Okupas in Spain – protests for and against squatters in Barcelona

May 25, 2023

What’s the deal with okupas in Spain?

A few months ago, I noticed some people had moved into a commercial space on my street in Barcelona.

No big deal.

They were a family, apparently from Eastern Europe, who’d set up a little house inside a bit of unused real estate. Apparently, they were squatters, or as we call them in Spain, okupas.

They had a little boy, the woman was pregnant, the guy had a bike with a cart on the back which he’d ride around, collecting scrap metal.

A few days after they moved in, the police showed up. They parked a couple of cars up on the sidewalk, and (I gathered) gave the okupas a stern talking to. But the next day I saw the okupas were still there. I guess they hadn’t been kicked out.

casa abandonada nueva numancia madrid
Abandoned in Vallecas, Madrid.

I saw them on my street almost every day for several months.

The scrap metal people are part of the local color, here in my neighborhood. There are a few of them I see all the time. And after a while, they sort of blend in with the other strange characters hanging around: the face-tattooed weirdoes outside the tattoo parlors, the people wandering in and out of the weed club, the pickpockets working outside the train station, the homeless stretched out under pieces of cardboard until late in the morning.

Last summer, when I came back from a month in the US, for example, the first person I saw in Spain who I “knew” was the Asian scrap metal guy who sometimes sits and cooks chicken over a camp stove on the front step of our building. I hadn’t thought about him my whole time away, of course, but there he was… right where I left him, with his shopping cart full of scrap, his little dog, and his liter of beer.

Anyway, the new okupas lived in their place down the street for several months. A couple of weeks ago, the police finally came out in force. I missed the action, if there was any. All I saw was the family putting their stuff in a friend’s car and driving off, as the police stood around with stern expressions and a technician welded a big steel plate over the door of the makeshift house.

A few days went by. And last week I noticed the bakery two doors down had the shutter up. The place hasn’t actually been a bakery in the years we’ve lived here – that’s just what the sign over the door says that it used to be.

Anyway, the shutter was up, and the same okupas were back, setting up bunk beds where the bakery counter should have been. Presumably they’ll be there for a while. I haven’t seen the police stopping by yet, but I’m sure they’ve got their eyes on the situation.

Some info about okupas in Spain

I should mention, by the way, that Morena and I don’t live in a terrible neighborhood.

It’s actually pretty nice, as far as the center of Barcelona goes.

I’m sure that in the US, your average middle-class suburbanite would flip their shit if they had squatters on their block, or a guy cooking chicken on their front step.

(This sort of thing probably doesn’t happen much in the nicer Spanish suburbs either.)

Here in Barcelona, on the other hand, it seems pretty normal – an acceptable part of life in the big city. At least we’re not in one of the neighborhoods where people are injecting heroin on the streets, or where street prostitutes are sleeping one off on the pavement, or where criminals are robbing the Amazon delivery people in broad daylight.

after the general strike
Protest signs, years ago in Galicia

How many okupas are there in Spain?

The data says that in 2022 the government recorded over 17,000 legal “infractions” related to the occupation of houses and other real estate – this was the all-time record, and Catalonia seems to have more okupas than the other autonomous communities.

In a country with 47 million people, that’s not huge percentage. But it does have some people worried.

You can tell a lot about the ideological leanings of your news source by how they downplay certain things, and make a big deal out of others. Is 17,274 crimes in one year a big problem? Of course not! In fact, the numbers in the first quarter of 2023 seem to be a little bit lower.

But in other news, we’ll be turning a single anecdote into evidence of an out-of-control spiral of constantly increasing something-or-other which you should definitely panic about… immediately!

Pardon my aside. Moving on…

Different types of okupas in Spain

Not all okupas are the same.

Some are more problematic than others.

The scrap metal people tend to live in abandoned warehouses outside the city, or commercial spaces in town. A few years ago, a couple of kids were killed when the old bank office they were living in with their parents caught fire – I wrote about it at the time.

Burned out bank office in Barcelona, a couple of years ago.

In that case, the parents were renting part of the place from an okupa mafia. There were a total of 10 people living in the bank office, just a few blocks from where I live. The okupas on my street may be freelance, finding places to live on their own. I really wouldn’t know.

But this class of okupas seem to be just scraping by and not bothering anyone, at least in my experience.

The mafias, on the other hand, are “professional” organizations that make money off of property owners, or off of their illegal renters. On the one hand, they rent rooms or flats they don’t own to families without a lot of options. On the other, they tell the legitimate owners that for a modest fee (usually 6000 to 8000€) they’ll kick those “renters” out and give back the keys.

