By Joan Faus and Nacho Doce
BARCELONA – By the door to their humble apartment, a Spanish family beset by disabilities keeps a few bags with essential belongings in case the threat of eviction turns real.
Since May, Noemi Oset, her daughters aged 9 and 23, and her partner have avoided being dislodged from the two-bedroom Barcelona apartment three times. They have squatted there since 2019, unable to afford the rising rent of their old house.
The last time, a crowd of neighbours and activists gathered round to drive away the eviction officials.
But the family fears they will try again in September, even though there is a ban on evictions of vulnerable families in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of other families risk being kicked out before the end of the year.
“For me, this is a 21st century torture,” said Oset, 45.
Oset has a visual disability and immune-system illness that bars her from work. She receives a 357-euro ($423) monthly subsidy.
But the pandemic had made her more concerned about her health – and dented her partner’s salary as Spain’s economy fell a record 11% in 2020.
The partner Oriol, 43, lost his job as a carpenter at a hardware store that had to shut temporarily due to coronavirus lockdowns. He is working there again now but his salary is seized because of debts, Oset said.
Their apartment, crammed with dusty boxes and with chipped and peeling walls, is inside an unsightly two-storey building in a small street near Barcelona’s Camp Nou soccer stadium.
In March 2020, the government banned home evictions of certain vulnerable groups. But Oset’s family is excluded despite meeting most conditions, showing the policy’s limitations in a country with one of Europe’s smallest social housing pools and where rents have risen in the past decade.
The eviction ban was extended last week until Oct. 31, as well as a compensation package for landlords.
Despite the ban, around 11,000 evictions took place in the first quarter, legal data showed – and Catalonia had the highest regional figures.
In 2020 more than 29,000 evictions took place across Spain, well below 2019’s 54,000. There are few official estimates on the moratorium’s impact but Barcelona city hall said in March 80% of evictions had ceased.
Housing organisation PAH estimated the end of the ban would lead to 79,000 new evictions, above the levels seen in 2012-2013 after Spain’s financial crisis.
Echoing Spain’s landlord association ASVAL, it said the extension does not address an underlying housing crisis and called for an increase in social housing and subsidised rents.
The government said in February it would dedicate 1 billion euros to social housing, but a reform remains stalled.
Other countries approved pandemic-related eviction bans. The United States last Tuesday extended it for 60 days, but in England tenants can be evicted since June when a residential ban was partly lifted.
In Spain, evictions are prohibited if tenants have been declared economically vulnerable by social services.
But for squatter dwellings like Oset’s there are additional requirements, such as hosting a minor, a disabled person or a victim of domestic violence, plus the landlord owning over 10 properties.
Oset’s youngest daughter has a 42% visual and hearing disability and an attention disorder, while the older one has a 36% visual disability although she has a part-time job to pay for university.
But Oset is excluded from the ban because her landlord owns just one other house, said a source at Catalonia’s top court.
A lawyer representing the landlord declined to comment.
“There should never be an eviction of vulnerable people whether there is a COVID-19 ban or not,” said Ursula Garrido, spokesperson of housing union Sindicat de Llogateres, which is assisting Oset.
The first eviction attempt was suspended in May after the judge received Oset’s vulnerability report, then in June it was halted because the family promised to leave by July 27.
As they did not leave, a third attempt on that day was only suspended due to the protest outside the building, the court source said.
Oset said she offered the owner to pay a discounted rent of around 250 euros, from the 1,000-euro monthly family income, but it was rejected.
Sindicat de Llogateres made numerous attempts to contact the owner to no avail, Garrido said. A company which the union said belongs to the landlord did not respond to requests for comment.
Local authorities have approved relocating the family into a subsidised apartment, but that will take time and require a provisional dwelling, a source said.
With social housing accounting for less than 2% of all homes, according to the OECD, Spain lags behind Britain, France or Italy, where it represents 17%, 14% and 4%.
Spain’s private rental market ranks among the OECD‘s most expensive. Prices rose by almost 50% in 2013-2019, while salaries lost nearly 8% of their buying power in 2010-2019, the Bank of Spain said.
Oset feels she is running out of time.
“An apartment or the money for it will not suddenly pop up for me,” she said.
($1 = 0.8475 euros)