The housing and economic crisis of 2008 sparked a direct action housing defense movement that has taken off throughout Europe and the US – with each inspiring the other, sharing tactics and information. Spain is the most well known with the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), described by participants below, but many other countries also have strong movements, and each, while ‘new’, have roots in prior organizing. The US, Italy and Germany are three additional examples that reflect a diversity in tactics, all towards the end of keeping families housed and challenging private property and banks. In Italy, for example, while there is a history of occupations, in November of 2013 hundreds of homeless families, simultaneously took over empty buildings and schools in towns and cities, including Rome, Palermo, Naples, Milan and Turin. The actions of families are generally coordinated and have the support of the movements both during the actions and after. In urban areas in Germany neighbors not only organize to help prevent evictions, but if they are not successful they then make sure the homes are not rented through direct actions to prevent the showing of the houses, such as putting glue in locks. If that is still not successful, and a home is rented, they then use social/political pressure, such as explaining to the potential renters that the neighborhood is opposed to their renting or buying the home and that they would likely be ostracized.
In the US, many dozens of groups are organizing and carry out a wide variety of actions. Many are direct spin offs from Occupy Wall Street, and some, such as Occupy Homes, organize neighbors and together physically defend homes that are at risk of foreclosure. Often the result is that the banks do not go forward with the eviction, and the group helps families renegotiate mortgages. Others, such as community based groups based in poverty stricken neighborhoods in Chicago, make public claims on abandoned homes and work with those families that still live in the neighborhoods to collectively move in homeless families. And then there are the dozens of groups that disrupt the auctions of homes that are to be foreclosed. These actions include singing in courtrooms such as in the boroughs of New York City, or on City Hall steps in San Francisco and many other locations, so that a home that is supposed to be sold has to be put again on the docket, which usually means many months later due to the backlog, thus allowing more time to mobilize in defense of the home. The tactics of the various groups are many, expanding and contagious.
The PAH began organizing in the early 2000s with a few chapters and since the 15M movement, also referred to as the indignados, it has taken off all over, with now over 160 groups. It is organized in separate and autonomous chapters all over the country, and is linked as a national network with regional and national gatherings. Each PAH coordinates concrete resistance to prevent foreclosures, a threat affecting hundreds of thousands of people in Spain since the crisis began.
Strongly connected to other movements like the 15M and the various spin off from it, the PAH is a movement that exemplifies a different and non hierarchical way of organizing, and is helping thousands of people, not just to defend their homes together, but transform the way they feel about themselves. The PAH organizes those people directly affected by the mortgage crisis, as its name suggests. It first brings people together to decide what they need and want, and then neighbors and movement participants act in unison, whether physically defending a house from eviction, creating human barricades, or reoccupying homes, something that has taken off in the past few months.
The over 160 PAHs are located in towns, cities and even in the Canary Islands. Below is a reflection of the work of the PAH in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, described through the experiences of a number of its active participants. Lanzarote has 142,000 inhabitants, and the local PAH has over one hundred people who are actively engaged. They organize events everyday, from bank actions to occupations and defenses of homes to assemblies. PAH Lanzarote, as with the PAH nationally, is comprised of vast majority women.
Christina, one of the first and key organizers of the PAH initiated the organizing when, unable to pay her mortgage, was physically evicted. She then occupied another home to shelter her daughter and herself, where she was again forcibly removed and then beaten by the police. For her this was the ‘click’ moment, the moment she decided she was going to organize others, and that not having a home is not a crime. She described the first weeks of organizing, “When we first started organizing, people in the town came up to me all the time and said, “’we don’t do that here, we don’t protest’ and, well, now we do.” Within only a few months dozens of other people facing eviction joined the PAH.
One such person, Kathy, described some of her experiences, “I was evicted on the 20th of September 2013 for not being able to pay my mortgage. But really, it was a mortgage already paid, almost twice over. My situation was that I had bought my house for 36,000 Euros (then in pesetas) fifteen years ago, and by the time this situation started I had already paid 100,000 on the mortgage over the years. But, in the last three years I have had a hard time economically and have not been able to pay the full amount each month. The PAH went to a judge to stop the eviction, but they refused. So, they came to help defend my children and I. When the police came there were lots of people from the PAH as well as some of my neighbors in front of the house, surrounding it, but the police violently arrested people and locked me out. Later I went back, and with the support of the neighbors and the PAH now I am occupying my own house again. The neighbors really helped a lot, not only by being dragged away by the police while defending my home, but also by giving me electricity and the tools to move back in. The woman below now has PAH posters on her balcony.”
When I asked Kathy, Christina and the other women I met how they organize they responded, well, horizontally of course. How else would they organize? Christina put it like this, “There are no hierarchies. They don’t exist. But it is not that they don’t exist because someone suggested it, but because it is a space where each person becomes the owner of their life and everyone has every opportunity. If we are all in control of our lives and we have all the opportunities there is no desire for someone to come and tell you what to do. The objective is that you have all the tools, all the capacity and opportunity to seek freedom and the freedom of all – so of course, hierarchy does not fit, and we don’t feel it, or want it ever.”
Each of the women reflected that they are not alone in these feelings. The importance of the PAH is not only that it tries to keep everyone housed with some dignity, but that it changes the way they feel about themselves. Each one spoke of feeling more dignified, and no longer ashamed.
The PAH Lanzarote has now been active for over two years, and have kept dozens of families in their homes as well as occupied a number of other homes for those evicted. Sometimes, as the case with Kathy this “occupation” is actually just moving a family back into their own home. The PAH Lanzarote is similar to the other PAHs throughout Spain with compositions of vast majority women, horizontal forms of organization, a rejection of hierarchy, and a grounding of their relationships in trust and affect.