Should we say thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands? I must admit we were not sure how to start the report Evicted Rights: Right to Housing and Mortgage Evictions in Spain, published by Amnesty International – Spain on 23 June 2015 (see here in Spanish). According to judicial statistics, there have been nearly 600,000 foreclosure procedures since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008. Luckily, not all of them have ended up in an eviction, neither do all affect first homes. So, if not all, how many then? If we check the data from the National Statistics Institute and the Bank of Spain, we will get some information about the number of households and first homes that have gone through a mortgage foreclosure since 2012. Yet, not even then we’ll have the full picture. It may seem strange, but to this day there are not yet official statistics about the number of people who have lost their home because they couldn’t keep paying back their debt to the bank.
However, combining different sources, we can confidently say that since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people have been evicted or are at risk of being evicted due to over-indebtedness and high unemployment (around 23%). Figures are overwhelming, but not as much as the testimonies of Ainhoa, Maritza, Sara, Francisco and 41 more people who shared their stories with Amnesty International. They are human rights defenders; they claim their own rights, and the rights of their relatives, friends and colleagues, of all of us, really.
At this stage, the phenomenon of foreclosures and mortgage evictions are hardly unknown in Spain. Yet, the reader may legitimately wonder: There are mortgages and foreclosures in other countries too. What’s so different about Spain? Why is Amnesty International working on this now?
It is certainly true that there are mortgages and foreclosures beyond Spanish borders. However, the peculiarity of Spain is this: Foreclosures are nearly automatic. Once the bank submits its lawsuit, the outcome is pretty straightforward: Unless the household belongs to one of the legally and tightly defined “especially vulnerable groups”, the eviction is only a matter of time. Unlike other European countries, there is no administrative or judicial mechanism to oversee the negotiation between the bank and the affected household. In the words of one judge interviewed by Amnesty International, “for the law, they are not families, they are not people, they are merely an entry in the land registry”. Even more, up until 2013, people affected by mortgage foreclosures could not even argue in the trial that the bank had imposed the inclusion of unfair terms in the mortgage contract. And procedural law only changed when the European Court of Justice told Spain off for it.
Ok, but mortgages have been part of private law for centuries. What have the romans ever done for us?, asked Monty Python. Well, among other things, they gave us contract law, including mortgages.
That said, an important point must be made: There was no international human rights law in Cicero’s time.
For centuries, torture, the death penalty and press censorship were allowed. But one day, we stood up and proclaimed human rights in law. Since then, what up to that point had been deemed “normal” became a “human rights violation”.
Just like freedom of expression, the right to life and the protection of physical integrity, housing is a human right recognized in a number of international treaties. So far, 164 countries from all over the world have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Spain is one of them.
International human rights law requires governments to adopt measures to achieve progressively the full satisfaction of the right to housing. In particular, regarding mortgage evictions, judges must be allowed to examine the proportionality of the eviction on a case-by-case basis. Supervisory mechanisms must be put in place to oversee the negotiation between the bank and the affected person to make sure that evictions really are the last resort. And the government must assess the human rights impact of its public policy, ensuring transparency and access to information. Evictions of first homes must be halted while these measures are not fully implemented.
As said, Spain has ratified a number of international human rights treaties that recognise the right to housing. Spain and its public authorities must meet their own promises. The romans did many things, but it is time to put human rights above Roman Law.
Koldo Casla is the author of the report Evicted Rights: Right to Housing and Mortgage Evictions in Spain