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“Okupas”: Squatters in Catalunya

Squatters definition: “Squatting is the action of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building, usually residential, that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have lawful permission to use. Squatting occurs worldwide and tends to occur when people who are poor and homeless find empty buildings or land to occupy for housing.”

Okupas Movement

The above is a definition of squatting and it has a long history, all over the world. Since the mid-1980s in Spain it has become organised in the form of a social movement known as “Okupas” (from ocupación) and this movement is particularly strong in Catalunya, and especially Barcelona.

Those involved in the Okupas movement are typically young (in their 20s or 30s) and very principled and anti-establishment. They are anti-capitalist and rail against the fact that many working people have to spend such a huge portion of their wages on maintaining a roof over their heads. They also oppose the banks and their mortgage conditions that allow them to repossess a dwelling if the inhabitants should fall on hard times and end up behind in their payments, leaving them without their home, in debt, and with a poor credit rating. Not all are so principled though!

There are other squatters not part of any movement as such, but who ended up occupying vacant homes due to economic necessity during times of economic crisis, or those whose property was lost to the bank, as described above, but who refused to leave, thus effectively becoming squatters in their own homes.

And then there are the con-artist types of squatters who take over empty buildings, not because of their principles or because of economic desperation, but rather as a form of blackmail. They occupy a property and then refuse to leave until the owners pay them to do so. They exploit the fact that under Spanish law it is very difficult, slow and expensive for the owner to have them removed and so they often end up just paying the okupas as it is just quicker and easier – although not at all recommended.

Not all bad?

During the height of the 2008-2012 economic recession, a time when unemployment – and especially youth unemployment – was extremely high, around 350,000 Spanish homes were repossessed by banks. Unsurprisingly, “okupación” increased in the worst affected areas, but maybe a little more surprising was that a lot of the already resident population in those areas supported the squatters, or at least didn’t oppose them. In many cases they were seen as benefiting neighbourhoods with too many abandoned buildings that were becoming run down and derelict, attracting drugs and crime. In these instances where the okupas established “communities” they were largely welcomed by the existing population and were often assisted by lawyers who shared their principles and ideology. Some branches of the Okupas movement even have their own “manual”, outlining which types of buildings are okay to squat, how to go about occupying such a building, and even rules of behaviour to follow so as not to impact negatively on existing residents. It’s actually quite interesting and worth at least a browse.

Needless to say, this is not the case with the more criminal types of squatters who add nothing to their neighbourhood and often engage in some very anti-social behaviour indeed.

Why should I care?

Unless your neighbouring building is occupied by some of the aforementioned anti-social behaving squatters, you probably shouldn’t need to care – unless, of course, you yourself own a property that is unoccupied for long periods of time. For the most part, okupas tend to stick to cities and larger towns – Barcelona has the second rate of squatting in Europe after Amsterdam – but any vacant property anywhere could potentially be “okupied”. If, for example, your house is a holiday home or second residence it is unlikely to be targeted by the “good” okupas as they will try to ascertain that a building is not at all in use and not belonging to a private individual before they break in. They prefer properties repossessed by the bank or belonging to real estate companies as they feel that morally they are not stealing from anyone. Not all squatters are such moral people though!

What happens if my property is okupied?

The first thing that happens when squatters choose a property to occupy is, they’ll break in, keep a low profile for 24 hours and change the locks. They will then register themselves in the property (empadronarse) in the local town hall, as this gives them more rights down the line, if and when there are attempts to evict them. Under Spanish law, as it stands, once the building is occupied the legal owner loses material possession of it. Should the owner try to force his/her way in, they can be prosecuted for illegal trespassing, even though the property remains legally in their name and they are still liable for utility bills and any mortgage repayments.

What can I do, legally?

Taking criminal proceedings against the squatters would seem like the obvious course of action, but this only works if the property was being lived in and if they used violence to gain entry – something “professional” squatters will never do. It is also the slowest and most expensive option for the owner as it can drag on for years.

More common is civil legal action as it normally tends to be somewhat faster, but its main disadvantage is that once the process begins, the squatters cannot be removed from the occupied building until this is so ruled by a judge, and that doesn’t happen overnight either!

Those are the legal options open to the property owner. There are other less legal courses of action that are sometimes taken, but these come with their own risks and are generally not advisable in most cases.

Less legal options!

One of the first thoughts that may cross the mind of an owner whose building has been squatted is to hire a few “heavies” and forcibly remove the okupas from the premises. This will almost certainly work out cheaper and quicker than either of the legal options above, but it could also land you in jail! From the law’s point of view, you can be prosecuted for breaking into the property, even if it belongs to you, and if there is any violence used that will only exacerbate the situation. Even if you aren’t locked up, you could well end up with a criminal record.

Another option could be to try and negotiate with the squatters, but this too has its problems. If the squatters are the principled type, they are not really in it for the money and probably won’t be interested in negotiating. If they are the criminal type, they are definitely in it for the money and will certainly take your bribe, but that’s no guarantee they won’t return again, especially now that they know you are willing to pay them to leave.

Squat the squatters

Reoccupying the building on the face of it would seem like the way to go. This effectively means that you would “okupy” your own building in the same way the squatters did. For this to happen though the squatters will have to be out and the building left completely empty, a mistake professional okupas are highly unlikely to make. If you do get lucky and they leave your place empty, you can then “break in” and squat your own property by entering and changing the locks. If you succeed in doing so and the squatters try to force their way back in, you can call the police as they will now be illegally trying to break in. You will be protected by the same law that protected them initially, plus the building actually legally belongs to you. As mentioned above though, this is unlikely to happen as the squatters will almost certainly leave someone inside the property at all times. It is important to note that this option is not possible if you have already taken legal proceedings as you must await the decision of the judge in this case, otherwise you will be the one prosecuted for breaking an entry. It’s also not advisable if the squatters have been in the property for some time as they will by now be registered as dwelling there, and this opens up other legal complications.

Best advice?

All things considered, the best advice, if you should discover that your property has been occupied, is to seek legal advice before rushing into any hasty action you may end up regretting. Depending on the circumstances of the “okupation”, some courses of action may be more appropriate than others. You certainly don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the law yourself.

If you have any concerns about your house being squatted, feel free to callCarlos for advice. As mentioned previously, squatting is more of an urban issue and is less common in places like the Costa Brava, but it has been known to happen. If you are absent from your home here for long periods of time, it might be worth having someone you trust keep an eye on the place for you, just to be on the safe side.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that monitoring your property while you are away is one of the many property management services that callCarlos offers.

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