When Esther Sanz found out that she was about to be evicted from her apartment she approached the social organization Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH). She also went to see her parish priest in the San Cristóbal neighborhhod of Villaverde, a district in Madrid. That was when two people came up to Sanz and offered her an alternative: “Give us 600 euros and we’ll open an apartment for you today.” It wasn’t the first time the offer had been made. In Villaverde, empty properties don’t last a day.
The wave of evictions sweeping across the capital in the past few years has hit San Cristóbal particularly hard. In this working class neighborhood an underground real estate agency is flourishing. Among 6,000 properties in one area, residents say about 500 are what has become known as pisos patada — literally, flats with the doors kicked in. Their owners, the banks, do nothing with them after an eviction and in many cases don’t even pay community fees. The number of people waiting to take advantage of this is growing.
Esther Sanz complains bitterly about “organized mafias that know in advance when people are going to be evicted and try to grab families that are already sunk in misery.” She says that these organizations also keep an eye out for flats that are empty seasonally. This is the case of Juan, a Dominican who went to Almería for a few months and returned to find his locks had been changed. There was a family living in his flat. He made a police complaint two years ago and recovered his property just last month. “This is the problem,” says María del Prado, president of the San Cristóbal residents association since 1991. “They are quick to get rid of people who can’t meet their mortgage payments but then the process to remove squatters takes two years or more. And the social conflict remains in the neighborhood.”
A Dominican told me he owned the apartment and asked me for 2,000 euros”
There are other horror stories. María Serna, a 51-year-old Colombian, was evicted on July 11. She bought her apartment for 135,000 euros in 2008. Twenty days after signing the contract her husband lost his job. When she was evicted she owed Bankia 22,000 euros, which rose to 60,000 with interest and fees for building reforms. She also says her eviction was “violent” because of the excessive police presence. The same day of her eviction another apartment in the block became empty; the Moroccan family living in it fled when they saw so many police in the building. Now María lives in this apartment with her husband, two daughters and a niece. Her apartment on the fourth floor is also now a piso patada. She doesn’t know who’s in there. “We’re thinking of going back to Colombia,” she says. “But with the kids in school we don’t know what to do. Every time the doorbell rings my heart stops.”
María was evicted from the fourth floor of her block; she now squats on the first
San Cristóbal has the highest unemployment rate in Madrid, almost 30 percent. Of its 18,000 residents 37 percent are non-Spanish. Most of the inhabitants of pisos patada are of Gypsy origin, relocated to the area when the shanties on the periphery of the capital were razed in the 1980s. But there are also instances where people are tricked into occupying a piso patada. “A Dominican told me he owned the apartment and asked me for 2,000 euros in exchange for the keys,” says Abrahim, a 40-year-old Moroccan. “I never saw him again.”
In 1999 San Cristóbal was designated a Special Rehabilitation Area. More than a thousand properties were marked for demolition to be replaced by new homes. Instead, many were sold at astronomical prices of close to 200,000 euros. “Families linked to construction bought them, many of them immigrants,” says Del Prado. “Four years ago there were 68 apartments occupied in this way. Now there are 500. There are six evictions a week. What kind of Madrid is this?”
Esther Sanz avoided eviction in the end; she reached an agreement to pay a social rent of 350 euros a month. Cases like hers are rare in San Cristóbal. Because of her links with the PAH, people like Cymien Valero ask for her advice. This Cameroonian is due to be evicted on December 4. With a three-month-old daughter and nowhere to go he is clear he will have to find a place. At any price.