Conflict & Justice

After Public Outcry, Spain Reviews Eviction Laws

In cities across Spain on Monday, protesters banged on pots and pans in front of offices of the ruling Popular Party. They want Spain's draconian eviction law changed. In Spain, you can't just hand over your house keys to the bank if you can't make your mortgage. Under the country's 1909 law, your debt follows you, and your descendants, until it's paid off — even if eviction leaves you homeless.

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That nearly happened to Rocio Guerrero, an unemployed cook and mother of a four year old boy. She's been out of work for three years, her boyfriend for nearly as long.

"The only way we avoided getting thrown out on the street by the bank was to rent out our apartment," she said. "Then we moved in with my in-laws."

Eviction protests like these have been going on for years now. And they've been largely ignored by politicians. But that's changed because of two things that happened last week.

In the northern Spanish town of Barakaldo, a woman Amaia Egaña, who was 53, jumped four stories to her death, just as authorities were arriving to evict her. It was the third eviction related suicide this year. The judge on the scene, Juan Carlos Mediavilla, threw up his hands and declared that this has got to stop.

"We need to have the current law changed," he told reporters. "People in economic crisis are being driven to tragic ends. The change has to happen very quickly so that we judges can apply new rules."

In theory, new rules would give judges discretion to let people stay in their homes. They might offer a temporary reprieve for struggling mortgage-holders, or the chance to renegotiate their monthly payments. Or, mortgage holders might lose their deeds, but could stay on as renters.

Spain's federal government, which has been in emergency meetings since the weekend, has yet to outline its proposal.

Prime Minister Soray Saenz de Santamaria told reporters on Sunday only that the government is studying how to make mortgages contracts fairer.

Rocio Guerrero says she's a living example of unfair banking practices.

"When we signed our mortgage," she said, "we were paying more than we could afford. They should never have offered it to us."

Guerrero said that when her bank changed leadership, the incoming director looked at their mortgage and told them that, based on their earnings, the bank never should have lent us them much money.

During Spain's real estate boom of the early 2000s, bankers often got commissions for selling mortgages, tempting some to sign up folks who ultimately couldn't pay — similar to what happened in the US.

Now, as the Spanish government tries to fast-track new mortgage legislation, struggling homeowners suddenly find allies everywhere. The main association of judges is speaking out in their defense. And Spain's police union says it will offer legal support to any officer who refuses to participate in an eviction.

But in the meantime, a Spanish banking association announced Monday it would put a moratorium on evictions of the most vulnerable. That may be because the European Court in Luxemburg has ruled that Spain's eviction law doesn't go far enough in protecting consumers. The ruling is not binding, but the European Union could take action, obliging Spain to enact reforms.

Still, protesters are wary of government promises to help mortgage holders. One woman at Monday's protest said any change must be retroactive, offering relief to the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who've already lost their homes. Banks have said they'll resist that.

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