European integration played an important part in the development of housing throughout Europe since the 1980s, despite not being a formal competence of the EU. In particular, European integration contributed to the rise of neoliberal discourse surrounding the need to minimise state intervention, contributing to the withdrawal of the state from housing market intervention and housing provision. Further, through its more general imposition of limits on public expenditure, and heightening of locational competition, European integration contributed to the declining fiscal capacity of the state, thereby consolidating the downward pressure upon public spending, including in the area of housing. In addition, housing finance was affected by the deregulation of European capital markets. Finally, EMU led to falling interest rates for mortgages in peripheral countries; increasing the possibility and demand to access privately-owned housing.
The post-2008 global and then European crises witnessed a breakdown of housing and mortgage markets in many European countries, coinciding with over-indebtedness, evictions and everyday movements for decent housing.
Developments during the European crisis: Over-indebtedness, evictions and everyday movements for decent housing
As the global financial and housing bubble burst in 2007-8, the collapse in house prices was especially noteworthy in Spain, the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Poland. Faced with this collapse in prices, and in order to mitigate as much as possible the consequences that it would have for the wider global economy, the political elite had the option of choosing between one of two strategies: letting the market decide; or intervening to avoid too detrimental an impact upon those who stood to lose as a result of the housing crash. The response witnessed was something of a combination of these two options. On the one hand, the fear of political opposition and widespread dissent was such that the interests of one of the core social constituencies of neoliberalism – the middle-class private house owners – could not be jettisoned (Ansell 2014; Genovese et al. 2016). On the other hand, the reliance upon market competition as the mechanism through which to seek to order and discipline European society was also such that the rules of the market could not be discarded altogether. The outcome of this dilemma was something of a compromise between, or combination of, these two contrasting pressures.
Thus, governments responded to the crisis with both ultra-low interest rates as a means to offer a degree of support for house owners and mortgage holders, and enforcement of the market through the overseeing of (or failure to prevent) evictions (especially in the case of Spain). Interest rates were lowered radically, monetary policy was loosened dramatically, and quantitative easing was introduced to produce considerable financial stimulus and bolster demand for key finance-dependent assets. This had a largely beneficial effect upon the housing market. Homeowners with mortgages could continue to repay their mortgages, and house prices recovered in value. This was coordinated, moreover, by central banks, including through the actions of the European Central Bank.
At the same time, however, public finance for social housing was reduced further still, on the grounds that this was unproductive spending and that in the context of strained public finances and broader austerity measures it was important to reduce budget deficits.
Finally, lower-income homeowners, who were unable to maintain mortgage repayments, even in a context of monetary policy geared towards stimulating the housing market, were met by a government and financial industry that sought to ensure that property rights would be upheld. These lower-income households were therefore forced to terminate their mortgages and return their houses to mortgage lenders, oftentimes accruing large debts (or ‘negative equity’), and resulting (especially in southern Europe, and particularly Spain) in a wave of evictions. This therefore further contributed to the shift from the public to private sector provision of housing, producing a further residualisation of social housing. This further exacerbated inequalities connected with house ownership – between those (predominantly middle-income earners) able to afford mortgage repayments in a low interest rate housing market with recovering house prices, and those (predominantly low income workers, migrants and the young) reliant upon the rising costs of private renting and/or suffering the consequences of evictions (Aalbers 2015). As a result, we witness increased problems such as homelessness and a lack of affordable housing (Peck et al. 2013).
It is in this context that we also witness the development of a growing range of housing movements developing in opposition to these sharpening crisis-era forms of inequality. The crisis, we argue, acted as a catalyst for the dissemination of alternative forms of mobilisation and housing-related claims that had been developed by earlier housing movements. This saw those who were suffering from the effects of a liberalised housing market, a severe lack of affordable housing, and a rapid rise in evictions, all combine with more radical housing movements and activists, as we can see in the case of Spain and the UK.
Contesting the residualisation of social housing in Britain’s ‘age of austerity’
Struggles over what was essentially a consolidation of the residualisation of social and/or affordable housing in Britain during the post-2008 period can perhaps be divided into two periods – an early period (2010-13) during which the key point of contention was that over housing benefits, and especially the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, and a later period, from 2014 onwards, during which the recovery in the housing market was such that it began to cost out of the market many on lower incomes. During this latter period prices rose in both the private rental and private ownership markets, at the same time as social housing was in insufficient supply, thereby in turn creating a pool of people without sufficient access to affordable housing. This prompted the emergence, especially from 2014 onwards, and especially in London (where these effects were most stark), of a radical housing movement that sought to question the effect that the Government’s free market approach to housing provision was having.
