Vilma Margarita Mejía cannot stop crying. She is weak and only whispers complete sentences after taking a deep breath. Any day now, today perhaps, police will come to her door and forcefully evict her, her two sons, and one brother from the home she’s lived in for 20 years.
Nothing could prevent the bank from auctioning her apartment this week – not even a failed suicide attempt, or the fact that one of her sons recently underwent open heart surgery, or that she is awaiting a second operation possibly related to cancer. She is now illegally occupying the small space she has patiently decorated for years, but homelessness and an uncertain future are now a question of time.
“I’ve begged, but the bank would get mad at me and say I was making up my cancer. But I have nowhere to go and all my money went to the doctors,” Mrs. Mejía, originally from Ecuador, says quietly, sitting in the raucous office of a civil society group demanding reform to an “illegal” eviction law.
Mejía’s case and dozens more like it were the tipping point for pampered Spaniards. The evictions and a string of poverty-related suicides have come to embody painful austerity imposed by the government and Europe, and society is rallying around this common cause to rebel against the gradual tightening of an economic noose.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered a concession last week, after failing to strike a deal with the main opposition Socialist party to reform the eviction law. They instead decreed a two-year ban on evictions of the most precarious residents, as long as they meet strict criteria.
Mejía spent most of her two decades in Europe working as a nanny in Britain and Spain. The economic crisis and her health made employment slippery. She might have been one of the few who would have benefitted, but the decree is not retroactive.
The government also refused to change the law to allow more indebted families to transfer back the property in lieu of payment. Under Spanish law, mortgage holders remain liable for outstanding debt even after eviction.
Few are happy with the decree. Banks, those awaiting evictions, civil society activists, and other political parties have all criticized the measure. Nearly 80 percent of Spaniards and 62 percent of supporters of the ruling party think the government decree is insufficient, according to a poll released this week.
“Almost nobody will meet the criteria,” says José Mario Ruiz, spokesman of the Mortgage Victims’ Platform, the civil society group leading demands for a more “humane” eviction law. His office was crammed by dozens of people, most of them foreign-born, awaiting evictions this year during a meeting to explain the government’s new decree.
“Most of you won’t benefit from this law. It’s a Band-Aid. All you can do is fight, fight, fight and demand a real solution from the government,” one of the speakers said amid bouts of anger and muted whimpers.
There have been some 400,000 evictions orders since 2007, according to a report put together by a group of Spain’s top judges. The government claims that only a small fraction of the evictions, as low as 1 percent, are mortgage-related – bank-driven evictions of main family residences of those in more precarious situations.
The majority of them were not homes, and most homes were second or vacation properties, although the government also acknowledges it has no data on how many needy families have lost their homes.
“I laugh at government numbers. Of the 400,000, at least 10 percent resulted in evictions of the main residence of distressed families,” says Mr. Ruiz, also one of Madrid’s top leaders. “And that will soon jump to at least 20 percent as they process the pending eviction proceedings.”
The Spanish judges’ report and another conclusion issued by the European Court of Justice's advocate general Juliane Kokott suggest Spain’s evictions laws are “abusive” and incompatible with EU law protecting consumers.
The government has promised to carry out a comprehensive reform of the law, in consensus with other parties. How much help those on track for eviction get will largely depend on popular pressure, experts say.
In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide, two of them last week.
The shock is understandable. Over most of the last decade, Spain gloated about its unmatched economic growth in Europe and an impressive global expansion of its companies, especially in banking, telecommunications, and energy.
Most Spaniards had jobs, and immigration from Europe and Latin America was encouraged to satisfy labor needs as thousands of properties were built. Many bought homes, and some bought two and three, as just about everyone was offered credit at low interest attached to what some suggest are predatory conditions.
But since the crisis began when a huge construction boom burst in 2007, wealth destruction has been unparalleled. Spain’s proud welfare state and safety net is unraveling as the government trims spending while raising taxes amid the worst economic downturn anybody can remember.
The country now faces historic unemployment that tops 25 percent, soaring poverty levels, mass emigration, and little sign of a turnaround. Most analysts forecast further economic contraction in 2012 and 2013, and only discrete growth thereafter.
The suicides catalyzed a popular backlash against government austerity and its consequences: evictions, chronic unemployment, rising poverty, and erosion of the prized free healthcare and education. Spaniards cannot understand how their pain and taxes are bailing out the country’s banks, while citizens are being left without recourse or aid, in many cases forcing them to become homeless.
Civil disobedience is on the rise and the government is worried. Thousands have protested, and regional governments and courts are increasingly refusing to execute evictions orders. Some policemen are also objecting on conflict of conscience grounds. And Vigo, a large port city on the Atlantic coast, threatened to pull public money out of banks that evict people.
“It’s going to be hard to get a satisfactory reform. The ruling party is conservative,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert on social movements. Eviction is just part of the broader degradation in the quality of life as a result of austerity-driven policies imposed by Europe, he says.
“It would make little difference if we had a more progressive party. We don’t have a horizon with many options. The only way out is for Spain and Europe to change simultaneously,” Dr. Bouza says.
But popular frustration will continue growing and inevitably impose change, Bouza says. “All together we are in the middle of a very drastic scenario of transition into something else. The question is if we can do it without any serious consequences.”
But while most agree increasing turmoil will eventually pressure politicians to recalibrate the austerity-heavy recipe to return to growth, “it will be too late for me,” Mejía sighs.