Barcelona City Hall takes over more empty apartments from the banks

Mayor cuts deal with Spain’s “bad bank” to hand over 200 properties to at-risk tenants

Clara Blanchar
A Sareb-owned apartment that was occupied by the PAH last year.
A Sareb-owned apartment that was occupied by the PAH last year.Albert Garcia

After a months-long battle, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau has reached a deal with Sareb, the “bad bank” set up by the government to absorb the real estate accumulated by Spain’s struggling lenders.

Under the terms of the agreement, Sareb will hand over 200 of the 562 properties it owns in the Catalan capital.

“We’re very happy,” said Colau on Wednesday when the deal was announced. “We came into office to do things like this.”

Six weeks ago, Colau threatened Sareb with court action if it did not begin turning over properties

The former social activist said that Barcelona City Hall intends to request a further 1,400 properties held by banks.

Since 2013, Sareb has signed over around 1,500 properties to regional governments around the country, 900 of them with Catalan authorities. But this is the first time that the bank has partnered with a local authority on this issue.

Half of the apartments are already occupied. Some occupants are families who had their homes repossessed after being unable to meet their mortgage payments. Others have been taken over by squatters, and yet other tenants are paying rent to criminals who conned them into signing illegal leases.

Shameless “electioneering”


Ciudadanos, the upstart party that has emerged as a major political force over the last year and a half, has accused Colau of making political capital out of the housing issue.

Carina Mejía, who heads Ciudadanos’ Barcelona branch, says the party will be monitoring the management of the apartments “so that all vulnerable families have the same opportunities.”

At Sunday's general election, the most-voted force in Catalonia was the Podemos brand, En Comú Podem, which attracted enough votes to send 12 deputies to the Spanish Congress. This group is supported by Ada Colau.

Colau says she will look at each case individually to establish who gets to stay and who must instead join the waiting list for public housing.

Sareb and Colau are old acquaintances. Colau, who was elected mayor in May with a leftist-green coalition called Barcelona en Comú, was previously the spokeswoman for PAH, a support association for mortgage borrowers in distress. As such, she negotiated with banks to allow struggling homeowners to remain in their properties and pay rent instead.

When she became mayor, the first thing Colau did was to begin further talks with the banks to get them to hand over some of the homes on their vast portfolios.

Six weeks ago, Colau threatened Sareb with court action if it did not begin turning over properties. “We’ve been negotiating for four months and we’re in a hurry,” she said in late October.

Sareb initially agreed, but on condition that Barcelona City Hall would pay for any necessary reform work to the properties. Since then, it has agreed to share the costs. City authorities will pay Sareb a rent of between €75 and €125, and will keep the properties for eight years.

Earlier this year, the Catalan regional parliament passed a law requiring banks with large property portfolios to cede properties that have been empty for more than two years, to be used by homeless families. Sareb and other banks have 2,591 empty homes on their books in Barcelona alone.

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