Faced with soaring rents, Barcelona tenants unite to create a “union”

Sindicato de Inquilinos is not ruling out city-wide rental strike mirroring dramatic events of 1931

Clara Blanchar

“We said enough is enough. Homeowners have always been organized, and it is high time that tenants did the same,” says Jaime Palomera, a spokesman for a Barcelona-based initiative called Sindicato de Inquilinos, or Tenants’ Union. “There are 200,000 [renting] families in Barcelona, and if we get organized we can achieve a historic change,” adds Palomera, noting that the Catalan capital is experiencing a rental housing price bubble that is pushing tenants out of their homes.

A For Rent sign in Barcelona.
A For Rent sign in Barcelona.Albert Garcia

The initiative draws from the tenant unions already in existence in other European countries. In Barcelona, the initative is backed by the Federation of Neighborhood Associations (FAVB) and by affordable housing advocacy groups. In Sweden, for instance, the 580,000-member tenants’ union negotiates rental prices with private landlords and with government agencies in the case of public housing.

Barcelona – which is run by the leftist mayor Ada Colau, herself a former housing activist – has applauded the initiative, describing it as “in sync” with her own policies.

This is more necessary than ever

Barcelona Housing Commissioner Josep Maria Montaner

“This is a very good piece of news that will serve to reinforce the role of renting in Barcelona,” says Josep Maria Montaner, the city’s housing commissioner. “This is more necessary than ever.”

Montaner confirms that the city council shares the group’s demands: a reference price index, longer leases and policies to encourage public housing rentals.

The Sindicato de Inquilinos was launched on Tuesday and its first public event is scheduled for Friday. Its stated goal is: “to be a voice to defend housing as a right in the face of those who consider it merchandise.”

The group says it will defend rent control and longer leases, which are currently up to three years long. The union will report situations that violate the right to housing and offer its members technical and legal advice. Membership fees are €30, and a crowdfunding effort will attempt to raise €20,000 to pay legal fees.

Home evictions became the focus of media attention in Spain throughout the crisis.
Home evictions became the focus of media attention in Spain throughout the crisis.Alvaro García

The founders of this new support group note that in 1931, tens of thousands of cash-strapped Barcelona families went on a “rent strike,” refusing to pay their rent unless landlords lowered them. The authorities reacted with hundreds of arrests, while the police tossed furniture out apartment windows to make sure that tenants in default could not move back in.

Palomeras does not rule out a strike. “We will employ all means at our disposal to pressure government agencies and private [landowners] who are making a profit.”

All areas affected

Irene Sabater and Lourdes García, also with the Sindicato, said that the current rental bubble is affecting all areas of Barcelona, where it is now impossible to find an apartment for under €800 a month, even though a third of the population earns less than that amount. The growing popularity of short-term tourist apartments has also been blamed for the rising rents in the city center.

Sabater said that three injustices are being committed: “prices, with growing pressure that pushes local residents out; legislation, which favors short-term leases; and huge rent hikes when contracts end or when entire buildings are sold to investors who kick out residents."

English version by Susana Urra.

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