Cataluña: PAH-occupied flat block is a foot in the door

For the last five months, sixteen families – from a broad range of backgrounds and nationalities, almost all victims of bank foreclosures – have been living together in an abandoned, brand new flat block in a ghostly quiet suburb of the Catalan town of Salt in Spain.

Organised in the PAH (Plataforma por los Afectados por la Hipoteca –the Victims of Mortgages Coalition), the occupiers of Bloc Salt have held out since 23rd March against repeated attempts by the authorities to cut their water supply and intimidate them into leaving, and instead are concentrating on developing their own community, with a living space that suits their needs and desires, as well as preparing for the court-ordered eviction, mooted for 16th October.

“Even if they offered us alternative accommodation by ourselves, I wouldn’t take it,” Doris – a determinedly optimistic middle-aged woman of Chilean origin – told us when I visited one baking hot Monday evening. “We’re happier here. We’re a community.”

“ So, what do you want then?” I ask.

“El alquiler social [a deal where foreclosed residents can continue to rent from the same bank, normally in the ‘foreclosed’ property – CdB],” Doris replies. “But, here!”

Doris showed us round the building: floor upon floor of shining new flats, never before occupied, a product of the cynical housing boom. The fittings are all new, chrome kitchen tops, floor-to-ceiling windows, for aspirational types who think success, and so on. The building was owned by Banco Marenostrum, then Banco Sabadell, before finally being bought out by SAREB, a majority state-owned entity which absorbs depreciating properties from failing Spanish banks, with the eventual aim of selling them (in some far-flung future when anyone wants Spanish property).

Each family – and everyone living there is a part of family (“we had some young squatters at first, but we kicked them out,” Doris tells me) – has one flat in the block, and there’s also one unit on the first floor that had been turned into a communal area. The occupiers are clearly houseproud, and it is as homely and welcoming as it is clean and immaculate.

As we wander around, a group of African children return from school, their mother in a veil, and an Arabic conversation echoes down the stairway.

“We’ve learnt so much from living together,” Doris continues. “We’ve learnt each other languages, we’ve held food nights and we’ve shared so many experiences. We were all full of questions about each other’s cultures.”

It quickly became apparent to me that the occupied Bloc Salt was becoming far more than the last stand of desperate, homeless squatters. The more time they spend together, Doris tells us, the more aspects of their lives change.

“It started off with us just needing somewhere to live, but now we’re taking control of what we eat, what we do in our free time, how we relate to each other. Let me show you la terraza.”

We stand on one of the flat balconies, overlooking an abandoned wasteland next door which the occupiers have turned into a vegetable patch. The sun’s slow descent through the sky only seems to bring the heat closer, towards eye level. Inside the fenced off area around the building itself, chickens strut between children’s slides and toys.

What about the kids?

“They’re happier now!” Doris asserts. “They don’t want to leave. They know what’s happening – because kids are more perceptive and more intelligent than what many people think , more than many adults, in fact. We listen to what they say. They play together outside in big groups. No more TV or computer games for them, not for any of us!”

“I don’t watch TV anymore,” a fellow occupier adds. “People come up to and say, ‘I saw you on TV last night at the PAH demonstration!’ I say, ‘oh really?’ I don’t have time to watch my own interviews!”

On our way back in, we cut through an unoccupied flat. I ask why it’s empty and Doris points out the damp and mould seeping down the walls.

“These are supposed to be modern, luxury units but it’s been poorly done. We’ve had to repair so much. If it hadn’t been for us moving in, who knows how this place would be? We’ve maintained it. Fortunately, we’ve always got people around willing to help with DIY and stuff like that. We even have some local lads who come down and fix our cars in exchange for whatever we have. Lucky that, because when it rains, the car park in the basement floods. It’s not even these flats are going back on the market,” Doris continues, shaking her head. “The bank has no intention of selling them.”

I wasn’t sure the flats would even be legally inhabitable.

However, despite that, the ominous spectre of a violent eviction hangs over them, and they know they need the support of PAH groups across Cataluña – if not Spain – to stand down the bailiffs and police in October. Doris remains confident though, since the occupiers have stopped the authorities before.

“We stopped them shutting down our water supply,” she tells us, as we move back downstairs. “The Mayor and the water company kept turning it off the water [even though it was on the same circuit as a nearby fire hydrant and the nearby hospital – CdB]. We would reactivate it, and then they’d switch it off again a few days later, only for us to turn it back on – it was like a game of tennis. One morning, a neighbour called at 4am to tell us that workmen had arrived. By the time we got downstairs, they’d cemented over the keyhole in the door leading downstairs to the water pipes. It was still wet though, so we managed to remove it with water and our hands. As we were doing that, the police arrived and positioned themselves around the door, so a number of us sat down on the water manhole cover and refused to move. The police called the water company to send someone to solder over the manhole, but we stayed there. After a while, when the police saw that they could do nothing and that we wouldn’t move, they gave up, and when they’d left, we ourselves secured the keyhole with cement, pebbles, and bits of iron – with the water turned on, of course. Look, here’s the article!”

Doris points to a newspaper cutting, one of hundreds covering the walls of the block’s front entrance in scrapbook collage style. On the reception table an immaculately painted banner reads “STOP DESNONAMENTS” (“stop evictions” in Catalan), which Doris poses with for a photograph. As we say our goodbyes, two more Latin men show up to visit some family friends living inside.

As we walk back to the car, I look around the neighbourhood. To the left and right, I see brand new, shiny flat blocks, some incomplete, all totally empty, abandoned. One of the four blocks I can see has a PER LLOGAR (“to rent”) advertisement billowing from a third floor flat that lacks an outer wall. The only people I can see are two American-style baristas sheltering in the doorway of a monochrome, plate glass cafe that’s been carved, petroglyph-like, out of a deserted flat block further up the street. They have no customers, no work to do. Fenced off, feral terrenos baldíos (wastelands) lie in between the dead towers, which themselves almost seem to sheepishly slant downwards like a moribund, wearied plant, starved of the water of life, buckling under the Catalan sun. It occurs to me that in this neighbourhood – stripped of humanity, as it is, rather like a faux-deluxe post-apocalyptic disaster flick – the PAH’s huge banners , which swing from their balconies calling for popular struggle for housing for all, must capture the attention of very few people.

Yet, this isolation must also have its benefits. Bloc Salt – an oasis of lived experience in the desert of the desolate – has gone well beyond its original prerogative of housing the homeless, instead taking on its own forms, and its own values. Thrown together by serendipity, by an arbitrarily prohibitive value slapped on the back of their ability to live, love and shelter, the PAH occupiers have undergone the catharsis of designing their social terrain from nothing, and they are now crafting it to fit their uses, their wellbeing. In the process, they have found themselves moving away from the humdrum rigours of single unit, boxed, atomised, contemporary leisure time.

To me, the Bloc Salt more resembled a large family – a family of families – slowly and cautiously sketching their own visions of happiness within the cracks of the decaying walls of the ever more redundant imperatives of capital. It is a project that it is still very much in its very early days, but the experiences of the PAH occupiers show that the most unpleasant and insecure circumstances can bring together the most unlikely allies in a most measured and organised experiment. One day, perhaps, compañeros and compañeras, we shall talk of a commune emerging from this economic rubble…