAVM. These lower-income areas see the largest concentrations of unoccupied homes and subsidized housing in the city. According to 2011 figures from the National Statistics Institute, there are around 306,000 empty homes in the capital. But there is no data on the number of housing units which are illegally occupied.

Calle de Godella, San Cristóbal. Two friends in their twenties, Antonio and Paco, are tinkering around absent-mindedly under the hood of a car. They don't look it, but they are part of a neighborhood gang that occupies bank-owned properties and "sells" them to squatters. "We make an average 1,200 euros for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, with water, gas and electricity services all hooked up," explains Paco quite openly. "And we have the best prices in the neighborhood. Others will charge you 2,000."

Once the apartment has been occupied, the only thing the police can do is take down the personal information of the new dwellers to get the legal process underway, since evictions can only be mandated by a judge.

To Paco, the logic behind their business is very simple. "The people who buy the apartment will occupy it until the trial is over. They will not have to pay building maintenance costs and maybe after a few months the bank will decide to let them rent it for 150 euros a month in order to at least make something. So they will end up saving a lot of cash."

Mari Prado, president of the Neighborhood Association of San Cristóbal and a councilor for the United Left, notes that last year there were fewer illegal home occupations in her area, where the average is 100, because "the eviction boom has passed and there are fewer empty homes." Paco admits as much: "Before this we might have up to 10 apartments available for sale, but right now we only have two."

Even so, Prado says that for the last four years neighborhood associations have been reporting the activities of these organized gangs without anything being done about it. Last time was October 30, when the United Left Municipal Group took the complaint to the plenary session of city council. The planning and housing delegate, Paz González, said there was no official knowledge of the problem, although the security delegate, Enrique Núñez, promised greater surveillance to prevent new occupations.

The Madrid Department of Housing, which runs the subsidized housing corporation Ivima, notes that it spends 5.6 million euros on surveillance of properties it owns. It also claims that an investigation is underway to ascertain whether illegal occupations are being carried out by organized gangs. Meanwhile, the City Hall’s EMVS housing agency, says that it is "working closely with the police and neighborhood communities to prevent the fraudulent use of apartments." Municipal police chiefs admit that the problem exists, but insist that they can only act if they have a court warrant.

Juan Luis Camarero, spokesman for the Neighborhood Association of Alto de San Isidro, feels that "the main security measure to take is not increased surveillance, but awarding empty homes faster. It's the only way. Occupations happen just a few days after an eviction. The Ivima walls up the doors, but [gangs] break in quite easily using a disk saw."

Vicente Pérez, spokesman for FRAVM, says that "we don't condemn occupations per se because a lot of people need a home and cannot afford one. What we oppose are the mafias because they try to take advantage of the people who need an apartment."

The Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), a support group for struggling homeowners that rose to prominence after vocally denouncing many evictions, says that the waiting list for a subsidized home, either run by Ivima or EMVS, has not changed at all in over two years. The regional government of Madrid would not disclose how many of its properties are vacant in order "to prevent any pull effect."

We don't condemn squatting per se but mafias are taking advantage"

Calle de la Unanimidad, Villaverde. For nine out of her 33 years, Águeda Hernández lived inside her old van, parked on Unanimidad street. She was making 350 euros a month in minimum social welfare benefits, and had applied repeatedly for a subsidized home. Then, one day, tired of waiting, she decided to pay heed to the advice of the locals who recommended that she occupy a subsidized home lying empty on that very same street. "I talked to a young guy and paid him 200 euros to unlock the door for me," she explains.

For a year and a half, she slowly refurbished the 40-square-meter, one-bedroom apartment. "It had been empty for years, and when I walked in all I found was roaches. Everything was very dilapidated. The home have been occupied earlier by other people, and when I arrived it already had electricity, water and gas." After an eviction order against her was put on hold, Águeda now waits nervously to see whether her new application for subsidized housing will finally get a reply. She wants to legalize her situation as soon as possible. "It's the only thing I have."

"People who squat an apartment are in a situation of social emergency. And these gangs exist because of the urgent need to find a home," explains Manuel San Pastor, a lawyer for PAH in Madrid. This group supports the idea of families occupying bank and government-owned properties "by themselves," without mediation from gangs. "For someone to make a profit from that is to be condemned in every way, and only makes our fight for decent housing all the more difficult," says San Pastor.

This fight chalked up a resounding success last October, when the European Court of Human Rights halted the eviction of an occupied building in Salt, Girona. The Strasbourg tribunal ruled that the 16 families could not be kicked out until the government explained where they were going to go, especially the children. In November, the court lifted the freeze and the families were transferred to subsidized homes.

Calle de los Voluntarios Macabebes, Legazpi. The ground floor windows in the building located at 4, Calle de los Voluntarios Macabebes, are bricked up to stop organized gangs from breaking in, as they kept doing until October of last year. Although the building belongs to failed lender Bankia, the initiative came from the residents themselves. "The problem is that four days after an eviction, they would occupy it again," says Anita García, spokeswoman for the Neighborhood Association Nudo Sur. This particular apartment was being used as a hostel: the occupiers rented out mattresses for five euros a night, and neighbors were fed up with all the noise, especially late at night.

"The owners have the obligation to brick up the apartments, but banks always wash their hands and do nothing," complains García. A spokeswoman for Bankia explains that once they are alerted to an occupation, they send an employee over to take pictures and draft a report, which gets sent to the legal department to initiate the judicial proceedings. Bankia does not negotiate low-rent deals with illegal squatters, said the spokeswoman. "This possibility only exists when the person was living there legally and cannot continue meeting the mortgage payments."

Calle del Pintor Sorolla, Entrevías. Sonia, a young Gypsy who looks around 16, has been occupying an entire building with 20 other families for over a year. "There's all kinds of people here: Spaniards, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Gypsies.." she notes. Sonia pays 300 euros a month for an apartment in the "Blue Block," as this building is referred to. Her friend Jandira pays 200. "My place is bigger and it has two bedrooms, but I don't pay anything else. Water, electricity and gas are already hooked up."