The under-occupancy penalty – or ‘Bedroom Tax’ as it became known – was proposed at the beginning of the Coalition Government, as part of the 2010 emergency budget. Osborne made the proposal as part of a broader attempt to limit housing benefit spending.
Prompted by the punitive and regressive nature of the so-called bedroom tax, considerable public opposition emerged as the time of its proposal, eventually resulting in a ‘partial U-turn’ that saw foster carers and parents of teenage armed forces personnel exempted from the charge just three weeks before it was due to come into force, which itself resulted in the policy being accused by the Labour opposition of being in ‘total chaos’.
Opposition to the proposal included a wave of protests that took place during early-2013 (i.e. on the eve of its implementation), seeing 2500 people attend a demonstration in Glasgow, a 1000-strong demonstration outside Downing Street, and similar events in many other cities across the country (including London, Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham).
Protests also continued into 2014, with the Anti-Bedroom Tax and Benefits Justice Federation co-organising a National Stop the War on Benefits workshop with Disabled People Against Cuts in November 2014. This workshop was also attended by members of the high-profile Focus E15 group, which went on to challenge attempts by private landlords to evict them (as we see below) – in part through militant forms of opposition that included occupations of their homes.
Campaign groups were set up across the country in an attempt to oppose the Bedroom Tax. Some adopted particularly disruptive tactics that focused on anti-eviction methods that had been learned in earlier campaigns. For instance, one local group, Coventry Against the Bedroom Tax, were able to put in place a practice of adopting anti-eviction blockades if/when residents faced eviction as a result of the net increase in the cost of renting associated with the reduction of housing benefit that the Bedroom Tax created. In 2015 they were successfully able to prevent the eviction of a resident of Coventry, through a combination of blockading the house in order to prevent the eviction, and the adverse publicity that it created for the housing association seeking to carry out the eviction.
Other groups that were focused on tackling the bedroom tax also built on pre-existing campaigns. For instance, the group, Hands Off Our Homes – Leeds, began as a campaign in 2005 as a group aiming to safeguard council housing under threat as a result of the City Councils’ regeneration programme. This earlier programme was effectively a residualisation process that involved the selling-off and demolition of council housing. Hands Off Our Homes viewed the Bedroom Tax as another attack on social housing and therefore chose to focus on that as well. As a result, the group was involved in setting up one of the main anti-Bedroom Tax protest demonstrations in Leeds in April 2014, which saw about 1500 participants. The group also began to provide technical and legal support for individuals who either face evictions, or who seek to challenge the legal basis for the implementation of the bedroom tax in their individual cases.
The impact of the campaigning that had surrounded the Bedroom Tax could be seen quite clearly in terms of the opinion polls on the topic, with those supporting the tax declining from 49% to 41%, and those opposing it rising from 38% to 49% between March 2013 and July 2014.
As noted above, during the campaigns against the Bedroom Tax, connections were also made with a nascent housing movement that focused especially on the problems of lack of affordable housing in London. This movement was first reported in the national press in October 2014 when the group, Focus E15, staged a disruptive protest against the high-end annual property fair, MIPIM, which saw protesters hurling mud at the conference doors and eventually required the police and organisers to close the gates to the venue.
This followed the group’s occupation of a vacant council house on the Carpenters estate, on the edge of the Olympic Park in east London, where hundreds of homes had been standing empty since the Olympic Games despite a housing waiting list that ran into the tens of thousands. This in turn sparked the development of a housing movement that used a combination of a skilled media strategy (including cooperation with comedian and political activist Russell Brand), disruptive tactics that often included occupations of unused housing stock, and public demonstrations. In doing so, it gathered considerable attention and was able to place the affordability of housing clearly on the public agenda (for more on the Focus E15 campaign, see Watt 2016).
A similar campaign emerged later in 2014 when it was announced that the new owner of the New Era Estate, Westbrook Partners, would sell off the housing estate and in the process evict the 93 families that were living there. This sparked a major campaign which began with the submission of a petition signed by nearly 350,000 people and which gained the support of the Labour Party opposition. The campaign around the issue eventually forced a U-turn by the property developers.