Rather than spending years in court, big property owners sometimes pay the okupas to leave. This has recently been in the news, as an okupa mafia here in Barcelona was recently caught by the authorities. It’s known as el caso Squatter, and involved a group of Colombians who were breaking into houses and then renting them out during the pandemic.

Small-time owners (people with one or two flats, maximum) may not be able to pay 8000€ as well as continue paying the mortgage while their home is inhabited by others. It’s a very difficult situation, in other words.

Online, you can find ads in which people offer to buy houses with okupas inside – presumably at a heavy discount, and with some sort of plan to get them out and re-sell the house later.

And there are even companies you can hire to get squatters out of your house. The most famous is called Desokupa, and we’ll be hearing more about them in a minute.

All this is part of a small but lucrative illegal corner of the real estate market, and just one facet of Spain’s never-ending housing crisis.

What’s behind the okupa movement in Spain?

The fact is that Spanish laws do a lot to protect vulnerable families, at least in theory.

Article 47 of the Spanish constitution reads as follows…

Todos los españoles tienen derecho a disfrutar de una vivienda digna y adecuada. Los poderes públicos promoverán las condiciones necesarias y establecerán las normas pertinentes para hacer efectivo este derecho, regulando la utilización del suelo de acuerdo con el interés general para impedir la especulación.

Constitución Española, 1978.

Loosely translated, all Spaniards have the right to decent housing, and the government will make laws to protect that right, regulating the use of land in the general interest in order to stop speculation.

Back in the day, before the 2008 crisis and the Great Recession, there were protests in Madrid all the time about the right to housing and Article 47. Real estate was supposed to be a public good, not a way to get rich. So why were people unable to afford housing, and why wasn’t the government actually doing anything to stop speculation and rising prices?

I went to at least one of these protests, with some Lavapiés friends. I was living on their couch at the time – my broke, illegal immigrant life before I got my shit together and joined the bourgeoisie.

(Okay, okay. We actually lived several blocks south of Lavapiés. It may have been closer to Legazpi, if you must know. In other words, I was so broke that not even my friends could afford to live in Lavapiés.)

(Also, in all honesty, I find it a bit embarrassing to talk about all the protests I used to go to. But it seems to come up a lot, in these articles. Suffice it to say, younger me was probably hoping to meet cute leftist girls more than to change society. And in in the end, of course, he did neither.)

(Cute leftist girls who practiced basic personal hygiene, obviously. I had standards, just not many.)

Anyway…

Does the law actually protect squatters?

At the time, I felt like the protestors had a good point: people have the right to live somewhere decent. It’s in the constitution! Why wasn’t the government doing more about it?

Now, I read article 47 and the words “los españoles” just stick right out at me. In theory, foreigners living in Spain have most of the same rights as Spaniards, including the rights in Title I of the Constitution – that’s articles 1 through 55.

In practice, of course, it varies, and housing discrimination happens to foreign people all the time.

But generally, the law protects people who have few economic resources and nowhere else to go – especially if there are children involved.

Anecdote time: a friend of mine has a cousin who got divorced during the last crisis. Her ex-husband, in the meantime, had lost most of his income, and they couldn’t pay the mortgage. In the end, she lost the house as well, but the judge decided to give her several years to find somewhere else to live… until her youngest kid turns eighteen.

In general, I think this is positive for society. The last thing we need is to send single mothers and their underage kids out to live on the streets so that the banks can resell their houses.

But it does open up legal loopholes for squatters and others.

“Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa” says the Spanish proverb. For every law, there’s a loophole.

Squatters and private property rights

Like I said earlier, there are several types of squatters.

Some live in empty commercial spaces, or warehouses, or improvised housing (read: shacks made of scraps from construction or demolition sites) on vacant lots. Some live in industrial parks or even cemeteries.

In those cases, they’re often left alone, at least for some time.

Other okupas decide to live in houses belonging to other people. They may show up when you’re on vacation, change the locks, and not let you back in.

Of course, this can be quite a problem if you’re the owner of the house – getting them out involves a long judicial process. It could take years.

Additionally, with the new housing law recently passed by the leftist coalition government, you may even have to prove that the squatters are living in your house as their primary residence in order to have them evicted. How you’re supposed to do that, I’m not sure. Maybe they’re just using it as a vacation home, temporarily.

But that’s apparently what the law suggests. The opposition parties claim that part is unconstitutional, given that Article 33 of La Constitución protects the right to private property.

And in any case, the new Ley de Vivienda was only published this morning, and it’s 61 pages long. I don’t know. I’m not really feeling like going through all that legalese right now. Maybe you should read it and let me know what it actually says.

The official story the government tells, most of the time, is that there’s no problem with squatters invading the homes of law-abiding citizens – that it’s all an urban legend dreamed up by unscrupulous burglar alarm companies and right-wing politicians.

