It was 7 a.m. and still dark in Villaverde, Madrid. One hundred and seventy policemen had cordoned off the neighborhood, blocking all ways in and out. Maria Isabel Rodriguez Romero, 44, thought they had come for a terrorist, but a few minutes later, the police removed her front door and forced Romero and her family out of the apartment where they had lived for 24 years. That was September 2013. After sleeping in the street for two weeks, they moved in with a friend. With no job, a mentally disabled mother and a six-year-old daughter, Romero’s only chance of finding her own place now might be to occupy illegally one of Spain’s 3.5 million vacant homes.
In the 1980s, Spanish tax and bank incentives encouraged people to buy rather than rent property, fueling an unprecedented national real-estate boom. When the financial bubble finally burst in 2008, four out of five houses were occupied by their owners, many of whom suddenly had a mortgage they could no longer afford to repay. Unemployment levels rose and, by the end of 2012, someone was being evicted every 15 minutes. About 350,000 bank-ordered evictions had been executed since the beginning of the crisis. No law protected the homeowners: you could be evicted even if you had begun a legal appeal, and after being expelled from your home, you still had to pay what was left of the mortgage.
In the past year, a new law and regular public demonstrations have stopped police from executing some planned evictions. But neither law nor demonstrations have stopped 600,000 disenchanted Spanish citizens from emigrating. Romero plans to follow. “This is my homeland,” she says, “but there’s no respect. I think I will leave.”