This was followed only a couple of weeks later by an occupation of the Aylesbury Estate, again in an attempt to bring attention to the needs of the city dwellers for affordable housing, and also to highlight the existence of available property that was going un-utilised.
A fourth estate-based campaign soon opened up when in March 2015 evicted residents of the Sweets Way Estate . This saw a squat and occupation of the estate that had begun the week before, and which also fed into a rally in the city centre that was attended by 2000 people and which called for more to be done for affordable housing.
Another occupation to protest evictions followed in April 2015, with the support of Focus E15 campaigner, Jasmin Stone, this time in opposition to an eviction of a tenant who had had her benefits stopped and therefore went into arrears on her rent. The Sweets Way Resists and E15 campaigns subsequently joined forces to disrupt the annual Property Awards later the same month, blocking off the entrance to the event and chanting that ‘Social Housing is a human right’. Only 3 days later another occupation sprang up in opposition to plans to demolish council housing, this time in Barnet Council’s Dollis Valley estate, which was earmarked to be turned into luxury homes. The protest took the form of an occupation by the families, residents and supporting housing activists occupying the estate’s community nursery. A further demonstration with 3000 participants took place later the same month, this time in Brixton, witnessing protests against what was viewed as the gentrification of the city. This was shortly afterwards followed by what appeared to be the spreading of the housing movement outside of London, as Manchester saw the emergence of a protest camp outside of Manchester City Hall, organised by a group called Homeless Rights of Justice, and attended by 30 homeless campaigners and lasting for around 50 days outside the Hall.
The housing crisis has also witnessed the development of myriad local campaigns. Anti-gentrification campaigns were coordinated by Southwark Notes, which published an Anti-Gentrification Handbook that offered advice on how to run campaigns. The West Kensington and Gibbs Green neighbourhood association also launched a ‘People’s Plan’ for improvements and redevelopment (rather than demolition, which the property owners were proposing) of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. Lambeth Housing Activists organised a series of demonstrations against the estate agency, Savills, that was seen to be associated with gentrification, leading to the closure of three of the agency’s offices.
On 9 July 2016 Sisters Uncut conducted an occupation of an unused building in the East End of London, demanding better provision of social housing, and making the space open to women, non-binary people and their children. The occupation organised a children’s lunch club, a know-your-rights session for those in temporary housing, a film screening and a bike maintenance class. At the same time, Focus E15 occupied a police station in Newham, also demanding better public housing provision. July also saw the campaign group, Butterfields Won’t Budge, hand-deliver letters of complaints to their landlord by tenants facing eviction. Another form of everyday resistance could be witnessed in the online social media campaign launched by the organisation Generation Rent. The group facilitated and encouraged disgruntled renters to vent their grievances online, posting details of their frustrations and unfair experiences, and sharing them through a #VentYourRent feeds on tumblr and twitter.
The use of reputation damage as a strategy for contesting housing developments was also used by those with experiences gained through participation in earlier student movements. In one instance, UCL publicised its intention to redevelop the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, London. This would have involved the eviction of 700 residents from social housing, and the demolition of their homes (for a discussion, see Beach ). In response, student activists used a strategy that we might consider to be one of pre-emptive disruption in order to disincentivise contractors who were bidding to do the construction work. This eventually resulted in UCL cancelling the project, on the grounds that the estimates given by contractors had suggested that it would be too expensive to execute.
One especially controversial response to the post-2008 crisis, and in particular the form that it took within the housing sphere, was that of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which (i) promoted homeownership (with the introduction of a new Starter Homes scheme that would subsidise first-time buyers); (ii) further residualised the social housing stock (especially through the extension of the Right to Buy scheme to those in housing association homes); and (iii) increased means-testing (through the introduction of a ‘Pay to Stay’ scheme and a move to replace lifetime with fixed-term tenancies). As this legislation was passing through Parliament a wave of opposition was coordinated through the Radical Housing Network, a group that had been created in 2013 in an attempt to bring together the large number of housing rights groups that had emerged across the UK in the context of increased housing problems, especially for those renting or in social housing.
UCL rent strikes
The escalation of housing costs in London have also had a considerable effect upon students living in the city. As a result, a combination of both low quality housing conditions and very high prices prompted students to launch two separate rounds of rent strikes in 2015 and 2016. In doing so, moreover, they were able to draw on a range of experiences that had been achieved as student activists and through the Radical Housing Network.
