Carlos Delclos interviews Elvi Mármol, a PAH activist from the city of Sabadell, just north of Barcelona:
* What spurred the creation of the PAH?
EM: In 2007, housing prices were at an all-time high. If we consider these disproportionate prices along with soaring interest rates and decreasing income (since unemployment went from 8.3% in 2006 to 17% in 2009), we find ourselves with an impoverished and debt-ridden citizenry, living in fear of an uncertain future.
In 2006, the V de Vivienda movement (a reference to V for Vendetta that translates to “V for Housing”) was born in Barcelona. For two years, they articulated the struggle for the right to decent housing and denounced the housing bubble, calling for an end to the violence of real estate speculation. When the bubble burst two years later, some of that group’s activists realized that people were going to stop being able to pay their mortgages, and that the struggle would no longer be about access to housing but that many families would actually be left without a home. They also discovered that Spanish mortgage law would leave them with a debt hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives. So in February of 2009, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) was born, which put the failure of housing policies on the agenda and would prove a major blow to the administrations that had pushed the population to become indebted.
The biggest difference between the V de Vivienda movement and the PAH is its members. While the first was mostly made up of young people in precarious work who organized and fought to leave their parents’ homes, the majority of the PAH is made up of families who are being foreclosed on.
* What’s the relationship between 15M and the PAH?
EM: The PAH was formed two years before the 15M movement burst onto the scene; there were already groups in Barcelona, Sabadell, Terrassa, Murcia and other cities. The 15M movement in the plazas, then later in the neighborhood assemblies, helped launch PAHs all over Spain. Now there are over 200 PAH groups. And the 15M movement was especially helpful to the Stop Evictions campaign: we went from being 50 or so at the evictions to being hundreds.
* Why is the struggle for decent housing, and in particular the PAH’s anti-evictions campaign, such an important struggle, as opposed to labor, public services or other social issues?
EM: Before a person loses their home, it’s pretty likely that they have lost their job or main source of income. The last thing anyone thinks of losing is their home, the roof over their head, the place where they feel secure and which any person needs, whether it was a cave thousands of years ago or the various types of housing that exist in our current consumerist era. It is within this basic need that the basic struggle for decent housing exists.
The PAH organizes assemblies in which any person could come, explain their situation and ask for help. We never tell anyone that their case will find a solution just because they showed up. What we do tell them is that if we continue to work together, the chances that their situation will improve will be better. We have been very successful because we’ve achieved small victories. Every time we celebrate a case where we were able to get the bank to declare a non-recourse debt in exchange for the home in question (note: this is not the status quo in Spain), a world of hope opens up for the people who long for the same. Every small achievement pushes people to continue fighting and because these victories are achieved through the combined strength of everyone fighting together, people start to go beyond their individual problem to envision a community.
In the struggles you mention, it is a bit more difficult to achieve such important and tangible victories in so little time. This makes those struggles seem utopian to people who are less politicized. We must find a way to take advantage of the opportunity the PAH offers us to make the struggle grow in other areas, in a way that is more global and more united.
* What is the relationship between the PAH and party politics? Do you see the PAH as being in direct opposition to party politics?
EM: One of the pillars of the PAH, as expressed in its statutes and as a requirement for forming a new PAH, is that the PAH is explicitly unaligned with any political party. We do not belong to any party nor will we ever be one, and this is a key part of our success. Our assemblies are very pluralistic and include people who have affinities with a number of political parties, including the right-wing Popular Party, which is something I’ll never understand.
* What kind of tactics and strategies do the PAH engage in and why?
EM: Perhaps our best-known campaign is Stop Evictions, inspired by Lluis from La Bisbal who, upon receiving his eviction notice, went to an assembly and said he was not about to leave his home. He asked for help and found it. In November of 2010, more than 50 people stood outside his home and stopped the judicial team and the Catalan police from carrying out the eviction. The eviction has been stopped four times since then and today, the case has been filed away, and he and his son Lloid remain in their homes. To this day, we have stopped over 800 evictions.
After that, we launched a campaign promoting a piece of Citizen Initiated Legislation intended to change Spain’s archaic mortgage law. Despite gathering 1.4 million signatures, the Popular Party rejected it, which gave way to our current campaign, known as the Obra Social (a play on words using the term used by Spanish banks to refer to their Corporate Responsibility programs, and literally translates as “social work”). This campaign is more revolutionary and less reformist than the previous ones, since it involves squatting housing blocks owned by financial firms and giving them to evicted families.
Based on my own experience, as a member of PAH Sabadell I can say that ours is currently one of the strongest PAH groups. We’ve squatted three buildings through our Obra Social campaign, we have fought more broadly for the right to decent housing than other group, since we also help tenants and not just mortgage holders. We organize workshops for individual squatters and carried out the longest bank occupation in the PAH’s history, which lasted four days and three nights at the office of the Unnim, a subsidiary of BBVA.
* Do you see your tactics as part of longer-term politics?
EM: I think that getting banks to declare mortgages as non-recourse debts, stopping evictions and obtaining reduced rent through social housing are some of the small victories that have made us strong and differentiate us from other social movements today. I would say that our tactics and strategies are mostly short-term and consist of establishing goals that are attainable in terms of their time-frame and the energy they require. These short-term, tangible successes lead people to go from being dejected and demoralized to being empowered and making an impact in their communities, in relatively little time. They also help us keep the movement visible, reach more people and continue to question politicians and bankers about changing the law.
At the same time, our assemblies assure that we are always learning from and training one another, so that we never lose the essence of what makes the PAH so important, which is the people who participate in the movement. Without a doubt, the PAH’s greatest success has been to empower people. These are men and women who at one point were sold on the idea that they were part of a middle class, and now realize that they are part of a much larger majority, which is the working class. One day they were just a number in the labor force and now, thanks to the PAH, they are activists who not only defend the right to decent housing but work with militants they have met from other movements to weave the social fabric of their own communities.
* What have been the keys to success of the movement so far?
EM: The PAH’s success lies in every one of its local assemblies. People arrive at those assemblies looking for a solution to their individual situation, but they quickly realize that through solidarity and civil disobedience, not only can they find solutions to their problems, but also that they are part of a community that is capable of large scale success.
The PAH today is Spain’s most important social movement, but it’s neither perfect nor a panacea to all of the country’s ills. We do a lot of things that were being done many years before, in the neighborhood movements, the squatters’ movements and so on. The platform was born at the right place at the right time, and it has understood how to learn, grow and expand without losing its essence. Perhaps with time, we will be able to bring together all of the different social struggles taking place at this moment in history.”