When your new neighbours move in with a crowbar – Squatters in Spain

We came to our small town in rural Andalucía to escape the rat race, consciously abandoning North American city life in favour of Spanish village living. We were used to sirens 24/7, rush-hour traffic and panic buttons on alarm fobs and were looking for a slower and more forgiving pace. We found a perfect little casita on a narrow dead-end street in a charming barrio where everybody knew each other. We could leave doors and windows open and had a friendly repartee with all the neighbours. Then one night everything changed…

We were woken by unfamiliar noises – the familiar ones being barking dogs, braying sheep and donkeys and distant flamenco parties. Two police cars were parked right in front of our house. The vehicles remained there for a couple of hours, while uniformed men moved about with flashlights. The next morning we discovered the reason for the disturbance. Someone had tried to force apart the window bars on the house opposite ours without total success, and proceeded to rip open the front door, or Breaking and Entering – usually a punishable offence. Word on the street travelled quickly, confirming that there were at least two squatters inside. So, what had the police done with the unlawful intruders we asked our better-informed neighbours? “Nada..” (nothing) was the answer. And what could the law do according to the same information source? “Nada…”

Squatting refers to unlawful occupancy of uninhabited buildings or unused land – an increasingly common problem here in Spain. Whenever we speak to locals about squatters everybody has a horror story to tell, often involving their families. A friend had squatters move into her flat. As the invaders had barricaded themselves inside she couldn’t evict them, even if it was legally her home, for which she had always paid her taxes and bills. In the end, after having to sponsor the intruders’ steep electricity bill and a 700-euro water bill, she became furious (and one should never make an andalusa angry). Though barely 4 feet tall, this brave little lady went to her home and told the squatters that she would personally throw them off the balcony if they didn’t leave immediately. Somehow they moved on.

People in Spain have been known to go on holiday and return to find somebody else living in their home. The owners then have to find another place to live, paying double expenses, while proceeding with legal action against the unlawful occupiers. In a famous media story, a woman whose home was occupied heard that the squatters had the audacity to sublet her rooms. She rented one of these, moved in and waited until a day when both squatters were out. Then she hurriedly changed the locks and was thereby finally able to reoccupy her own home.

Are you shaking your head yet?

Spain has literally millions of empty properties all over the country. Most are for sale, many are used as secondary holiday homes, while others are repossessed by the bank because the owners have failed to pay their mortgage. The latter was unfortunately the case with the house opposite ours. Bank-owned buildings are perfect for what one can describe as organized squatters, because the laws are more lenient to the felons when no individual suffers personal loss or depreciation of property value. Spanish banks possess thousands of buildings and are known not to care, so removing squatters from a bank-owned property take considerably longer than evictions from privately owned homes.

Organized squatters usually work in teams, identifying empty properties, assessing security measures and weaknesses, verifying if water and power are connected and moving in quickly under the disguise of darkness. These types of professional home invaders do not represent the poor, desperate homeless or bankrupt families in dire need of a roof over their heads. The pros make it their business to invade homes. Like our new ‘neighbours’, they own vehicles, wear new clothes, and have cell phones of the latest make and model. They tend to be repeat offenders with previous charges against them for former unlawful entries. Pro squatters are the hardest to get rid of, as they know every loophole in the Spanish legal system. They will always leave one person back at base so re-occupation cannot take place. The others may be seen skulking about the neighbourhood, their eyes always scanning around 360-degrees, as if they are expecting to be attacked from behind.

While two individuals broke in initially on our street, other family members usually follow. The squatters were overheard to have said that they would leave the premises if the police paid their rent elsewhere. In broad daylight the next day the intruders changed the locks. After two more nights of police visits, the cops packed up their non-threatening flashlights and drove away, leaving the intruders to take up residence for an undetermined length of time. The squatters are currently launching about and airing out ‘their’ new home, while the remaining neighbours keep kids inside, and windows and doors secured out of fear of the intruders’ next move. Every night, the squatters seem to bring in more furniture. And though the house has neither water nor electricity, it can easily be ‘borrowed’ from adjoining buildings. After all, they are pros.

 

The Spanish law on squatting has changed in the past few years, allegedly making it easier for owners to get rid of unlawful occupants. Yet, this law only refers to privately owned properties, not those owned by banks or real estate companies. There is no great legal deterrent for squatters, as home invasion of uninhabited properties usually only entails a fine and a slap on the hand. Whether one denounces the culprit/s or not, the average time to fully evict unlawful occupants is more than a year. There are still too many legal loopholes. Squatters can in principle be removed within 48 hours, unless they change the locks, which is the first thing the pros will do. If they additionally register themselves as residents of the specific address with the Town Hall, it is even harder to get them out. And if they bring children under ten years of age into the premises, don’t even start…

So, what can be done if ones’ home has been invaded? From what I have read on the subject, it is vital to act swiftly. Report it and seek immediate legal advice to get the squatters out as soon as possible. There are private now companies who promise to remove unwanted intruders within a couple of days, but I cannot say how reputable or efficient these are. Neighbours can also present civil action against the squatters, or report them to the police when they engage in what one deems to be illegal, dangerous or harmful activities. Official complaints and requests for action can be made to whoever owns the property, or their security company. Joining neighbourhood associations and creating formal or informal Neighbourhood Watch groups can be helpful, and may give the affected residents a greater sense of solidarity and security. Though some affected owners try to break in and re-change the locks when the occupants are out, this seems risky at best, as one never knows what the occupants are capable of. It can also backfire, as squatters can actually denounce the legal owners for illegal trespassing. So much for the sanctity of ones home!

For those who own a Spanish holiday home that is left empty most of the year, how can one prevent unlawful occupants? There are of course no guarantees, as criminals who want to break in will usually find a way. However, there are some simple things one can do to deter unwanted intruders. First of all, one should assure that the property is checked routinely. Next is installing indoor lights on timers and sensor lights outside, and keeping a clean entrance without heaps of mail to advertise that no-one is home. As we discovered, it does not always help to have a silent alarm with direct connection to the police station. By the time the officers arrived on our street, the intruders had already bolted themselves inside. A less sophisticated alarm system that omits a loud sound when someone breaks in might be better, certainly in a residential area.

The problem of squatters is much bigger than our little street drama. It is something that every city, town and municipality in Spain have to deal with. Authorities who do nothing send a wrong message to the public. People will question why they should rent or buy a home and pay fees and taxes, if others can just come and invade them at their leisure. In some countries this type of problem is ‘solved’ by hiring a few thugs with baseball bats to scare off the squatters, but I am glad to say that Spain does not follow the law of the jungle. This is the land of the law of mañana

In the meantime, the legitimate residents of our street wonder when we can return to our peaceful life and open our windows again.

(To protect the innocent home owners, none of the photos used in this article are from an occupied house)

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