The first of these strikes began in May 2015 following the failure of the university to respond to complaints about noisy and dusty building work that had been ongoing since November 2014, as well as experiencing rodent infestation and insanitary conditions. The strikes were effective both in gaining media attention, with a series of newspaper reports highlighting the campaign, and eventually resulting in the decision of UCL Complaints Panel to award over £1000 in compensation to each of the students who had been resident in the housing that was the subject of the complaint (having earlier offered only £132 per student). In one high point of the campaign the UCL management were made to back down from their threat to discipline students by disallowing their academic graduation, as it became clear that this would be both illegal and in breach of the university’s student accommodation code (UCL, Cut the Rent, 2015).
The success of this campaign was further built upon in the academic year 2015-16 by a group that named itself UCL, Cut the Rent (UCL-CTR) and also with the support of the Radical Housing Network. Similarly to the previous year, this cohort of students found themselves with extremely high rents for remarkably poor accommodation, with the repeated sighting of cockroaches being one of the key grievances of the students.
The rent strike was launched in January 2016 and lasted until July of that year, following a period of organisation by those seeking to respond to the poor conditions of the housing alongside its excessive price. Indeed, the role of the adverse material conditions in motivating the rent strikers were quite striking. To the extent that those who did and those who did not participate was quite directly related to the condition of the housing that the students faced.
This, moreover, reflected the relatively non-partisan nature of the rent strike, in that it appealed to students’ material grievances rather than to more ideological concerns. This was explicit in the thinking of the rent strike organisers.
The rent strike came to a head when the UCL-CTR planned to do a large demonstration timed to coincide with the University Open Day. This was used as a bargaining chip as it had the potential to disrupt the operation of the university at a crucial time for its recruitment process for the following year. The final outcome saw the Cut the Rent group announce a victory, as UCL agreed to make available £350,000 for the academic year 2016/17 to fund accommodation bursaries for those students in most need of financial support, and £500,000 for the following year, as well as agreeing to freeze rent for 2016/17.
The development of housing struggles therefore continues in the UK context, with the rent strike being one of several methods through which resistance has been produced, seeing a combination of radical methods and activists with needs-based campaigns with those affected often having a more pragmatic approach to campaigning.
Housing, everyday precariousness and anti-eviction protests: Beyond ‘mortgaged lives’ in the Spanish context
Housing struggles in Spain witnessed a qualitative and quantitative leap in the context of the European crisis. As we noted above, the background to this development was the crisis of the real-estate led model of accumulation that resulted in over-indebted households, evictions, social exclusion and despair amongst substantial parts of the population, as well as a large stock of empty housing and toxic assets for Spanish financial institutions. Social movements such as the PAH, we argue, were able to politicise these questions and to transform them from problems perceived as ones of individual failure into questions of social justice. To do so, these housing movements developed a sophisticated repertoire of action that was not only able to transform individual despair into collective anger, but also to generate into a social movement that was able to achieve ‘little big victories’ that – in the cases of those participating in the movements – acted to palliate some of the social effects of the housing crisis.
The effects of the post-2008 crisis on housing were threefold. Firstly, hundreds of thousands of households lost their homes due to unrepayable mortgage debt. Secondly, the stock of empty real estate in Spain rose to 3.4 million during the crisis, increasingly concentrated in the hands of financial institutions. Thirdly, the amount of toxic credit held by Spanish banks, and especially the cajas de ahorro (which had relied heavily upon the mortgage sector), rose dramatically and led to an increasing instability and unsustainability of parts of the banking sector. In consequence, the cajas were restructured and a series of mergers and take-overs took place that significantly increased concentration within the financial sector. To restructure this debt, the Spanish state created a restructuring fund (FROB) and a bad bank (SAREB), which took over toxic assets – not least real estate property – from over-indebted financial institutions.