Allegedly, most of the residential okupas break into houses that are owned by the banks, so it’s a victimless crime. How do they know that a home is owned by the bank? I’m not sure. And as usual, I’m just some guy with a blog, not a real, qualified urban sociologist.

But I will say that I’ve been hearing about the problem with okupas since long before Vox was formed as a political party, and it can’t be entirely made up.

Political okupas on the far left

Finally, some okupas are trying to make a political statement.

These last have recently become newsworthy in Barcelona, as a group of squatters has gotten into a series of physical confrontations with their neighbors in one of the most expensive parts of the city.

Here’s the story, as I understand it: okupas from two large buildings up in Bonanova, an area in the wealthy Sant Gervasi district, have been in the “papers” all month long, as the courts try to decide whether to evict them or not.

There have also been protests, both in favor of and against the okupas. People on both sides have thrown rocks at each other, squatters walk around the barrio armed with knives or hatchets, and one was even seen shooting a BB gun at protestors. In short, it looks chaotic.

burning dumpster barcelona
This burning dumpster is from one of the independence-themed riots a few years ago.

The squats are known as “La Ruïna” and “El Kubo” and they’re close to Plaça de la Bonanova, in a part of the city I don’t spend much time in.

(The K in Kubo, and in okupa, by the way, is just a Spanish leftist thing. They’re rebelling against all the rules and conventions of bourgeois society – and that includes spelling.)

And anti-okupa protestors on the far right…

Anyway, remember Desokupa, the company that claims they’ll get rid of squatters for you?

Legally, through negotiation, of course…

Well, they’re apparently helping to organize the protests against the squatters. They’re joined by members of the right-wing political party Vox and the center-right Ciudadanos, as well as the regional party Valents.

And it’s all, I suspect, just a bit of marketing and campaigning leading up to the municipal elections this Sunday, May 28th. Current Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau came up as an activist herself, fighting against the banks foreclosing on mortgages during the 2008 crisis. She’s also known for being rather easy-going when it comes to crime on the streets.

So the whole thing is shaping up to be a battle of ideologies, as the okupas from the far left face down (alleged) fascists and neo-Nazis who come out to protest against them, including a far right group of football “ultras”, the Boixos Nois – that’s Catalan for “crazy boys”.

The connection between football and radical politics in Europe is something I know very little about. Suffice it to say that football fan clubs can get both ideological and violent, in support of their teams and their causes – both on the left and on the right. Often, groups of ultras will fight before matches, get banned from their teams’ stadiums, etc. And the Boixos Nois do look to be somewhat fascist. Check out their merchandise on Facebook or Instagram, if you want.

catalonian independence movement in spain
This is actually police in Madrid watching over some German football fans. But hey… it’s the most relevant photo I had.

Is it class war, or cosplay?

The other day I was down in Madrid and my friend said, at one point during our expensive lunch, “Joder, tenéis un problema con los okupas ahí en Barcelona, Dani…”

At the time I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was reading about the anarchists and the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, and mostly ignoring the day to day news.

Turns out, the anarchists and the fascists are still at it up here.

The resident okupas in La Ruïna and El Kubo claim to be “the anarchist resistance in the heart of bourgeois Barcelona”. If evicted, they’ve threatened to burn the whole neighborhood.

Their lawyer – because of course they have a lawyer – has recently filed a petition saying that the eviction is illegal, because the investment company that owns the buildings is legally obligated to offer the okupas a “social housing” option before proceeding.

The authorities said “no way” – the people living in La Ruïna, etc, are there for political reasons, not because they have nowhere else to go. I’d assume that means that they’re middle-class kids themselves, playing at class war in their squatted buildings, then going home to do laundry at Mom’s house… but that’s just a guess. (Remember, I used to hang out with anarchist types myself, so I’m speaking from experience.)

Anyway, the eviction is pending. And it looks like there’s another protest scheduled for tonight.

I’d go to have a look myself, but it’d probably be a bit awkward. I’m too bourgeois for the anarchists at this point, and too anarchic for the fascists.

Have no fear, though. I’ll report back if anything interesting happens. For now, it may just be a pointless little squabble in a neighborhood I can barely afford to have lunch in.

Hasta la próxima,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. While I was writing this article, the doorbell rang. A certified letter! As the postwoman came up in the elevator, I had a good long minute to think of all the horrifying reasons why I might be getting a certified letter on a Thursday morning like this one… turns out I’m not being deported, but I am being inspected by the tax people. Maybe my next article will be about that fun adventure. I’m not super worried, just annoyed. Anyway, bourgeois problems. I’ll survive.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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