"You should refund this overpayment of $105,240.00 within 30 days."
Spain's general strike on Wednesday November 14th had many demands: an end to austerity measures, particularly cuts to education and health; a repeal of the recent labor laws that make it much cheaper to fire and lay people off, and the introduction of economic stimulus measures to create employment in a country where one out of every four people of working age is unemployed. But one name was mentioned over and over again among protesters, and the strike was in part dedicated to her: Amaia Egaña, the latest victim of the housing crisis and of greedy bank practices.
On November 9th, 53 year-old Egaña climbed on a chair and jumped from the window of her fourth-floor apartment in Barakaldo (Spanish Basque Country) as court officials approached her home with an eviction order. Egaña, a former city council member for the Socialist Party, died instantly. Her inconsolable brother in-law told the media that Egaña's husband knew nothing of the foreclosure of their home, nor of the impending eviction order. A member of a local platform against evictions said that the night before he took a desperate call from a woman he thinks was Egaña. "I tried to explain that life does not necessarily have to end; now I feel guilty because perhaps I could have done more," he said. Housing activists say that shame and guilt prevent many people facing foreclosure and eviction from communicating their situation to friends and family members.
Egaña was the second person to commit suicide in the past two weeks as court employees tried to evict them from their repossessed homes. A third person jumped from his balcony on October 25 in Valencia but was not killed.
The tragedy seems to have finally jolted the Spanish government and the Socialist opposition into action, after having ignored for years a growing crisis that has left tens of thousands of people homeless or on the verge of homelessness and saddled with enormous debts. Spain's main police union has said it will support members refusing to participate in evictions, while judicial organizations have called for changes in the process. "We are not loan sharks, we must humanize these procedures" said Bilbao's chief judge Alfonso González Guija days after Egaña committed suicide.
Some banks are even starting to run from the practice they wholeheartedly embraced just weeks ago: several have announced that they will review every eviction order underway before deciding to move on them. And the mayors of several cities have announced that their local police will not participate in evictions; the mayor of a small town in the Canary Islands was able to stop an eviction after threatening the bank with closing all city accounts.
The governing PP and the Socialists are negotiating a two-year moratorium on evictions, but they disagree on whom the measure should be applied to. Socialists want a blanket moratorium for most homeowners facing foreclosure and eviction, while the PP prefers to focus on "the most vulnerable" without specifying who fits into that category. The Socialists also want to change existing mortgage laws, which do not afford homeowners due process in their fight to keep their properties and allow banks to collect every cent of the debt -- including late fees and the difference in property values -- even after repossession.
The negotiations also include a long-standing demand by housing activists that banks allow former homeowners to remain in their homes paying a low rental fee.
Meanwhile, about a dozen people facing eviction have camped out for several weeks in central Madrid in front of the main offices of Bankia, the bailed out banking giant responsible for 80 percent of foreclosures in the region. Several of them are on hunger strike, as they collect signatures of support.
María Carrión is an independent freelance journalist and scriptwriter living in Madrid. She is a former senior producer of Democracy Now!
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