The struggles against evictions were also explicitly related to the EU in various ways. The funds used to socialize the debt, especially through the FROB and SAREB, were partly guaranteed by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). As part of this deal, Spain agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding that consented to further austerity measures which worsened the everyday living conditions of the population further still (Charnock et al., 2014). In addition, and in more general terms, the authoritarian European system of austerity and its implementation into Spanish law had, as in other spheres of public spending, limited the scope for government spending on housing and thereby reduced the room for manoeuvre of the state in terms of the degree to which it was able to intervene in the social crisis of evictions. Further, DG Ecofin of the European Commission directly intervened against a regional decree in Andalusia that aimed at protecting certain vulnerable groups from being evicted. The decree foresaw the possibility to temporarily dispossess financial institutions, in case evictions related to their property are connected to a risk of social exclusion or dangers for physical and psychological health. Such a measure, stated the DG Ecofin in its evaluation of the Memorandum of Understanding, would pose a threat to the demand of investors for Spanish real estate related assets.
In contrast to these developments, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) criticised the Spanish mortgage law for failing to sufficiently protect mortgage holders according to EU 93/13 Directive on consumers’ rights and Article 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Spanish government reacted in turn with a number of minor revisions to the legislation, allowing households to claim the existence of an unfair term (Ley 1/2013) and thereby giving both creditors and debtors the opportunity to appeal against the judge’s decision on this matter (Royal decreto-ley 11/2014), as well as establishing some protective measures for limited vulnerable groups (Royal Decreto-ley 27/2012, modified by Ley 1/2013 and Royal Decreto-ley 1/2015) (for discussion see here).
The housing movements that emerged in the context of the Eurozone crisis had their roots in the pre-crisis period. Indeed, activists and organisations with roots in pre-crisis period housing movements played an important part in the creation and development of 15-M (see also, Flesher Fominaya 2015). Especially in Madrid, 15-M had a close connection with social centres of the post-autonomous left, such as CSOA Casablanca or Patio Maravillas. These not only housed organisations such as Juventud Sin Futuro and a number of working groups of 15-M, but they also played an important part in organising neighbourhood assemblies. While the 15-M brought new activists to the social centres, the latter provided 15-M with necessary spaces within which it could carry out its activities.
Many of the anti-eviction movements had specifically regional identities, such as the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), housing assemblies of 15-M in Madrid, the housing information and meeting points (PIVE), and the occupied housing blocs in Sevilla (corralas).
The PAH Barcelona played a leading role. In addition, the so-called ‘neighbourhood movement’ was central to facilitating, supporting and expanding anti-eviction movements, especially for the PAH. This built on a long history of defending the right to decent housing, which was begun during the dictatorship, as well as a deep knowledge of the material conditions and social reality of each neighbourhood.
The strategy adopted by the housing movements that emerged during the crisis tended to include a series of actions that combined demands for a political voice (for those suffering from evictions) and material concessions (in the form of calls for a change to the mortgage law), along with autonomous, prefigurative politics. This combination of methods, moreover, was oftentimes contradictory, pragmatic and perhaps surprising.
The PAH’s organisational structure was based on local grassroots assemblies, where individual experiences with evictions and mortgage debt, as well as ways to counteract these, were shared collectively and advice on solutions for individual cases was given from all participants.
To allow for collective self-organisation – and also due to limited financial funds – the PAH deliberately abstained from providing individuals with housing advice. The subjectivity of those arriving in the PAH was marked by individual feelings of guilt and shame. However, the collective counselling of the PAH and its successes or ‘little big victories’ in many individual cases – stopping evictions through acts of civil disobedience, collectively negotiating debt restructuring with the banks, and achieving social rents – were each able not only to make visible the fact that problems perceived as individual failures were in fact a collective, political problem, but also showed how participation in the PAH resulted in an enhanced capacity to act. In this sense, participation within the PAH was able to transform desperation and disengagement into more effective means of resource-seeking activity through the adoption of activity influenced by prefigurative values.
An additional important factor contributing to the success of the PAH was the way in which it was able to engender trust between participants.
The impact of prefigurative politics upon Spanish housing movements can also be witnessed in the Obra Social campaign of the PAH, which occupied housing blocs for evicted families that had no other possibility of housing. Indeed, the prefigurative moment became most visible in the framing of the occupations as the independent assertion of basic social rights (autotutela de derechos) (Macías, 2013). This took on a somewhat contradictory and unusual appearance, however, in that it was also combined with more conventional types of lobbying and political activity, displaying the pragmatic way in which prefigurative values were employed by the anti-eviction campaign (on these tensions between conventional and prefigurative, or institutional and autonomous, values, see also Flesher Fominaya, 2015). The PAH therefore engaged in more symbolic or traditional forms of campaigning: organising demonstrations, symbolic occupations of banks, demonstrations in front of politicians and others deemed responsible for the housing crisis (escraches), as well as a widely supported petition for a referendum of the Spanish mortgage law that included the demand for a dación en pago, for social rents and for stopping evictions of residential property (with retroactive application). While parts of the PAH repertoire were developed in the process of action, other elements included prefigurative experiments developed in the pre-crisis period, including strategies for community organizing in precarious everyday living situations applied in the Euromayday movement (Suarez 2016).
