Unable to pay mortgages, thousands face evictions from their homes

Story by Kelsey Luing

MADRID – When Tannia Marcalla moved to Spain from Ecuador 15 years ago, she felt hopeful. Along with 1.5 million other Latin Americans, she had made the journey to Europe to take advantage of the region’s prosperity. “I came here for the opportunities, for both me and for my children,” she said through a translator. “I wanted more than anything to give them a better life.”

Now, out of work for three years after losing her waitressing job, the 33-year-old single mother is in danger of losing something more: her home. For three years, she has been unable to make mortgage payments on an apartment she financed at the height of the economic boom. She fears she will be evicted at any moment.

Tannia Marcalla, a mother of three, deals with constant anxiety surrounding her family's well-being. She worries that she will be kicked out of her home and she and her children won't have a place to live.

Tannia Marcalla, a mother of three, deals with constant anxiety surrounding her family’s well-being. She worries that she will be kicked out of her home and she and her children won’t have a place to live. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

“I have nightmares every night that the police are coming,” she said, wiping away tears. “I feel that, any day now, they will be knocking at my door.”

The collapse of the Spanish real-estate market, which began in 2008 and has only recently shown signs of recovery, has led to an unprecedented number of eviction notices throughout the country, more than 350,000 in all. It’s also created growing frustration with political leaders.

“Our government has done nothing to help these people, regardless of how they are suffering,” said Angel Alonso, 42, a Madrid-based social worker. “All of their money has been going straight to help the banks.”

During the financial crisis, he has been saddened to see so many families choosing between eating and paying the rent.

“There should be stronger policies, just like in other European nations, to protect these people,” Alonso said. “There is a large sector of the population that is essentially being ignored.”

Many blame Spain’s real-estate crisis on governmental practices that encouraged home ownership and borrowing – even for people who couldn’t really afford to buy property. From 1997 to 2007, more houses were built in Spain than in France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. Real estate and construction made up nearly half of the nation’s gross domestic product.

At the same time, economists say, little attention was paid to building affordable housing. Currently, only 2 percent of Spain’s total housing stock is subsidized by the government. That compares to 35 percent in the Netherlands, 21 percent in the United Kingdom and 17 percent in France.

“It’s a really terrible situation,” said José Hernández, an economist and professor at American University in Madrid. “In social terms, I think it’s suicide for a country to allow thousands of people to have no hope for the future because they still owe money to the banks.”

The Bank of Spain recently reported that nearly 50,000 families lost their homes in 2013, up 11 percent from one year earlier. What’s most disturbing, said Hernández, is that nearly 20,000 of those defaults came from people giving up their homes voluntarily. That means they were likely offered special deals to get out from under onerous mortgages.

“We forgive the banks, but we condemn our people,” Hernández said. “Now, we have thousands of people who have nothing left to lose.”

While many blame Spanish banks for the wave of evictions, analysts say those institutions operated so loosely because government officials were not properly regulating the real estate industry.

When the market collapsed, it was the homeowners, not the bankers, who paid the price, said Rafael Mayoral, 40, a lawyer who has done work on behalf of struggling property owners. Even after being evicted, many were still in debt.

Only high-profile events – both protests and suicides by homeowners in crisis – led to banks trying to be more flexible when dealing with overdue mortgages.

“That pressure is forcing them to listen, but we still have a long way to go,” said Mayoral.

That’s the battle on paper. The other struggle, experts say, is more societal: how to save face when your financial difficulties become obvious to neighbors, friends and co-workers.

“There needs to be a process of empowerment so that [evictees] no longer feel the shame and guilt associated with this,” said Sophie Gonick, 31, a volunteer with the anti-eviction lobby Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH. “You begin to realize you are the person who’s best equipped to fight for your own cause.”

Gonick advises people facing eviction. In her experience, socially disadvantaged individuals, such as immigrants and single mothers, are at the highest amount of risk.

“People are having a very, very rough time here, and that’s not getting any better,” she said. “It is an extremely difficult moment for Spain.”

And Marga Rivas, 52, a colleague of Gonick’s and fellow activist at PAH, knows this better than anyone. The former psychologist, who lost her job two years ago, was in danger of losing her family’s apartment until she struck a deal with the bank.

“Your entire world opens up and the bottom falls out of your life,” she said through a translator. “You feel alone, you feel desolate, you feel depressed … you don’t know what’s going to happen to you or what kind of support you’re going to receive. Who is going to be by your side?”

As a result of having a friendship with the director of her bank, Rivas was able to turn over her apartment and remain in it for a reduced rent.

Still, the fight is “going to be a long one,” she said. “I look for work every day, but I don’t have a lot of faith I will find anything.”

Government leaders have been trying to help homeowners. In 2012, the Spanish parliament declared a two-year suspension on the eviction of families who meet specific criteria, including having expired unemployment benefits, a disabled member or very young child.

Human Rights Watch last month denounced the action as inadequate and recommended the government expand the moratorium to include all families with children under 18 and extend it beyond two years.

In addition, the organization, in a report, called for changes in Spanish bankruptcy law to make it easier for people to reduce debt and encourage banks to mediate with evictees.

“Spain is not the only European country to face a housing crisis or, indeed, a recession,” the report stated. “But the scale of the mortgage crisis, the social trauma around foreclosures and evictions, as well as the lack of effective remedies, accountability and fair pathways to debt relief create a particularly acute situation.”

Though worried, Marcalla does her best to remain positive. She would like to stay in Spain, she said, but acknowledges the country no longer carries the same allure it did just a decade before.

“I don’t want to return to Ecuador, but, at this point, it is an option,” she said. “Because of the scarcity of jobs here, I may not have a choice.”

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