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No place like home

Police remove the door and push refrigerator as they break into Maria Isabel Rodriguez Romero's apartment to evict her and her family in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Rodriguez Romero, 45 years old, has 6 family members, all unemployed including a 8 year-old daughter, and her mother with a bipolar syndrome. They live together in an apartment of the State City Hall Housing Company (EMVS) for 24 years and they have paid a debt of 1200 euros but EMVS informed them they have to move out. EMVS, a state company with an aim to give housing solutions for people in need, sold 1.860 state apartments to private investors in 2013. The eviction was executed despite of the resistance of dozens of Victims' Mortgage Platform (PAH) activists.

Police push past a makeshift refrigerator barricade as they break into Maria Isabel Rodriguez Romero’s apartment to evict her and her family, September 2013

The debt trap

“In Spain if somebody doesn’t pay their mortgage, the bank can not only have them evicted, but can also hold them to the outstanding debt, including interest and penalty charges. This really hit home after the housing bubble burst. If you default on a house you bought for €200,000 that the bank now deems to be worth €100,000, you are left with no home and a €100,000 debt that’s rising every month. Mortgage defaulters cannot file for bankruptcy, so there’s a whole generation who will never escape from debt. Unemployment is making it hard for others to pay the rent, while social housing is being sold to private developers as the government cuts back. It is the perfect storm.

I’ve been to dozens of evictions and I remember every single one. It is the police that carry out the evictions, on the orders of the courts, who have been petitioned by the banks. The police can be fairly heavy handed. Many officers told me they don’t want to evict people, but if they don’t follow orders then they’ll lose their jobs and maybe their own homes too.

 

The more I photographed evictions, the more familiar faces I would see. The person I’d photographed being evicted one week would be trying to help another family from being forced out the following week. It seemed that at every eviction the police came to somebody was there to try and block the way – sometimes a handful of people, sometimes hundreds.”

“It is not just the banks that have been insisting on the evictions – money lenders also have the right to repossess a house. In this shot, riot police are grabbing the face of an activist who was trying to stop an eviction in February 2015. The apartment belonged to Umberto Jimenez, a 46-year-old security guard who lost his job. He borrowed €4,000 from a money lender, but six months later interest had pushed this to €32,000 and the lender demanded the courts seize his house. There was a battle, many activists were hurt and Jimenez and his son were evicted.

There are many anti-eviction movements, but the pioneer was Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca [PAH – Mortgage Victims’ Platform]. Ada Colau was one of its founders. She was on the front line to stop evictions, she occupied a bank to demand that it negotiate with people who were unable to pay their mortgage and she called a member of the Spanish Banking Association a ‘criminal’ during a parliamentary hearing. PAH offer legal support, with dozens of lawyers volunteering to work for free. They negotiate with money lenders, they have support groups – anything to make a difference.”

“This photo [above] from February 2015 shows the risks activists have taken. I had already seen the Meliton family resist eviction four times. On this day I was there before the police arrived and witnessed the eviction: nobody could stop it. Seeing their two-year-old daughter, Diana Sofia, sitting outside with all their furniture was heartbreaking – the family had nowhere to go. One of the activists decided to break back in to the house and move the family back in. For me this shot encapsulates what is at stake, what it means for a family to have a place to live and what lengths people will go to to help. Every day I saw people risking their freedom to help a family keep their dignity.”

Carmen Martinez Ayuso, 85-years old, cries during her eviction in Madrid, Spain, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. Carmen Martinez Ayuso lost her foreclosed apartment to a moneylender after she could not afford to pay her debt and the high interest rates due to her financial situation after his son lost his job. Martinez Ayuso got evicted in spite of housing right activists clash with the dozens of riot police and at least one protestor was arrested. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Carmen’s story 

“This is the picture that changed everything. It is the most famous photograph I have ever taken. It was November 2014 and I photographed the eviction of Carmen Martínez Ayuso, an 85-year-old woman who had lived in the same apartment in Vallecas, a working-class neighbourhood of southern Madrid, for 50 years. She was clearly devastated at having to leave. My photograph went viral online and the next day it was on the front page of newspapers across Spain. It was a very iconic picture. It certainly got a lot of attention and I think helped raise awareness of the eviction issue. People started to see the reality of the situation and got very angry. La Liga football club Rayo Vallecano ended up buying a place for Carmen: all the players and the coach donated money and the fans contributed too. Unfortunately there are a lot of families who go through Carmen’s situation and not many of their stories get the same attention or a happy ending. The fact that a football club helped Carmen was very symbolic and sent a message, but it’s important to remember the anonymous people who put their body and soul on the line to help other families every day.”

Life after eviction

“This is the Rodriguez Romero family after they were evicted by police. They had attempted to barricade their door with a fridge, but the police pushed through. Their apartment was centered around a courtyard so they moved there – they had nowhere else to go so they created a house outside their home. Everything they owned was out in the open. They stayed there for weeks. This shot was taken early one morning. You can see the grandfather trying to get his granddaughter to go back to sleep – he had no roof over his head, but was still protecting his family as best he could. Before the eviction, he and six members of his family had lived in the apartment for 24 years. His debt amounted to €1,200 (£926). Eventually the PAH arranged somewhere for them to stay and they now live a long way from Madrid, away from their friends.”

The battle of Ofelia Neito 

“Some of the evictions I witnessed had nothing to do with debt. This is Luisa Gracia Gonzalez, who was at the centre of one of the most lengthy and tense eviction battles I witnessed. This picture was taken in August 2013 and she is crying with relief after being told that her family’s eviction and the demolition of her house on Ofelia Nieto street had been postponed after a three-week standoff. Gracia Gonzalez has never missed a mortgage payment, but the authorities say her house was illegally built, as it is six metres over its official boundary. She says the government of Madrid wants to destroy her house so they can build a luxury complex and that it offered her half of what the house is worth.”

 

“The standoff at Gracia Gonzalez’s house was one of the most important battles I witnessed. A forced  expropriation order is valid for 21 days so for 21 days people – including me – camped on Ofelia Nieto. They were sleeping in the doorway of her house and on her roof. News spread and every day new waves of activists and riot police came to the scene. There were helicopters and armoured vehicles everywhere. It was intense, but the activists would not be moved. Eventually the police decided it wasn’t safe to proceed and the eviction was again called off. It was a big victory for the activists, but 18 months later we were back again…”

“After the reprieve in 2013, a new expropriation order was issued in February 2015. When news reached the activists they rushed to Ofelia Nieto. I was with them, and there were some pretty ugly scenes. This time the police entered the house, removing the door with a bulldozer. Activists climbed on the demolition vehicles or tried to block the route. It was very violent and many people got arrested. The home was destroyed that day. A year later and nothing has been built in its place.”

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