At the margins of the housing movements, people affected by evictions and housing problems developed everyday-based strategies. ‘Silent occupations’ (pisos patatada) spread as people re-occupied the homes they were evicted from or other empty residential property. In some cases, the occupiers were later on able to regularise their situation by signing cheap rental contracts with the banks owning the property. Both housing movements and silent occupations contributed to a normalisation of squatting that lost its previously acquired image of being a strategy only for the autonomous left. Owners often reacted by bricking up the windows of empty flats (Huke, 2016).
A nucleus of Spanish anti-eviction protests: the case of the PAH Barcelona
The first major event in the development of Spain’s housing movement was the creation of the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) in 2009. For many weeks, a small group of activists from V de Vivienda (an organisation that had appeared during the 2000s to denounce the housing bubble and the negative impact it was having on the right to housing) met weekly in Barcelona. With the slogan ‘No tendrás una casa en la puta vida’ (‘You won’t have a house in your fucking life’), the group organised marches and rallies in multiple Spanish cities to claim the right to decent housing, and to encourage people struggling to keep up with their mortgage repayments to attend an assembly in order to receive ‘collective counselling’. For weeks, no one except the activists attended. One day, however, a man who had reached a point of no return attended the assembly. After assessing his situation, the activists travelled to his home in a residential suburb outside Barcelona and managed to stop his eviction by placing their bodies outside his front door. This use of direct action as a method of refusal was to become the start of the PAH as a real alternative. This man’s housing eviction was stopped and the story rapidly spread throughout the country. Subsequent assemblies became increasingly successful in attracting people affected by mortgages.
The three initial goals of the PAH were the dación en pago – that is, writing off the debt in exchange for returning mortgaged properties to banks–, stopping evictions of residential property, and transforming former mortgaged homes into social rental housing. The PAH also later widened their goals to focus on evictions taking place in the rental market, particularly when the houses from which people are being evicted are owned by large real estates and landowners. These anti-eviction actions each proceed in the same non-violent but effective manner. On the one hand, PAH activists seek to negotiate with financial institutions and to exhaust all available administrative and legal remedies to guarantee the right to housing. On the other hand, activists gather in front of homes and block access to prevent legal authorities and the police from executing eviction orders. Furthermore, through the Obra Social campaign, the PAH has helped evicted families to reoccupy their foreclosed homes, as well as occupying empty housing blocs owned by financial institutions for those that have no other possibility of housing.
The movement’s composition is enormously heterogeneous. Apart from the initial small group of activists with experience of earlier housing movements, the social base of the PAH includes a broad range of individuals and families affected by foreclosure processes and facing eviction threats. The extent of the impact of unemployment, precariousness and austerity is such that the PAH’s social base has been extraordinarily plural, involving people from a multitude of origins, ages, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many joining the PAH find themselves in a highly critical economic situation. Some are unable to fulfil basic needs and are therefore fighting for their immediate survival. As a result, the movement also experiences high levels of membership turnover and deep differences in the degree to which activists participate in the movement.
In order to overcome some of the problems associated with varying degrees of participation and high turnover, PAH Barcelona developed a complex structure composed of different assemblies, support groups and commissions, through which its everyday activity is organised. Since the PAH is thought as a dynamic and evolving movement, moreover, its organisational structure varies in time according to its needs. This organic complexity responds to the main goal of the movement, which is to empower its members through the solidarity between affected people, the socialisation of experiences, and the creation of spaces of trust and confidence based on the idea of community. In this way, affected individuals and families are not seen as passive subjects in seek of expert assistance, but active subjects who learn from each other’s experiences and who are able to transmit their knowledge and abilities to people facing similar situations (Colau and Alemany 2012). For this reason, the first space to which an affected person arrives is the Welcome Assembly. In this assembly, which meets once a week, old members of the movement answer questions related to mortgages and eviction processes to new members, and give them information about the objectives and functioning of the PAH.
