Crisis draws squatters to Spain's empty buildings
SEVILLE, Spain (Reuters) - Sleeping on inflatable mattresses with just a few boxes to hold their belongings, 32 families have occupied an empty new apartment block in Seville in southern Spain to put a roof over their heads after being thrown out of their own homes.
They share a single cooker and a cheap brown sofa left behind by the builders. To others facing the prospect of living on the streets the families are living in luxury and they have set up a 24-hour watch to keep hopefuls out.
Squatting is rare in Spain but it has been on the rise because the 2008 property crash left thousands of buildings empty and the economic recession has led to soaring unemployment and home eviction rates.
Public spending cuts as the government tries to prevent Spain sinking further into the euro zone debt crisis have made the situation for many people even worse and new groups have sprung up to protest or help people improve their lives.
"We're not anti-establishment. We just don't want to live in the streets. With so many buildings like this and so many normal people facing eviction, we hope we inspire others to do the same," says unemployed squatter Irma Blanco, 35.
The building, a short walk from the centre of the capital of the Andalucia region, was finished just three years ago and has double glazing and new wooden floors but the developer was not able to sell the apartments.
The occupation was organised by members of the M-15 group which has spotted an opportunity in the country's estimated one million empty homes for the growing number of homeless.
M-15, also known as the Indignados (Indignant) protest movement born on May 15, 2011 when hundreds of thousands of people occupied main squares around the country to demand change.
The Indignados' public protests have largely died down, but M-15 activists have formed neighbourhood assemblies all over Spain that help in a variety of causes, including blocking court-ordered evictions of mortgage defaulters.
"I have always fought for people's right to a home, which I think is a fundamental right," said Antonio Buenavida, 57, an M-15 activist who helped set up the squat.
Once left over construction material was cleared from the corridors, the families moved in all together at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, and sat in the dark for three days, blinds drawn, worried they would be evicted.
When no one came, they opened the shutters and hung out sheets on their terraces with painted slogans such as "fair housing."
Andalucia is home to a quarter of Spain's 5.6 million unemployed. Known for olive groves, beaches and bull fighting, the region is also increasingly notorious for its poverty.
The families seem to have found some sympathy among the local population.
A spokeswoman for Seville city hall said the government would not evict unless the building's owner, Maexpa, lodged a complaint. Reuters was not able to reach Maexpa for a comment.
And the inhabitants say that the police have helped to protecting them from other would-be squatters.
Ibercaja, the savings bank that funded the development said it was also not planning to take any action.
"The building's ... owned by Maexpa. What they chose to do about the squatters is up to them," said a spokeswoman for Ibercaja, the savings bank that funded the development.
She said Maexpa had stopped paying its loan for the building project but that Ibercaja has not started legal proceedings.
Spanish banks have become one of the economy's main problems, saddled with an estimated 184 billion euros worth of repossessed property that they cannot sell and loans to developers.
The government announced its largest ever bank rescue on Friday for Bankia and economists say there is little hope of Spain emerging from recession until many banks have cleaned up their balance sheets so they can restart lending.
Given the grim scenario for the economy, M-15 is looking at ways to move other homeless people into thousands of other unoccupied housing units in Seville.
During a Thursday night meeting at the squat, a long list was drawn of other families keen to be included in the next occupation.
"These are wonderful people. It's beautiful that there's a little humanity in the world. I don't want riches. I'm a simple woman. I just want a little dignity," said Anika 35, who moved in to the apartment with her son and daughter, 18 and 6.
Like other Spaniards Anika is disgusted with the government for cutting education and health spending while spending tens of billions of euros to rescue banks saddled with bad debt from the real estate crash.
She lost her job last November, a full time position in the hotel industry which paid 600 euros a month, and since has only scraped some money to feed herself and her children through cleaning or posting flyers on cars.
Her rent, before she was thrown out, was 500 euros a month.
In more than 1.7 million homes in Spain every family member is out of work and courts evicted 100,000 mortgage defaulters in 2010, four times the number three years earlier.
"This place has given us hope. Neither my husband nor I will die in the street," said Ana Lopez, 77.
She lives in the pilot flat, set up to show prospective buyers, which now serves as a communal kitchen because it boasts the only stove and refrigerator in the block.
Lopez and her ailing 70-year-old husband claim just over a 1,000 euros a month in pensions, though with an increasingly reliant extended family, the aid is stretched thin.
"With that we take care of our two children, who have families of their own and three children between them. None are working and both families have also found flats here," she said.
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Anna Willard)
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