In addition, the Actions and Support Assembly meets weekly to prepare and inform members about new protest actions and to organise accompanying actions for those who are in the process of negotiating with financial institutions. On the same day as the Actions and Support Assembly meets, there is also a Coordination Assembly, which is more related to the internal organisation and everyday functioning of the movement. In addition, a Mutual Help group has been formed. This is a small group in which the most vulnerable people – some of whom have suffered gender violence or have very deteriorated self-esteem – receive psychological aid in order to free them from feelings of guilt and personal failure, fear and hopelessness that paralysed them.
The PAH is also organised in Collective Bargaining groups. These are groups formed by people who have mortgages with the same financial institution. These smaller groups encourage the socialisation of knowledge and experiences, and develop negotiating tools to deal with each specific bank or financial institution. The strategies developed by these groups provide affected people with emotional and technical bargaining capabilities, and combine the individual struggles of each specific PAH member with collective negotiations with the bank. The Collective Bargaining groups, together with the accompanying actions, aim to balance the highly unequal power relations between mortgage borrowers and mortgage lenders.
Although each node of the PAH has its own local grassroots assembly, these also periodically meet in what are known as the Catalan PAHs Assembly and the State-wide PAHs Assembly. The aim of these larger meetings is to agree on the general guidelines for the movement, to share experiences and to coordinate wider protest actions. In the interval between these general assemblies, and despite the existence of some thematic commissions with representatives from different local assemblies, each node works autonomously. Each local PAH also tends to develop links with other local socio-political movements and struggles. For instance, PAH Barcelona collaborates with the Aliança contra la Pobresa Energètica (Alliance against Energy Poverty), Iai@flautas, and recent strikes by the Panrico and Movistar workers.
A final important aspect of the struggle carried out by the PAH is the role of women. Some of the interviewees, and female members of PAH Barcelona in particular, have expressed their view of the movement as a matriarchy because of the immense presence of women and their assumption of formal and informal leading roles. In this sense, one of the indisputable leadership figures within the PAH has been Ada Colau – the movement’s main spokesperson until 2014, and current Mayor of Barcelona – who has tenaciously protested against the violation of the right to housing in Spain, both through the PAH’s assemblies and actions, but also in the mass media and in public institutions. Furthermore, women have been leading the majority of negotiations with financial institutions in the context of the Collective Bargaining groups, have frequently acted as assembly moderators in PAH Barcelona, and have actively participated in protest actions, assemblies and commissions.
In addition to conscious efforts to foster the visibility of women in the movement and to increase opportunities for women to adopt leading roles, there are other factors that can help explain the high level of female involvement in the PAH. A noticeable factor is the effort made to use non-sexist and gender-inclusive language. In addition, a more practical measure through which to facilitate women’s participation was the creation of a variety of nursery schools and child care spaces, especially as most of the welfare and social service cuts resulting from the government’s austerity programmes have subsequently created additional (unpaid) caring work for women. Furthermore, in the current context of elevated unemployment and job precariousness, and in a society still subject to a highly patriarchal organisation of work, the loss of economic capacity has been perceived by many men as a personal failure and an attack on an identity that is largely based on their role as the family’s providers. This psychological distress has been disconcerting and paralysing for some men, which has impelled women to take the initiative to seek practical solutions. Thus, the PAH has become a space of political socialisation and struggle for working-class women, and also a space for developing social bonds and finding emotional support.
The European crisis witnessed a re-emergence of the housing question as a key political issue in some countries. Over-indebtedness, evictions and the experience of crisis at the level of everyday led in turn to a rise of everyday movements for decent housing that developed an innovative political repertoire combining acts of civil disobedience, radical democratic assemblies, self-help and collective mobilisation. The movements were on a case to case basis (through ‘little big victories’) able to relieve some of the social problems associated with housing in the context of economic crisis. Furthermore, these movement have put pressure (with varying degrees of success) on national governments to increase support for housing or withdraw cuts affecting housing, as witnessed in the campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’. With occupations and other strategies, moreover, housing movements have been able to self-enforce and guarantee the protection of rights to housing (albeit in a partial and precarious form), thereby establishing prefigurative structures in which housing was rendered visible as a common good. In their everyday endeavours for needs-based housing policies the movements questioned discourses of a lack of alternatives, claiming that indeed a different housing is possible.